Breaking Bad Ozymandias

“Ozymandias” has got to be some kind of epic meta-dare. Vince Gilligan evokes Percy Shelly’s famous poem, in which the titular “king of kings” commands future generations, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” In Shelly’s telling, though, Ozymandias was an accomplished fool. By his haughty, fearsome decree, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In creating and crafting such an astounding episode of television (not to mention series), though, Gilligan has thrown down the gauntlet to TV critics, historians, audiences, and his peers: Breaking Bad is TV’s version of the Sistine Chapel. “Ozymandias” will likely be the scene in which God reaches out to Adam. Forget this at your own peril.  

(Between “Ozymandias” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Gilligan sure is rewarding all his viewers with English degrees.)

So many of the events that we’ve long awaited happen in the Moira Walley-Beckett-penned, Rian Johnson-helmed episode that the different layers of catharses are vertiginous, both exhilarating and nauseating. “Ozymandias” opens with a deceptively calm, even innocent time that also happens to be the beginning of Walt and Jesse’s ends. In the middle of a picturesque nowhere, the duo is preparing one of their first batches. Walt sneers at his former student’s stooping intellect; Jesse can’t help rolling his eyes at the older man’s fastidiousness (and not-so-tight, not-so-white manties). Walt’s “I’ll be home late, honey. You know Bogdan” spiel might well be Walt’s first cook-related lie to Skyler — a performance he’s perfected through rehearsal and, later, habit.

In the same middle of nowhere, a year and change later, Walter watches his own hired guns kill his brother-in-law and bury him in the hole he himself had dug to hide the spoils of his greed and ego. I predicted Hank and Gomez’s deaths last week, but it was still devastating all the same — the heartbreak compounded by Hank’s refusal to be reduced to the kind of simpering pleading that’s kept Walt alive in the past five seasons (“My name is ASAC Schrader and you can go fuck yourself”), as well as Walt’s delusion that he still had any control over Todd’s uncle.

I’ve argued before that the latter-half of the current season has the show making Walt sympathetic again. Walt’s desperate plea to give up all $80 million of his fortune to save Hank’s life went a long way toward that redemptive streak. “You can go anywhere. You can do everything. … You can have any future that you want,” Walt spins, ironically foreshadowing the episode’s end. But of course, only unhappy people imagine such radically different futures for themselves, and Jack and his gang are more than ecstatic with their present situation, with $70 million in cash and Jesse, the key to the future of their empire, in their hands.

(Although I’m not sure that I believed that the ever-practical Jack would leave Walt alive if the latter wasn’t the protagonist of a TV show, Todd’s sentimentality or no. There were eleven million reasons to make Walt into a convenient third body in that hole.)

Yet Walt’s redemption arc takes an unexpected detour. Apparently blaming Jesse for Hank’s death, Walt demands that Jack finish the job he came to do: kill his onetime surrogate son. The strategizing genius Todd stays his uncle’s hand; Jesse could be the one to bring up the purity of their product in Walt’s absence. As a final, extremely gratuitous bit of revenge for Jesse threatening his family, Walt gets real with his former student: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. And I didn’t.” His repetition of the phrase “I watched” — here a deed of active, culpable passivity — finds an analogy in what will probably Walt and Jesse’s final encounter.

Walt’s last words to Jesse, “I could have saved her. And I didn’t,” his admission of moral guilt and his callous indifference, applies to his Jesse, too. Walt simply watches while Jesse is carted off into de facto slavery and probably an imminent death (once Todd learns how to cook correctly from his new chained mentor).

Back at the car wash, Walt Junior has the opposite of an “A1 day.”

His Aunt Marie, unknowingly in grieving clothes for her husband, twists her sister’s arm to tell Junior the truth about his father. “I for one could not be happier,” Marie says about Walt’s supposed arrest. When Skyler tells Junior what his father has been up to the for the past year, he responds, “You’re completely out of your mind” and, once again, he blames her: “If all this is true and you knew about it, you’re as bad as him.”

And then all hell breaks loose back at the White house. Walt tries to get his family to pack up and leave (how many times have we seen him do this?), but when Skyler realizes that Hank is dead and that her husband had something to do with it, she refuses to stand by him any longer. A kitchen knife in hand, she tells him to leave, and Walt is flummoxed: “What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family.” For once, he really believes it. Skyler stabs him to show she’s serious, and they tussle on the floor over the blade. Walt, Skyler, or Walt Junior could have been on the receiving end of that knife, so it’s a relief when Walt decides to leave on his own accord.

Until, of course, he takes Holly, the only member of his family who doesn’t hate him.

But he can’t disappear with a crying, pooping, mama-missing baby. Once Walt realizes this, he engineers his family’s legal, financial, and (relatively) emotional well-being. Donning the guise of an abusive husband, he calls Skyler, knowing that the police are listening in, to absolve her in the eyes of the police. He explains his abduction, “I built this. Nobody else. Me alone. … Toe the line or you will wind up just like Hank,” and takes the blame. He’s taking the $11 million with him — though he’ll probably hand over a big chunk of that to his professional disappearing consultant – but Skyler and the kids will have the car wash to live on. Heisenberg did some good.

Ensuring the safety of his family, though, means giving up all claims to them. With less than a year to live, Walt disappears into a van and into an unknown life.

So where will the show go from here? “Ozymandias” ties up so many loose ends that it can pretty much serve as the series finale. There are still some of Heisenberg’s (now rather modest) monuments that have yet to be demolished. Even though Skyler’s relationship with her sister is probably now finished, she can probably still hold down the fort for Junior and Holly. Walt seems to have cut all cords with Jesse, which leaves the question of who he meant the rifle seen in the diner flash-forward at the beginning of the current season for. The Heisenberg empire is definitely kaput, yet the legend remains. Which means someone will out Walt as a violent criminal — and thus ruin his family.

Could it be Marie?


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