This review contains spoilers.
Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Vince Gilligan has been building up Ozymandias on the Breaking Bad insider podcast for weeks, identifying it as his favourite episode of the whole series. Aaron Paul has been excitedly tweeting since at least the start of the year about how crazy things were going to get in the final few episodes, and there’s also Bryan Cranston’s “morass of ugliness” quote from the Den of Geek interview I alluded to last week. Then there’s that title, which alludes to a Shelley poem that famously and evocatively depicts the transient nature of power and how even the greatest of empires – especially the greatest of empires – will all inevitably be reduced to dust:
Oh, and there’s the previous sixty episodes as well. They should probably have tipped us off. The world of Breaking Bad as imagined by Vince Gilligan has always been an intensely moral one, a world of fire and brimstone and Old Testament justice, where no bad deed, display of hubris or even lapse in concentration goes unpunished. Unless you’re Walt, of course, who, thanks to his intelligence and supernatural ability to lie to both himself and everyone around him, has up to this point managed to navigate his way through this hellish landscape relatively unscathed, the moral logic that has dictated the fates of his various enemies apparently not applying to him. But Walt emerging from the chaos relatively unscathed was always going to be out of the question, dramatically speaking, and I’m sure most of us have long suspected that Walt has only been deferring his comeuppance, in the process building up a sizeable karmic debt that was always going to have to be repaid.
Did you honestly think it would ever get this bad, though?
Early reports say that Ozymandias was the most watched live episode of Breaking Bad ever in the US – presumably, this mainly encompasses those who have caught up with the previous episodes of the show through DVD boxsets and Netflix, but there are also probably more than a few people who dropped in for the first time out of curiosity. You have to wonder what they would have made of Ozymandias – as visceral and upsetting an episode of television as I have ever seen – and whether they would consider returning for another hour of soul-crushing misery next week.
It clung to its theme of decline and collapse with the same kind of intensity that it has lent the tense games of cat and mouse between Walt and his nemeses in previous series; the difference here being that instead of going after your nerves this went for straight your heart and your stomach. It was – again – physically punishing, with a surreally nightmarish quality that recalled something like the last ten minutes of Requiem For A Dream or, closer to home, the last scene of series four’s Crawl Space, which until this episode was probably the series’ highpoint in terms of evoking queasy horror. Only the scene in Crawl Space lasted just a couple of minutes; in Ozymandias we were in the hole for the full fifty minutes.
The tone of the episode was set when Hank and Gomez were killed before the opening credits even had a chance to roll. The loveably loyal Gomie didn’t even get killed onscreen, but Hank at least got to go out – like Mike before him – with one of Breaking Bad’s rare F-bombs, deployed for maximum effect against the loathsome Uncle Jack. Hank’s death is a tough one to frame as truly noble – he dies in a drug money ditch in the desert, after all – but at least he demonstrates in his dying moments that he understands Walt’s world better than he does: it is populated by men that you can’t reason with, and sometimes you just have to quit whining, shut up and take your punishment like a man. So goodbye Hank, and goodbye Dean Norris: this was, by any measure, a remarkable evolution both in terms of character and performance. He’s responsible for many of the series’ greatest moments – the parking lot showdown with the Twins, the Danny Trejo/Tortuga incident, Walt Whitman on the toilet, Schraderbrau – and if he never works again he will still have created a character that will stay in people’s memories for years and years to come.
The show has little time to hang around mourning Hank before moving on to the next terrible, terrible thing that happens, though, so neither do we. After Hank’s death, Walt goes into full-on retaliation mode, pointing out a cowering Jesse to the neo-Nazis and demanding his murder presumably out of spite. This is classic Walt reasoning – laying Hank’s death at Jesse’s door due to his informing, rather than shouldering the burden himself. Luckily for Jesse, however, Todd has a change of heart about the execution at the last second,and asks for his uncle to save his life. As a result, the unluckiest character in television is spared and only has to contend with being brutally tortured and coerced into meth-lab slavery. Wait, what?
Prior to that, Walt kicked poor, poor Jesse while he was down by finally revealing that he was present at his ex-girlfriend Jane’s overdose death and opted not to save her. This plot thread, left dangling since late in series two, was nearly resolved in Fly (also directed by Rian Johnson, who directed this episode alongside the films Brick and of course Looper) when a hepped-up Walt almost spilled the beans to Jesse, but finally came to a head here, in a way that was unexpected but nevertheless totally logical. Any possibility that Walt and Jesse might team up to take on the vile Uncle Jack and his family must be severely weakened by this revelation of another of Walt’s unforgivable transgressions against Jesse.
In the midst of all this, Walt lost the majority of his fortune to the neo-Nazis, the money that he has spent these final episodes fighting so hard to protect. The last episode foreshadowed Jack’s realisation that the great Heisenberg is actually a bit of a dweeb, and his new manner towards Walt here is classic bullying stuff, demonstrating the balls to act magnanimous while simultaneously giving him a derisory pay-off mere minutes after icing his brother-in-law. Walt still gladly took the barrel of money, however: it’s probably a coincidence, but in a show that consistently lays on the heavy insect symbolism Walt looked for all the world like a dung beetle in the desert as he rolled his tainted cargo home towards his family.
As crushing as the fates of Hank, Gomez and Jesse were, however, the real genius of Ozymandias is the way that it brought the family dynamic that is at the heart of the show back toto the fore – in recent seasons while we’ve been tied up in the excitement of the elaborate games of criminal chess Walt has been engaged in and their violent consequences, it’s been easy to ignore the suffocating impact Walt’s actions have had on his family. One of this season’s greatest successes has been to make Skyler arguably the most interesting character on the show: morally compromised, yes, and desperate to look after her family, but far from the cartoonish Lady Macbeth figure that she could potentially be.
Here, after Marie tells her that Walt has been arrested by Hank, she breaks down, only for Marie to offer her an olive branch, effectively telling her that she is still willing to believe Walt manipulated her into co-operating with him: which, of course, he did, again something that is easy to overlook among the carnage of recent episodes. Marie then persuades Skyler to tell Walt Jr everything – a revelation that takes place off screen, a creative decision that some might find surprising but one that I felt made sense in the same way that we weren’t shown a close-up of Hank being shot in the face: some things are so raw you ultimately just have to look away from them.
Marie’s talk and Walt Jr’s terrified reaction clearly has an effect on Skyler, and it undoubtedly informs her reaction to Walt’s impassioned pleas to flee once the family all return to the house. When he evades her questioning about Hank (which echoes the legendary “Where’s Wallace?” scene from The Wire) she rebels almost instantly: director Rian Johnson frames his shot so that both the phone and the block of kitchen knives are given equal prominence, and invites us to guess which one Skyler will go for.
Now that she suspects that Walt killed a family member, it turns out she’s not taking any chances, and protects Walt Jr with wild slashing with the knife: the ensuing brawl between the three is difficult to watch, the seasons-long simmering emotional undercurrent of familial dysfuction finally manifest as ugly domestic violence. In one of the series blackest moments of humour, Walt wrests himself free and yells “We’re family!” at the pair while brandishing a blood-stained knife; but then we’re brought back down to earth with a bump with a harrowing, unforgettable POV shot: a petrified Skyler and Walt Jnr cowering on the floor in front of an monster who is newly unrecognisable to them.
Make no mistake – Walt may have lost his meth fortune earlier in the episode, but this is what really represents his empire crumbling: the very people he entered into the criminal world in order to cater for and protect, now living in genuine fear that he is going to be the one who murders them. He is the one who knocks, indeed: this shot is truly the mighty Walt gazing upon his works and despairing.
It still doesn’t quite sink in at this point, though – Walt’s still in unthinking retaliation mode, and snatches baby Holly from a hysterical Skyler. Upon hearing his daughter plaintively ask for ‘Mama’, he seems to realise the gravity of his actions, and calls home to Skyler, while the alerted police listen in.
What follows is one of, if not the best-written and most powerfully-acted scenes in the history of the show. It is a masterpiece of nuance and complexity that I really believe you could watch over and over again and come to a different conclusion about Walt and Skyler’s motivations each time. On first viewing, I was absolutely convinced that Walt, knowing that the police were listening in on the call, was deliberately implicating himself as the sole architect of their meth business while also characterising himself as an abusive husband in the eyes of the police, thus absolving Skyler of any responsibility. On a second and third viewing I still think this is the case, and I think it’s also clear that Skyler is well aware that this is what Walt’s game is too; but I also picked up what was clearly a genuine frustration from Walt towards Skyler, and that he perhaps nevertheless used the call as an opportunity to vent some real spleen towards her. There’s definitely a very real sense that he feels hurt and betrayed by her in the same way that he was betrayed by Jesse, and perhaps even some regret and confusion as to why she couldn’t be more grateful towards him for everything he’s done for her.
There has already been some speculation online that Walt’s furious monologue is effectively a middle-finger to many Breaking Bad fans who actively hate Skyler, reframing a lot of their misogyny-tinged complaints (she whines too much, why can’t she let Walt get on with it, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about etc) by having them said by a desperate man affecting (or perhaps there’s no affectation after all) the tone of an abusive husband. This is a very interesting reading, and it may well be the case, but personally I don’t think this scene needs this layer of self-reflexivity in order to make it work: it works perfectly well as a demonstration of Walt’s scattered, damaged psyche as it is, namely that it’s one corrupted with rage and delusion even while he’s in the middle of what is, I believe, an ultimately noble gesture, giving up as he does baby Holly shortly afterwards.
The touching opening scene shows Walt calling Skyler during his first cook with Jesse in the RV, and crafting some cockamamie story to explain his absence from dinner. It’s one of his first lies to her regarding his criminal life, and the phone call at the end of Ozymandias could possibly be his last. But in both scenes, he’s lying in order to protect her from a grim reality: in the first, it’s that he’s in the meth business, in the second, it’s that she was in the meth business. It’s only in the final phone call that Skyler is aware of how Walt is using his lies as a weapon, and perhaps in light of all that’s happened she possibly begins to understand his motivations for the first time. That’s the grim irony of Walt’s call – his final act of patriarchal protection, and his final gift to the family, is one more huge lie for them all to participate in possibly for the rest of their lives.
Now, the one remaining thing he can do for them without causing them more pain and suffering completed, nothing remains for Walt but to leave everything behind: his life, his family, his life’s work, and both Heisenberg and Walter White, as he leaves Albuquerque lost and broken, in search of something new in lone and level sands that stretch far away.
Read Paul’s review of the previous episode, To’hajiilee, here.
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