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Breaking Bad #514: "Ozymandias"

Among the many emotions last night's Breaking Bad provoked in me was remorse over having recommended the show to friends (and anyone else who would listen). It's not that I'm reconsidering my opinion of its excellence. I'm just feeling bad about putting other people through the weekly stress test that is the show in general and this season in particular. On the positive side, I am finally getting over my sadness that the series is ending soon. I don't know how much more of this I can take, and looking a few weeks ahead to the finale is almost a relief.

Lots of amusing reactions on Twitter when the show ended. My favorites:


Still, discuss we must...

First, we have the literary reference in this week's episode title. I'm sure you can all recite the original P. B. Shelley by heart, but in case you need to check your memory, you can find it here (with some notes). The key lines, I'm assuming, are the most famous couplet: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" It's a fitting title for the episode when Walt's "empire" came crashing down definitively and tragically -- in the desert, no less. And "despair" is certainly a good word for the episode's overall mood and final effect on viewers. (Said the husband, "I feel like Jesse's face looks.")

In that first scene, I found myself actually wishing the writers would cheat and let Hank get out alive. Let him get to that rifle before Uncle Jack does; let Jack be convinced by Walt's sadly unpersuasive bargaining. I knew it was true that, as Jack put it, there was "no scenario" that would allow Hank to survive. But the mounting tragic toll of Walt's misdeeds is too much for me. I want to believe it can be avoided -- just like Walt does.

Last week I said that the tone of Hank's call to Marie tipped me off that something awful was about to happen to him. This week, another awful realization: if he hadn't stopped to make that call to Marie before driving off with Walt in custody, he would probably have lived.

I want to make some joke about Hank and Gomez stuck together for eternity, with Gomez shaking his head and saying things like "I don't KNOW, Hank, I don't think it's a good idea to be buried in this remote location..." but my heart's not in it. I won't miss Gomez, but seeing Hank get disposed of and disappeared like any other victim of Walt's relentless empire-building is just too cruel.

Hank's death -- and the fact that it was a clear result of Walt's actions, and happened despite Walt's attempt to prevent it -- could have been the moment that broke through all of Walt's self-justifying lies and self-protective rationalizations. It could have made him say, "What have I done?" and turn himself in (or kill himself, I suppose). Especially since he also lost his money. Instead, though, it seemed to release him from any remaining pretense of humanity or nobility. Instead of Walt finally seeing himself clearly, he let the rationalizations take total control, and he found someone else to blame: All of this is Jesse's fault! And so, not only will Walt NOT protect Jesse from being tortured before he's killed; he'll begin that torture himself with his totally unnecessary revelation about the circumstances of Jane's death in Season 2. (I wonder -- would it have been different if Walt had lost everything? Was that barrel of cash Jack gave him just enough to let him hang on to his dream of getting away with it all?)

I think Walt's trying to take Holly with him in the end was another attempt to convince himself that he could still salvage something from the wreckage of his crimes. He could still have a "family," and a child who didn't know anything about the evil he'd done. But he realized pretty quickly that that plan wasn't going to work out. At the end of the show (after I shook off the paralyzing despair a little) I thought back to the teaser, a sort of outtake from season 1 which showed us (among other things) Walt and Skyler talking about what they should name their daughter-to-be. She used to be part of the reason he said he was doing all the terrible things he did. Now, returning her to her mother -- and doing his best to keep her mother out of jail, by taking responsibility for the criminal acts in which she had played a role, or from which she'd benefitted -- was the one thing Walt could do to make things, not right, but a little less horribly wrong.

Anyway, the teaser. I thought the "disappearing Walt" effect was super-cheesy. Why did they do it? Was the point that the old Walt, the one we knew in S1, has disappeared completely -- or was about to disappear, in that very spot, as a result of what was about to happen there? It also showed us how difficult it used to be for Walt to lie to Skyler -- he had to rehearse -- and how easily Skyler used to accept it. Now he's a fluid liar, and she knows exactly what he's doing. It also showed us the innocent-looking knifeblock, which, like Chekhov's gun, came into play in the end.

Speaking of that final phone call: like Emily Nussbaum, I didn't get it at first either. I didn't recognize the performance Walt was putting on for the sake of the police, because I was focused on the genuine emotion that I think he was drawing on in berating Skyler -- his resentment at being underappreciated, and his anger that his son knew about his crimes -- and on also the way Walt was channeling the Skyler-hating Bad Fan. He wept, which should have been the giveaway. But I don't think he cried because it was hard for him to say such hateful things to his wife. Not after he was so cruel to Jesse. I think he cried because he knew he was saying goodbye to his family, his kids, for good. [Update: Nussbaum has written a longer analysis of that scene here; well worth your time!]

With two episodes left, is there anything left to hope for, or will it all be bleak, bleaker, bleakest? Can we hope for the survival/rescue of Jesse? God knows he's been through enough. But who can save him, now that Walt has consented to his torture and murder? Maybe there will be a scene or two dedicated to the release of Huell from his Godot-like confinement. What are you expecting?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Oh man, this was definitely like Breaking Bad's "Red Wedding." Not quite the same punch in the gut, but still.

I don't know how much more of this I can take, and looking a few weeks ahead to the finale is almost a relief.

I HAVE had to walk away from shows simply because I couldn't take it anymore. I have yet to see the last two episodes of Six Feet Under, which was a show that really knew how to make you feel pain. This show is not the same, but it;s kind of amazing how adept some shows have become at being devestating at a truly visceral level.

I don't think that Walt is that much better of a liar. His recitation of a convoluted explaination before the call reminded me a lot of his attempt to explain the gasoline a few episodes ago. The main difference was that in last night's flashback he was lucky enough to have Skyler accept his staying out late before he had a chance to give her the full version.

I'm not sure if his intent in the phone call was to protect Skyler. Hurting the woman who he feels has betrayed him, preventing her from getting credit for his empire, and rewriting his vision of himself in a world where he has been rejected by his wife and son are other possibilities are more likely possibilities.

wow. I totally missed the point of Walt's call. I was just listening to him stunned as he was just so enraged and full of emotion. I did not quite get the tears; thought it was remorse for Hank. Will have to watch again.

Intense episode. Jesse in servitude and slavery but for how long until they kill him. Eventually Todd will figure out how to increase the purity.

Hard to see Walt's play here. He has so few cards. All his money gone, family gone, exposed. Well, as Dylan says when you ain't got nothing p, you got nothing to lose.

Although his empire has come crashing down, Walt is obviously not done yet.

We know that he returns to the area, buys an M-60, and retrieves the ricin capsule from his abandoned house.

My guess is that in one last Ozymandian gesture, he'll track down Jack and his Merry Men and cut them down with the M-60. The ricin? Perhaps he'll take it himself. Or, he might convince Jesse to swallow it and put an end to his tortured life.

I updated the post with a link to the blog post Emily Nussbaum wrote at The New Yorker about that Walt-to-Skyler phone call. Really astute analysis as usual. I went back last night to rewatch the scene, and I'm ashamed that I didn't twig what was really going on the first time through. The performances are so strong; it's all there on their faces.

It occurred to me that the ending of this episode -- with Walt riding off into the sunset [EDIT: I should have said "sunrise," of course!] -- to assume his new identity -- could well have been the ending of the series. But we know it isn't; because of the flash-forward teasers we've seen this season, we know he returns, and blows his cover in doing so. What will bring him back? Is his anger at the Uncle Jack crew enough? I expect something more. But I can't imagine what.

My immediate response to the cold-open flashback was, "Come on." Did the writers think the audience really needed to be reminded of all that had been lost? I wasn't sold on "disappearing Walt" either. But when I watched the episode a second time, it didn't bother me. One last glimpse of Mr. White before Heisenberg goes down like Scarface. On second viewing, the fade-outs of Walt, then Jesse, then the RV, seemed less nostalgic, though no less obvious: we were meant to see the circle close. A bit much. But they're allowed. 

Can we have a round of applause for baby Holly's performance? Speaking on cue (or maybe they got e-Trade's special-effects wizards to make her talk). Looking confused by the cab of the fire engine. Who didn't turn in perfect performances in that episode? (I'd say it was Gomie's best, actually--I kid.) Especially in that last phone conversation. At first, I was sure Walter was going nuclear. Stealing the baby to get back at Sky and Junior! Verbally lacerating Skyler as he did Jesse in the desert. But then he started saying things that weren't really true--and talking like a B-movie villain ("you stupid bitch!"). And then I caught his tears reflected in the streetlight. Anna Gunn turned in another amazing performance--the way her eyes change once she realized what Walt is doing, and then "I'm sorry"...if she doesn't win the Emmy, I'll stop cooking meth. I mean start.

So, what's next? Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that minivan that Walt got into at the end the same one Jesse was supposed to take to his drug-dealer protection program? It was certainly the same pickup area. (Speaking of, I am not confident that Jesse will survive this. He's not nearly as evil as Walt, but the dude doesn't exactly have clean hands. Plus the writers seem determined not to let up on the audience, and Jesse, like, Hank became more interesting, more redeemable as the show progressed.) Is that Walt's ride out of state to become Mr. Lambert?

Season five's opening flash-forward begins on Walt's fifty-second birthday. So obviously we're going to be time-jumping about a year into the future (right?). I'm still nervous about how the show is going to handle that. I had figured it would come int he last episode, but Vince Gilligan's tease on Talking Bad (God help me)--"Walt's going to get new glasses"--makes me wonder whether it's happening in the next episode. Because in that flash-forward, Walt is sporting new spectacles. Does he break them head-butting Uncle Jack? 

Grant - Yes, I think that's exactly what's happening at the end: Walt called Saul's new-identity guy and is heading off to bide his time and grow out his hair in New Hampshire.

On rewatching, I noticed that, just before Walt calls Skyler, we can hear a cop in the background giving the details for an Amber Alert. The details about Walt's appearance he mentions for the description are all the things we know he changes: "Bald, goatee, gold wire-rimmed glasses..." I think Gilligan was just hinting that this next episode is the one where Walt takes on his new identity/disguise.

I've been trying to plot out the timeline too. IIRC, someone in this episode -- perhaps that same background cop -- described Holly as being 18 months old. Skyler was pregnant, let's say 6 months along, when the show began (and Walt was turning 50). Which means now we only have 3 months or so to go before his 52nd birthday. But I don't know whether all of that tracks.

Anna Gunn turned in another amazing performance--the way her eyes change once she realized what Walt is doing, and then "I'm sorry"...if she doesn't win the Emmy, I'll stop cooking meth. I mean start.


Agreed (except the start cooking meth part. But if you need some Canadian distribution, we can talk eh!) Her acting in that scene is phenomenal. The eyes say it all! That is so hard to do. Great performance by her in that scene. Well done.

I will admit, I did not get the phone call until my wife explained it all to me (she’s smarter than I am).   But doesn’t this all make Walt a pretty good family man?    Yes, he turned on Jesse, but Jesse is not family.    Hank was out to (understandably) destroy Walt, yet in the end Walt sincerely and repeatedly tried to save Hank’s life, perhaps putting his own life in jeopardy with Todd’s anything-but-avuncular uncle.   Skyler attacks Walt with a knife, yet Walt risks exposing himself  (a little)  to the police in an effort to clear her, when, let’s face it, she’s not innocent.    He takes the baby and tries to find a new, safe and normal home for her, again risking being found by the authorities.

There are worse fathers.

I recommend this Vulture interview with the episode's author and director. Lots of interesting details, including their perspective on that Skyler-Walt phone conversation, and some great background about baby Holly's performance. Apparently saying "Mama" at that crucial moment was her contribution:

It was not scripted. She was looking at her mom off-stage and started saying that at the exact moment where it is scripted that Walt has a pang that this is morally reprehensible to do this to his daughter, to deprive her of a normal life. And this little baby just started looking at mom and we just rolled.

I love that, because babies on television shows are always looking off-stage at their mothers, and usually I find that very distracting. Especially when the "mom" or "dad" is all "Oh, baby, I missed you so much," and the baby is looking unhappy and refusing to make eye contact with the adult they supposedly love most. So it's gratifying to know that, this one time, that awkwardness actually made the scene better.

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