WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE EPISODE.
“I watched Jane die. I was there. And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.”
— Walter White to Jesse Pinkman
The latest episode of Breaking Bad—aptly titled “Ozymandias,” after the titular Percy Bysshe Shelley poem detailing the inevitability of empires crumbling into dust—is a masterpiece of cruelty. It drags viewers through an impossibly long gauntlet of nightmarish consequences that have been building over the course of five seasons. The first shot of the episode, an extreme close-up on a flask of water that is just reaching a violent boiling point, works as an appropriate metaphor for the chaos about to unfold. What follows is the single most traumatizing hour of television I’ve ever seen.
The cold open transports us back to a previously unseen moment from the series pilot as Jesse and Walt initiate their first meth cook in the old RV (the “Crystal Ship” as Jesse fondly christened it). Thematically this reminds us where these characters have been, juxtaposed with the very dark place they are going. We see Walt and Jesse comically getting on each other’s nerves and Walter’s domestic life still fully intact. The Whites’ future seemed bright as they discussed naming their unborn daughter Holly. Walter still had to clumsily rehearse his lies to himself before calling Skyler to recite them. Ah, sweet innocence… Then the image of Walter standing in his underwear with a full head of hair fades away like a ghost, followed by Jesse, and finally the RV. Fast forward just over a year to the same exact stretch of desert in the To’hajiilee Indian Reservation and the aftermath of last week’s heart-stopping shootout.
As soon as Todd and Uncle Jack’s gang of militarized neo-Nazis showed up on the scene, Hank’s death was inevitable (and Gomez, of course). But Walter’s refusal to accept this inevitability and his reaction of unadulterated horror and sorrow at its fruition provide a rare final glimpse of Walter’s humanity, even as the last ties are severed. He fruitlessly begs Jack to let Hank live and promises to give him his buried $80 million in exchange, in essence sacrificing the money he was determined to leave his children—the last justification for his corruption—on behalf of a man who hates him and wants to see him rot in jail. Because Hank is family, and by Walt’s twisted logic, represents the last moral threshold he refuses to cross. Right from the start, he always justified his morally bankrupt actions within the framework of providing for his family. Even Walter White cannot rationalize his own self-image as a “good person” while being directly responsible for the death of his kin. Hank has no such delusions about how this situation is going to end and tells a teary-eyed Walt: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see… he made up his mind ten minutes ago.” Jack shoots Hank and Walter sinks to his knees and then lands his face in the dirt, giving way to abject despair.
But this is just the beginning of the horror show. Uncle Jack and his gang, realizing the coordinates Walter provided them earlier are oddly specific, unearth his $80 million dollar treasure trove and (surprise!) decide to make off with Walt’s hard-fought cash, leaving him a courtesy barrel of $11 million in order to establish “no hard feelings.” Walter, recovering from his shell-shock, channels Heisenberg at his most cold-blooded and ruthlessly demands Jack finish what he came there to do. He points out Jesse hiding under his car and coldly nods his approval when Todd suggests they bring him back to their compound to torture him for information and execute him. Walter, whose last vestiges of humanity have just been put through the shredder, turns his hatred on Jesse who he blames for betraying him to the DEA and ultimately for Hank’s death. Walt turns the knife without remorse by telling Jesse about how he let Jane die. The saddest part of this exchange is that Jesse will never know that Walter loved Jesse, in some ways more than his own flesh and blood, toxic as that love could be. He had felt genuine remorse for what he had done, but Jesse will never see that now. At episode’s end we are given a depressing look at Jesse’s foreseeable future; brutalized and broken, he is leashed up in the superlab as a slave and forced to teach Todd how to make a purer form of meth, under the implicit threat of killing Andrea and Brock, the only people left Jesse cares about.
More horror on the domestic front. Skyler has just been informed by her sister Marie that Walt is in handcuffs and was caught “dead to rights,” by Hank. She convinces Skyler to reveal the truth to Walt Jr. and his angry disillusionment is every bit as tragic as anyone could have dreaded. When Skyler and Junior return to the family home and find Walt inside—conspicuously not in DEA custody—desperately beseeching them to pack their worldly belongings right now, a family “scuffle” ensues. Skyler, who believes Walter murdered Hank to escape custody, draws a kitchen knife on him and orders him to leave the house. In the heart-wrenching struggle that follows, Walt Jr. finally makes his allegiances clear as he shields his mother and lies to the police over the phone telling dispatch that Walt attacked her with the knife. Walter, undoubtedly feeling cornered, finally sees that he has lost his family and in a bid of unthinking desperation abducts his infant daughter Holly, clinging to the last member of his family who does not yet see him as a monster.
But just when it seemed like Walter could no longer find any sort of redemption, Holly’s distressed cries for “Mama,” wake Walter up and remind him of the people he had set out on this morally destructive course to protect in the first place. The result is the most poignant scene in the episode’s climax (and perhaps in the entire series) as Walter performs a final selfless act for his family while ostensibly accepting the mantle of the villain. While choking back sobs, he viciously assaults Skyler over the phone, spitting venomous hate and commanding respect and for her to “toe the line,” or face consequences. All the while it becomes clear through his lies and bravado that he knows the cops are listening on the other end and he is putting on a performance to absolve Skyler of legal culpability. He is attempting to free her by playing up his role as the abusive husband and confesses to crimes he didn’t even commit (like murdering Hank, so that the Aryan Brotherhood won’t come after his family). Whether she realizes this and willingly plays along, accepting her part as battered wife, is left somewhat ambiguous. Even though many of the hateful things he says are laced with real anger, it is obvious it hurts him to say them. The episode ends with Walter discreetly returning his infant daughter via fire-engine and finally disappearing himself with the “vacuum cleaning” service.
Ozymandias easily ranks as the most emotionally shattering episode of what history will remember as one of the all-time great television shows. There has never been anything quite like it before and it hits with the force of a locomotive rigged with dynamite. More than ever, Walter White reveals his tempestuous and contradictory nature as he shifts seamlessly from one scene to the next, exposing himself at his most viciously evil and at his most tragically vulnerable. Only two episodes left in the series and if Ozymandias is any indication, I’m afraid we won’t be able to handle what’s coming.
Ozymandias – As Read by Bryan Cranston: Breaking Bad Video Clip
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