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Review: Breaking Bad ‘Ozymandias’ “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair!”

4 years ago by John Eberli

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

Photo Credit:  AMC Network Entertainment LLC

Photo Credit: AMC Network Entertainment LLC

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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What do you think?

  • Zoolander

    Awesome recap and article !!!

  • shan

    very nicely written. And i agree this is one of the best show in the tv history.

  • bookend1

    Excellent recap. It’s a little unnerving how many people completely misunderstood Walt’s phone call. Although I should talk — even as I heard him take responsibility for Hank, I missed the full import of that until reading this piece. Nicely done!

    • John Eberli

      I agree. I confess that in the moment I did not fully realize what he was doing either. Although his viciousness did seem over-the-top, I attributed this to finally seeing Walter in full blown villain mode, having lost the one thing tethering him to humanity; his family. But when he was visibly holding back the waterworks while still trying to sound menacing I knew something was amiss, especially the way he barely got through saying he killed Hank because he crossed him and that Skyler would be next. That definitely didn’t seem right to me. After reading some comments and other reviews, I rewatched the scene and it seemed glaringly obvious what Walter was trying to do. Which I thought was very touching. I believe Skyler caught on halfway through as well by the change in her demeanor, but I can’t be quite sure. Her acting in the scene is beautifully ambiguous. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  • bookend1

    When I say people missed the meaning of Walt’s call, I mean they missed the fact that it was a performance for the police, meant to absolve Skyler of guilt. It was also the most awesome speech ever made directly to a segment of a show’s fanbase in television history. Putting the complaints of those who disliked Skyler for the roadblocks she tried to put before Heisenberg right in faux-Heisenberg’s mouth is brilliance squared.

    • John Eberli

      Right? I loved that little bit of meta commentary. Very smart writers working for Vince Gilligan.

  • g01d4

    I like watching the show but the regular suspension of disbelief requirement leaves it short of tv history. It’s hard to believe Walt didn’t warn Hank that company might have been coming. The neo-Nazis knew Walt was in trouble and there was a good chance they were going to check on their fix-our-batch-one-last-time cook regardless. It’s hard to believe Hank and his partner didn’t make any arrangements if things got bad. Walt clearly had time to arrange for help and Hank should have known and planned for that. It’s hard to believe Walt went back for his family and that whole scene. It’s hard to believe he got away after the 911 call in the old pickup truck. Well, you get the idea, and I didn’t even mention the neo-Nazis letting Walt live and keep $11M.

    • John Eberli

      Meh. I don’t know too many television shows that don’t have their fair share of eye-rolling deus ex machina’s, cliches, and plot holes. But somehow I never really notice them on Breaking Bad. With so many great things going for it, I don’t think I will fault the show for an occasional suspension of disbelief. The premise of the show is completely unbelievable to begin with so I don’t think believability is really the point. I do think Walter’s moral descent has felt quite organic and is an astounding feat the writers pulled off. And I am only touching on plot and writing to say nothing of the incredible cinematography, direction, location, soundtrack, and thematic power this show brings to the table. And the montages!! OH THE MONTAGES! Anyways… What shows would you hold in higher regard in the pantheon of television history?

      • g01d4

        I disagree that the premise is not believable, i.e. his wanting to make a lot of cash for his family and okay-it’s-drugs-what-can-they-do-to-me in the short time he has to live. It’s a clever premise and it’s certainly not the X-FIles. This issue I have is that it requires more than an “occasional” suspension of disbelief that puts it in an uncanny valley between real and surreal. Certainly a lot more than The Sopranos and Mad Men which I hold in higher regard.

        • John Eberli

          Fair enough. Agree to disagree. But for the record I’ve never had a problem with the premise, nor have I felt bothered by those moments that stretch reality. In fact I like it when the show goes surreal. All I know is that The Sopranos never had me so emotionally engaged as BB. Nor did it surpass the show in those other areas I mentioned (camera work, setting, soundtrack, direction, montages, etc.). But just to be clear The Sopranos is way way up there and one of my favorite shows ever. Shows like BB simply wouldn’t exist without The Sopranos paving the way. But I think when it comes to a perfect serialized narrative, Breaking Bad does it better than any other show. And it’s ending at the perfect time, not overstaying its welcome. Which is really rare in television. Most shows need to be canceled to finish at their peak.

  • bookend1

    I had no problem with Walter failing to mention the Nazis to Hank. When he saw Hank and Gomie get out of the car with Jesse, he witnessed his entire carefully constructed world collapse — they had him AND his money. So I can understand him forgetting about the Nazis, whom in any case he had just called off. The show is extremely careful about covering its tracks, but to me the weak link this season was Jesse’s decision to throw his money out the window, then wait around on the merry-go-round with the rest of the money in his car. I know he was depressed and zonked on drugs, but he’s ALSO A MURDERER, and it’s hard to imagine his instinct for self-preservation was so completely shut-down by everything he’d endured that he would essentially commit suicide-by-cop, which is more or less what the money stunt was.

    • John Eberli

      At that point I do think that Jesse didn’t care about his life at all anymore or what happened to him. I didn’t find that scene unbelievable. Good point about Walt and the Nazis. I didn’t find that too strange either. It was only obvious from a viewer standpoint that they were gonna come.