Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: “Ozymandias”

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: “Ozymandias”

Last week’s episode was a Leone movie, I saw someone remark on Twitter—outsized drama, heightened style, breathless suspense, posturing galore. This week? It’s a horror show. All my fears come to life on the screen, and things too horrible for me to have contemplated. My only consolation is that Jesse lives, if you can call slave labor living—but while there’s life, there’s hope. Everything else is in ruins, on all sides. Hank’s victory. Walt’s family. Jesse’s revenge. Skyler’s security. Everyone reaps the grim, bloody harvest of entertaining the fantasy that there’s a way forward from the first fateful decision—that some further decision, down the road, can bury that first wrong turn. Tragedy doesn’t work that way.

Director Rian Johnson gives us space to contemplate where we’ve been and where we’re going, with scenes like the flashback to Walt and Jesse’s first cook at the end of that same desert road. As Walt climbs up a hill rehearsing the first of many lies (“Bogdan’s got a bug up his butt… a stick? a bug? … He’s demanding that I stay and look over his system and I cannot get out of it”), Skyler is looking forward to a bright future, with a baby name she likes and a nine dollar eBay profit on that crying clown figurine. That call holds all the promise she and Walt hold onto—children, wealth. And it’s surrounded by all the peril that overtakes them—criminality, deception. When it fades, pieces by piece, only to return as the wreckage of the shootout, the tragic arc is drawn as clearly as a Sophoclean chorus could do it. Only without a single sound.

And then the parade of my worst nightmares begins. What’s fascinating, if you can manage to peek between your fingers long enough to see, is Walt’s maelstrom of reactions and responses to the complete disintegration of any endgame he envisioned. He is willing to give up everything to save Hank, offering Jack all $80 million that’s buried underground. This is Walt at his most human, sacrificing his dream and his identity for the family he always claimed to be his highest priority. But it’s also Walt at his most deluded, thinking that he can get the upper hand in this situation with money, with negotiations. Hank knows better; Jack was never going to let him live. So he dies with his honor and his identity intact, scorning Walt’s entreaties to lie, beg, promise them anything to live. He’s been transformed by his pursuit of Heisenberg into the lawman he always wanted to be.

When Walt reveals Jesse’s hiding place and coldly nods at Jack’s cheerful “Good to go?” he’s a force of pure vengeance. It’s not enough that Todd gets to torture Jesse (remember what I said last week about how he’s the scariest motherfucker in the room?). Walt twists the knife that he’s left sticking in Jesse’s gut for months now. It’s the demonic completion of what Walt almost was brought to confess in “Fly” (not coincidentally, also directed by Johnson). “I watched Jane die,” Walt tells him. “I could have stopped it, but I didn’t.” Not only is this Walt the torturer, but it’s also Walt the liar—the liar that Jesse has called him repeatedly ever since he lost faith. Walt is saying: I never loved you. I never cared about you. It’s always been only what you could do for me.

And because Jack magnanimously decides to give Walt one barrel (“My nephew respects you… also, I’ll be honest, you caught me in one hell of a good mood”), the horror doesn’t end there. That barrel allows Walt to cling to the hope of salvaging something of what he worked for. That barrel—I’ll say it—is the one prepared for Walt since the first time a barrel appeared on this show to make a dead man disappear. He obligingly goes about gathering the acid and cutting off his limbs. Faced with a wife who knows it’s all over, who has been forced to bury her last remaining hope of keeping her children innocent and ignorant, and a son who is still in shock, he has only his old tricks. “I negotiated,” he lies. “Everything will be fine,” he bluffs. “We can have a fresh start, whole new lives,” he wheedles. And when Skyler finally stands up against this force of destruction, he reveals that he understands nothing at all. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he roars. “We’re a family!”

When he takes Holly—well, my friends, if you’ve been holding out for Walt to return to some semblance of humanity, this is surely the last straw. In that moment, Holly is either all the family he’s got left, or she’s a hostage. Either way it’s the kind of desperation that is untethered from reality or morality. Yet if anything can penetrate to the person that Walt was before this all started, up on that rise talking to his wife about grabbing a Venezia’s pizza (“It’s a frontrunner for sure,” he enthuses about the name), it’s this bundle of actual innocence in a pink hat, staring up at him from the KoalaKare changing station. And people, it does. He knows when she calls out for her mama that he cannot make her into a pawn or a goal. She is pure potential. He has not ruined her—yet. She deserves a chance.


So when he calls Skyler, who listens stonefaced along with her sister and the police, and says the most vicious, unforgivable things to her that he’s ever let fly—that it’s her fault, that she is paying the price for her disrespect, that she’s done nothing but undermine him, that she is a stupid bitch, that she’s going to get what Hank got if she crosses him—it’s a pose. It’s true in the sense that he’s enraged and lashing out and needs someone to blame that nothing remains of the works that he built to make the mighty despair. But he’s also playing a part, giving her freedom. He’s weeping at what he is having to do to cut that final tie. And at what he is killing in himself to do it.

Load the barrel in the vacuum cleaner repair guy’s van, and it’s off to that whole new life he’s been talking about for so long, that castle in the sky he painted for Jesse and then for Skyler. “Any future you want,” is how he phrased it to Jack at the start of this desperate run. Leaving behind Holly shows that he knows it’s no future he wants. Now all that remains is what brings him back. And Jesse Pinkman, still alive, chained to a dog run in a superlab, starting at a future he can’t possibly believe is still viable—will he remain? People, I have to believe. Times are gettin’ hard, boys. But it’s not time to say goodbye.


Stray observations:

  • Emmy for Holly! Emmy for Holly! Emmy for Holly! And another one for the baby acting coach-slash-actual mommy who coaxed those amazing scenes out of her. My heart is still a puddle on my living room floor.
  • That’s The Limeliters, “Take My True Love By The Hand” (a version of an oft-covered folk song called “Times Are Gettin' Hard, Boys”) playing as Walt rolls his one remaining barrel through the desert toward his new ride.
  • Poor Marie. From absolute triumph, to compassion for the vanquished Skyler, to complete collapse in only two scenes.
  • Walt Jr. is a stone-cold hero, throwing himself in front of his mother after that terrifying knife fight (seriously, Rian, the way the knife kept swinging into extreme closeup is going to give me nightmares) and calling 911, maybe the only thing that could get Walt to start thinking of escape rather than Heisenbergian persuasion.
  • When Jack and his henchmen hit the money barrels after only four shovelfulls of dirt, with Walt lying defeated behind them, all I could think was how easy and fast it was for him to go from having everything to having nothing. The coordinates that told Jack the nature of the location, his last-ditch effort to save Hank—it took him from plotter to patsy in no time at all.
  • Walt Jr.: “Why would you go along?” Skyler: “I’ll be asking myself that for the rest of my life.”