Breaking Bad S5E14: Ozymandias

Buckeye: Breaking Bad is usually a funny show, its comedic range stretching from dark humor all the way down to slapstick. But there was no humor in “Ozymandias,” the most despairing and devastating hour in the series’ history. That’s saying something. The episode’s tone echoed Bryan Cranston’s intonation during his reading of Shelley’s poem seen above, the one that inspired the episode’s title. By the end of his reading, confidence has ceded ground to bluster, resignation, and ruination, an overt rumination on Walt’s downfall as depicted this season. As we all assumed, Hank and Gomey met their maker, their fate sealed as soon as Todd’s uncle triangulated their (and Walt’s and Jesse’s) position out in the desert, even if Walt was too myopic to connect the dots as quickly as Jack’s GPS mapped the route from the skinhead dungeon to To’hajiilee. Walt’s end leaves fewer physical scars than did Ozymandias’, with Rian Johnson’s camera dissolving Walt, Jesse, and the RV from view, and Jack and Todd carrying off with them most physical traces of Walt’s empire in several black barrels. All that’s left are two bodies, and with one of them died Walt’s central fallacy for accumulating his wealth through such ill-gotten means. Throughout Walt’s rise and fall, family, or Walt’s idea of family has been off-limits, immune from harm so that Walt may maintain the fiction that his evil has some morally justifiable purpose. Hank’s death exposes that fiction and replaces the fallacy with another truth, that Walt is a cruel, cruel, soulless motherfucker. For most of the episode, I could only think of Walt in the vilest of terms, as someone consciously irredeemable, something reinforced by the episode’s lack of all sense of humor. (A smart choice for Saul to remain on the sidelines this week.) Walt evinces some remorse before he rides away to New Hampshire in the Toyota Previa, but my impression was that even Walt has stopped believing in his own generosity, that he used his ANGRY VOICE for Skyler and the cops more out of obligation to his wife and kids than self-preservation or his perverted sense of good and bad.

Two questions to start off, kyra: First, what were your general impressions of “Ozymandias”? You mentioned to me your need to take a cold shower to help yourself calm down. Second, I was a bit confused about Walt’s treatment of Jesse, not only giving him up to Jack but boasting that he watched (and let) Jane die. We had our doubts, but sure enough this moment came, but until recently Jesse, like the rest of Walt’s “family,” has been off limits. Did Hank’s death cause Walt to say “fuck it”? Is Walt still trying to teach Jesse a lesson, recalling last week’s shouting at Jesse on the way to the desert about all the ways that Walt had saved him? Could Walt be done with Jesse, and that when he returns he’ll be trying to protect somebody else?

kyra: This is probably the most emotional hour of television I have ever watched. I applaud both the writing, and Bryan Cranston’s range as an actor, for being able to depict early on the ruthlessness with which he feeds Jesse to the dogs, but then by episode’s end dare I say we are supposed to be sympathetic as Walt lets his family go for good.

 

On the first point, let’s not forget that just prior to this firefight Walt had looked Jesse in the eye, seething with anger, and called him a coward. Hank’s death only further solidifies that this whole series of unfortunate events was all Jesse’s fault. If not for Jesse’s betrayal they would never have been in the desert, Hank would be alive, and Walt would still have all his money. If only he had listened to reasonThroughout the show’s run Breaking Bad has been a series of suggestions from Walt that, had they been followed to a T, no bad consequences would have resulted. If Jesse had simply left with Saul’s get out of jail free card this would’ve all been avoided. If Hank had not started in his investigation because Walt is gonna die in 6 months anyway (if he had ‘tread lightly’) then he would still be alive. You can trace farther and farther back, and in each scenario no fault lies with Walter White. It is always others who disrupt what his brilliant mind has planned out. Since he blames Jesse for all that transpired, the best revenge is twofold. First, he hands Jesse over to that sick fuck Todd. Second, he gets the last word in, by informing Jesse that he watched Jane die. I think it makes perfect sense, as Hank’s death leaves Walt empty, cold, and vengeful.

With all that being said though, I stand by my prediction from last week that the big-ass gun he purchased is going to be used to save Jesse, and the reason I think that has to do with the final goodbye Walt gives to his family (I don’t believe they will talk again). Now I have definitely been on the far end of the spectrum in rooting against Walter White, and I was happy to see his empire crumble. However, after his son reports him to the police, overshadowing his refrain of ‘family, we are family, everything will be fine if we just go now,’ and he wrestles with Skyler for a knife only to be attacked by said son, he sees his family does not support him. He’s standing over Skyler and Flynn, Flynn holding his arms out to protect his mother, but even then there’s reason to believe Walt doesn’t think all is lost. The reason why I say this is because he takes baby Holly with him. It’s only after hearing her cry out for her mother that he realizes he must let his family go, which leads to the phone call. The call to Skyler is heart-wrenching, as he fights through tears to lie and berate her, hoping to scare her off for good and allowing her to be happy to start a new life without him. It is a perfect bookend for the episode, which starts with Walt’s first lie as he enters the meth business, and also involves Holly. You can see the pain in his expression as he takes credit for killing Hank, and warns Skyler to “toe the line” or end up like him. I must admit in this moment I felt sorry for Walt.

Getting back to my point though, since I don’t think he’s seeing his family again, the only possible explanation for the gun is to save Jesse. This is after all, the story of Walter White and his adopted son Jesse Pinkman. Walt must have some moment of clarity where he realizes Jesse is still family regardless of what he did, and goes back to save him.

Simply put, this episode was genius. I don’t know how the hell they found that song for the barrel rolling montage, but wasn’t that a perfect encapsulation for the whole show? At the end of the day, Walt was married to his drug money, which represented his “potential.” This could have been a great series finale, but we still have a couple questions left to answer. Namely, what is Jesse’s fate, and how the story of Walter White/Heisenberg gets out.

Buckeye: I think we’re definitely meant to believe that Walt’s desire to save Jesse will motivate his eventual return to Albuquerque. Walt’s phone call to Skyler, when he knew the cops would be listening in, more or less acted as Walt’s final effort to “save” his family. He’s no longer wanted by his wife or son, and his impulses—namely, his kidnapping of Holly (that Holly’s location was so central to this episode’s events made for some nice continuity with the pre-credit flashback sequence)—get the better of him. But rather than digging in, Walt retreats from the dark, selfish place that his instincts take him—and hearing his infant daughter call for her mom certainly serves as a bit of a slap in the face. I have to praise Cranston’s acting in that phone call scene; we often associate Walt’s condescending tone, the one employed on the phone, with Walt standing over somebody, flailing his arms wildly, as if in disbelief. To see Walt crying while delivering his monologue was eerie and almost poignant, a reflection of the ways he’s burdened himself and everyone around him since he first lied about needing to work late at the car wash. Walt’s been caught in a lie before, but it wasn’t his being caught so much as Skyler finally refusing to believe anything he says that marks his eviction. In “Ozymandias” Walt tells the truth—he didn’t actually kill Hank (at least not directly)—but Skyler and Flynn will have none of that, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

I think you raise a good argument for why Walt would so readily turn in Jesse. It’s important to remember that the events of Breaking Bad have taken place over a more compressed time frame than at first appearance. Less than two years have passed since Walt first drove the RV out to the desert—that helps explain why his pair of khakis are still lying in the sand—I doubt that more than a few days or a couple weeks have passed since Walt first confronted Hank in the garage. In sum, Walt is still of the mindset that all of this could have been avoided, as kyra noted; Walt’s still driven by disbelief and his egomania even after Hank dies, because, as kyra said, Hank’s demise only reinforces that Walt was right (and as a corollary, that Jesse was an idiot). Not until Holly asks for Momma is his vanity pierced.

As for how the truth about Walt’s identity will spread, I don’t think that’s too hard to imagine—too many people have been clued in. Skyler, Flynn, and Marie have little incentive to shout from the mountaintops, but there are a couple dead cops (Gomie has a wife), and once someone in law enforcement hears Walt’s voice on the phone “berating” Skyler, I doubt it’ll be too long before the truth (and rumors) get out.

I do want to circle back to Skyler. I mentioned earlier that she refused to believe one instance of Walt telling a half-truth, though I think that her safety may well depend on whether the cops believe a lie of Walt’s, that he made Skyler and unwilling and unwitting partner of his. We do know that Skyler made certain affirmative choices—to launder Walt’s money, for example—and even counseled Walt to take certain drastic actions (killing Jesse, for another). And Skyler insinuates with body languages and terse responses that she understands Walt’s intent behind the phone call. Still her final words before hanging up—”I’m sorry”—troubled me a little, and got me wondering about how we’re supposed to think of Skyler’s relationship to Walt. Do you think it’s appropriate to describe her as a battered wife?

kyra: I’m no therapist, but I definitely think she shows signs of BWS (Battered Woman Syndrome), manifesting most clearly in her choosing not to leave Walt even when she had the free will to do so. I’m not so sure as you are that Skyler knows why Walt is calling. I imagine that even with her world falling apart around her–Flynn finding out about Walt and accusing her of being “just as bad” for not saying anything, Hank’s death, the scrum over the knife–the only thing on her mind is her kidnapped baby. Basically the only thing she says (pre- ‘I’m sorry’) on the phone is asking to bring Holly back. I think saying I’m sorry was just her trying to say what she thought Walt wanted to hear. Maybe it would help bring her baby back.

Completely switching gears, I want to talk for a minute about the way Breaking Bad uses commercial breaks to imply long periods of time (by that I mean an hour or a couple hours) pass without showing what happens. “Ozymandias” begins with the firefight over rather than picking it up in medias res. Then later on, we return from a break to discover Skyler and Marie have explained to Flynn why Walt is in custody. This happened similarly earlier this season following Jesse’s video confession to Hank and Gomez. The show is doing a good job of trimming the fat; we don’t need to see these things happen because we get it. What we want to see are the reactions. Great job on that Vince!

Lastly, I want to discuss the neo nazis being the final baddies of the show. Are you OK with them? I personally don’t feel like they have the same sort of panache as earlier foes like Gus or Tuco. I don’t know if the characters weren’t developed enough (although they did try with that random-in-retrospect scene of Uncle Jack and his buddy in the bathroom spouting off about Libertarianism), or it’s that Todd/Landry is just too sick in the head to be taken seriously, but I’m a little down on these guys. They’re just run-of-the-mill bad dudes and I don’t think vanquishing them will be satisfying in the end like it was to finally kill Gustavo Fring. Maybe that’s the point, that in the end victory over your enemies isn’t very satisfying. I’m not sure. Do you have any thoughts on this or anything else as we head into the final 2 hours?

Buckeye: I definitely don’t feel as strongly about the skinheads as I did about Gus, who for whatever reason I actually admired in a weird way. At the same time I think the show has given the neo Nazis a personality, demonstrated most clearly by the diner scene you referenced. We also haven’t spent as much time around them as we did around Gus (who survived for two and half seasons after meeting Walt), which probably doesn’t help. And I agree that it’s not Todd who’s likable—he’s just creepy—but Jack and the other mustachioed dude, but neither Jack nor his son have the connection to our main story like Todd. (The other main link, Lydia, is just annoying, too.) I’m not sure if Gilligan wants these guys to be fully realized characters, but I do like the way you’ve spun your tempered enthusiasm for the characters into an argument about what it means to defeat your enemies. Surely Walt was never going to find that satisfaction had he gotten away with it.

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2 Responses to Breaking Bad S5E14: Ozymandias

  1. kyra says:

    One note to add: I found there to be great symbolism in the image of Hank being buried in the very “grave” Walt dug for his money. As I said earlier, it was Walt’s lust for money (tantamount to fulfilling his potential to him) that did him in. He has become Scarface, and we know how that one ends.

  2. cindy says:

    I think this idea is so important: “in each scenario no fault lies with Walter White.It is always others who disrupt what his brilliant mind has planned out” It made me realize Gilligan has given us a Greek tragedy for our times where the ‘hero’ is brought down by his own hubris, especially according to this definition. ‘Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power

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