BREAKING BAD: “Ozymandias”

In this final half-season of Breaking Bad, we’ve completely descended into nightmare territory. The thrill of the great train heist or the escapades of Vamonos Pest is long gone, and all that remains is wreckage and shock. This was one of the most soul-crushing hours of television I’ve ever watched in my life.

[Spoilers from last night’s episode!]

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

We begin, unusually, in flashback, and it’s only through careful viewing that we realize director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, the brilliant season 3 episode “Fly”) is laying the groundwork for the devastation to come. We see Walt once again in his skivvies, working with Jesse in the RV, but it’s the details that are important: the knife block next to the White’s house phone when he calls Skyler. The agreement to name their new child Holly. The lie about still being at the car wash that starts this whole thing off. One by one, Walt, Jesse, and the RV fade away into the desert, and we finally get our answer to last week’s horrifying cliffhanger…

We knew Gomez was a goner. It was going to be awful, but we could live with that. Hank has been shot in the leg and is hopelessly outgunned, but before Uncle Jack can pull the trigger, Walt–still believing he has some moral standing and can bargain his way out of this–offers up all of his $81 million in cash if the Nazis will let Hank live. Except Hank knows that Jack already made his decision when he first opened fire. It’s absolutely brutal to watch, because we know Hank is right. And then he’s dead. Hank, who had his great epiphany a half-season ago and had finally “won” the chess match with his brother-in-law, becoming the bulldog detective he always imagined himself being, is sacrificed on the altar of Walt’s hubris.

Uncle Jack’s gang digs up all of Walt’s money but leave him one barrel, just as a favor to squirrely Todd. Then, Walt discovers Jesse hiding under one of the cars, and the thumbscrews get even tighter. He gives Jack the go-ahead to kill him, but Todd once again intervenes–and I’m not alone in assuming that Todd has to have other plans, that the whole “we need to find out what he knows” argument was soft, that maybe he’ll let him go…but we’re only partially right. Todd DOES have other plans.

As the horrorshow continues, many dangling questions are answered in the worst possible way: Walt finally tells Jesse about how he watched Jane die. Marie (still thinking she’s won) forces Skyler to tell Walt Jr. what his dad has been doing. When they find Walt at home hurriedly packing, the domestic terrorism reaches new heights as Walt has to tell his family that Hank is dead, that he “tried to save him” but couldn’t and now they really all have to go JUNIOR GO PACK YOUR THINGS. Here director Johnson pays off the opening scene, as Skyler grabs a knife from that fateful block and takes a swing at Walt, slicing his hand open.

The ensuing brawl is fraught with tension–as the knife keeps swinging into focus, viewers know now to expect the worst, and I was terrified that knife was going to end up in the stomachs of Skyler or Jr. or thrown across the room and hit Holly–oh God, Holly! Walt wins the fracas, but scoops up the infant and disappears while Jr.’s calling the police, having turned on his father entirely in the span of an hour. So add “kidnapping a baby” to the list of Walt’s charges.

It isn’t long before Marie (already wearing black–WHY DO YOU DO THIS, SHOW) learns what happened out in the desert, and the utter ruin of the White family is complete. Hank is dead, Walt is gone with Holly, Jr. (sorry–“Flynn”) knows everything, and now the police are involved. Walt makes one last call to the house, and he brutally lays into Skyler while the authorities listen in–how she never believed in him, how all she did was whine and hold him back and never showed him the proper respect or gratitude–it’s a truly horrible monologue, and it’s conveniently a way to hurl back the words of misogynist viewers who’ve developed an irrational hate of Skyler over the show’s run. Basically, Vince Gilligan is saying “You’re STILL on Walt’s side? Try this on.”

What Walt is actually doing (though we know he really does feel the things he’s saying) is getting Skyler off the hook by claiming responsibility for all of his crimes. He does know the cops are in the house, so when he essentially says “I did everything; you did NOTHING,” in his mind he’s being weirdly noble. But he’s ready to finally disband the family unit he’s spent six seasons protecting and using as his excuse for all his unspeakable deeds, as he leaves Holly at a fire station to be discovered and returned.

Walt calls Saul’s “vacuum repair man” and heads into an uncertain future, but one character is still trapped in the terrifying present: Jesse. Like we thought, Todd isn’t planning to kill Jesse–just beat him to a pulp (off-screen, mercifully) to get the little information Jesse has, then keep him prisoner in the meth lab, chained to a track like a dog. A rabid dog. Walt and Uncle Jack may be pure evil, but Todd is still the most icily sociopathic character on this show. I don’t even have any more Landry jokes–his Friday Night Lights role has been completely usurped. As the episode ends, everyone is trapped in a Hell of their own making (except Flynn, sweet breakfast-loving Flynn). And this might not even be as bad as it gets.

Other Thoughts:

  • Speaking of Todd, his remorseless “sorry for your loss” to Walt after Hank’s shooting was a final twist of the knife from Gilligan & co. Brutal.
  • We got another spontaneous musical interlude, as Walt rolled his single barrel of cash across the desert to the sound of The LimeLighters’ “Take My True Love By the Hand.” I, for one, was not ready for another sunny pop song immediately after that first sequence.
  • Kind of awesome for Rian Johnson to slip in a Noah Segan cameo as the fireman who finds Holly. Segan had memorable roles in Brick and Looper.
  • Every actor on this show is astonishingly good, but last night might have been Anna Gunn’s time to shine. Her palpable horror and confusion at Walt’s escape, and Holly’s abduction, was heartbreaking.
  • If this were an HBO series like Game of Thrones or The Wire, this level of devastation would be reserved for the season’s penultimate episode (see: Red Wedding, The). Breaking Bad is not content with that. We still have two more episodes to see how this all gets tied together. And I think we know now who the flash-forward’s trunk machine gun is meant for.
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