Published September 16, 2013
Early on Sunday's antepenultimate episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White collapses on the hard desert floor in sadness. And although things get considerably worse for Walt as the episode goes on, in that moment, Heisenberg is the embodiment of the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem from which the episode takes its name.
Breaking Bad postmortem: Is it all over for Walt?
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The empire Walt (Bryan Cranston) told Jesse (Aaron Paul) he was building in the first half of Season 5 has been destroyed. The remains of the colossal wreck — the dead bodies of Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and his partner Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) — lie on the dusty ground beside Walt, as Jack (Michael Bowen) and his men unearth Walt's $80 million, the money Walt had just moments earlier offered Jack to spare Hank's life after the previous episode's shootout left him wounded but not dead.
Right up until the very end, Hank remains a perfect foil for Walt. Originally designed by creator Vince Gilligan to be the portrait of confidence and machismo that Walt wasn't, Hank refuses to beg or cut a deal for his life. Realizing well before Walt that Jack won't leave the desert with Hank alive, he spits out his last words of defiance. "My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f--- yourself," he says. "Do what you're going to do."
The deafening gun shot shatters the last remaining threads of the "all for family" rationalization for Walt's misdeeds that worked so well in the beginning. Fittingly, here we get an episode-opening flashback to Walt and Jesse's first cook in the same spot where Hank dies. It's almost comical how innocent the "cooking meth in an RV" premise feels now that we've seen what Walter White becomes. In those days, a pre-Heisenberg Walt meticulously rehearses his lies about staying late at the car wash before he calls Skyler (Anna Gunn). And despite his deception, Walt still truly cares enough to be excited about bringing home a pizza and naming his unborn daughter Holly. But now Walt's actions have killed his brother-in-law. With that last scrap of humanity lost, Walt's transformation to Scarface is complete.
Need further proof? After Walt picks himself up from the despair of watching Hank's murder, he turns his back once and for all on surrogate family member Jesse. Although he's powerless to stop Jack from taking all but one barrel of his money, Walt won't let the neo-Nazis leave without finishing the job he hired them to do. "If you can find him, we'll kill him," Jack says. "Found him," Walt hisses, revealing that Jesse hadn't run away but rather is hiding under Walt's car. In Walt's mind, he no doubt believes Jesse is to blame for Hank's death, so he's not nearly as broken up as he used to be about seeing Jesse dead.
But Jesse's death alone isn't enough for Walt. He has to twist the knife a little more. Before Jack's men cart Jesse away to Todd's torture chamber, Walt confesses to the series' longest-dangling plot-thread: He watched Jesse's ex-girlfriend Jane choke to death on her own vomit. That moment was one of the first truly horrific steps Walt took in his transformation to crime lord, but it was always mitigated by Walt's belief that by letting Jane die, he was "saving" Jesse. But in this re-telling, Walt leaves out any notion of noble intentions. He simply wants to hurt Jesse. "I could have saved her, but I didn't," he says.
Meanwhile, Walt's real son is receiving equally earth-shattering news. Marie (Betsy Brandt), after receiving word from Hank that Walt was in handcuffs, storms into the car wash to share the news with Skyler. Not knowing that Hank is dead, Marie demands that Skyler tell Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) the truth about his father. And although Marie seems willing to let Skyler off the hook just a bit now that she believes Walt's in custody, Walt Jr. doesn't feel the same. "If all this is true and you knew about it, then you're as bad as him," he tells Skyler. And Skyler owns her mistakes. When Walt Jr. asks why she would possibly go along with Walt's lies, Skyler tearfully admits, "I'll be asking myself that for the rest of my life."
But when Skyler and the kids arrive home to find Walt furiously packing for his escape, Skyler knows Walt has crossed the line he vowed to never cross and she won't go along any further. "Where's Hank?" she asks in The Wire-esque repetition before answering her own question. "You killed him. You killed Hank." When Walt insists he tried to save Hank and that the family needs to follow him to a $11 million fresh start, Skyler draws a knife and a line in the sand. Walt refuses to leave, so Skyler slashes his hand and the two engage in a tense, violent struggle before Walt. Jr. tackles his father, shields his mother and calls 911. "What's the matter with you!? We're a family!" Walt yells, still lying to himself that there's a family left to salvage. When Walt kidnaps baby Holly, it's out of pure desperation to control what is no longer a controllable situation. He's taking the only person in his family who can't refuse him.
And yet, she does. While Walt's changing Holly's diaper in a roadside bathroom, the baby can't stop crying for her mother. So, Walt leaves Holly at a fire station and, accepting that he truly has lost his family, Walt pauses his escape for possibly the last decent thing he can do. He calls Skyler and, knowing that cops are listening despite Skyler saying otherwise, he unleashes on her. He's incredibly harsh as be berates her for always standing in his way and undermining him. He calls he a "stupid bitch" and warns that if she crosses him, she'll wind up dead just like Hank. It's Walt at his worst, but — while some may disagree — it's also all an act.
That's not to say there isn't a lot of truth in what Walt says. He's always had insecurities surrounding how much Skyler believes in him. And he's probably angry that at this crucial point in the journey, Skyler has finally decided to jump ship. But just like Walt's fake confession tape was grounded in truth, that's why this lie works. He might feel betrayed by Skyler, but his hurtful tirade is ultimately an attempt to put distance between Walt's crimes and Skyler. He's taking full responsibility and painting her as the victim who always told him to stop. Walt is a different person than he was during that first lie-filled call from the desert, but perhaps he is still acting in the best interest of his family. He cries at having to say those words and at facing what he has to do next: take his barrel of cash, get into the van of Saul's "vacuum repair guy," and head to New Hampshire to live his final days alone.
In this episode, we looked upon Heisenberg's works, and there was much despair indeed.
A few other observations:
-- Jesse's still alive, but he's in the sociopathic hands of Todd (Jesse Plemons), who wants Jesse to help him cook. Gotta get that purity up for Lydia! Worse, Todd has put a picture of Andrea and Brock in the lab to ensure that a bruised, bloodied and chained Jesse complies.
--It's fitting that the episode in which Walt reveals the truth about Jane is directed by Rian Johnson, who previously directed "Fly," which featured a groggy Walt almost confessing to Jesse. And I have to say, of all the ways I ever considered this news coming to light, Walt's spiteful delivery was not one of them.
-- Notice that Marie is not wearing purple in this episode. (Unless it was a very deep shade.) Looked black to me. Will Hank's death push her to darker territory? Will those fantasies about untraceable poisons become realities?
-- Even though Walt has put Albuquerque in his rearview mirror, we know he eventually comes back as Mr. Lambert. Is he coming to save Jesse from Todd & Co.? Or does he even care after his coldness toward Jesse in this episode? Either way, Mr. Lambert has a lot of firepower in his trunk and Mr. Chekhov demands it be used.
-- Vince Gilligan said in a recent interview that "Ozymandias" is "the best episode we ever had had or ever will have." Even though I have great faith in the final two episodes, including the Gilligan-written-and-directed series finale, it's hard to argue against Gilligan's claim. Stunning, heartbreaking work all around.