Ozymandias is a name of great literary and historical significance. It is the name the Greeks used for the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II. It is the title of a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley about the decline of a once-mighty empire, an in Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, the megalomaniacal Adrian Veidt chooses the name for his alias.
As a result of these associations, the name Ozymandias conveys grandeur, significance, and perhaps, foreboding. Yet of all its uses, it may be this Breaking Bad episode that is the mightiest of them all.
What Shelley’s sonnet conveys, so, too, does this episode. Only unlike the poem, this Ozymandias is not just about downfall – it brings about an utter collapse inside of you, the viewer. It’s a completely crippling episode, one in which things go nobody’s way. It could almost serve as the series finale, but what a horrific note to end on.
For those of you who spent the week between To’hajiilee and Ozymandias imagining some remarkable, from-the-back-pocket happy ending for Hank, Gomez, and Jesse, you wasted your time. Gomez is dead already when the episode starts. Hank is non-fatally wounded, but staring Jack’s 9mm in the face. He knows it’s over, but Walt apparently doesn’t. Walt pleads desperately for Hank’s life, going so far as to offer Jack all $80 million of his Heisenberg fortune. The bargain is not only ineffective, it’s foolish. Jack has no intention of letting Hank live, and now he knows what all the fuss is about in the middle of the desert. As Walt tries to convince Hank to let him pay for his release while Jack pretends to ponder the offer, Hank tells him, “You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see. He made up his mind ten minutes ago.” Jack’s point-blank gunshot comes just a few seconds later.
Incidentally, the line is very similar to one used by the Ozymandias from Watchmen fame. The allusion may or may not be intentional, but in the penultimate Watchmen chapter, Ozymandias unveils his master plan to the heroes. They tell him he’s mad and ask him when he planned to put his plan into motion. He chillingly answers, “‘Do it?’ Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
Whether intentional or not, the same sense of finality and hopelessness characterizes the entire episode. When Hank is shot, Walt collapses to the ground, acting out a metaphor for Shelley’s sonnet. Bryan Cranston’s acting here is mesmerizing – the way he is able to curl his lips to hide his tongue and teeth, so that all that’s visible is an empty, black, jack-o-lantern-shaped hole, truly captures the hugeness of the emotions Walt is feeling. Not only was he unable to save Hank, he needlessly gave away all his money to the neo-Nazis. You feel like a fish being gutted watching everything go so wrong all at once.
While lying in the sand, Walt spies Jesse hiding under the Chrysler 300. Jack leaves Walt with one barrel and tells him it’s the respect Todd has for him that kept things from “going another way.” What he seems to mean by this is that Walt could’ve been buried out there with Hank and Gomez. Walt is then forced to make peace by shaking the hand of the man who robbed him of $70 million and executed his brother-in-law. I foolishly thought while all this played out that Walt intended to let the neo-Nazis leave so he could regroup with Jesse, avenge Hank, and get his money back. Instead, Walt tells Jack he still wants Jesse dead and gives away his hiding spot.
It’s startling how quickly Walt returns to villainy after seemingly having his eyes opened and heart shattered by the death of Hank. The Aryans drag Jesse kicking and screaming out from under the car and prepare to shoot him in front of Walt. Intervening at just the right moment, Todd expresses worry that Jesse revealed potentially harmful information about the gang to the DEA. He offers to get that information out of Jesse. Todd speaks in drab metaphors, rarely or never using words like murder or torture despite his willingness to participate. His character is all the darker for it. When he says, “I could do it,” he’s offering to torture Jesse with all the nonchalance of a person offering to pick up a bottle of soda for a party.
As the scene ends, here is what’s gone down: most of Walt’s money is gone (though he does still have $11 million), Hank and Gomez are dead, and the neo-Nazis are going to torture Jesse. And amazingly, the worst is still to come.
The decision to move the credits to the second segment was a wise one. Simply too much went on in those opening moments to have letters interrupting the action. We get a brief break from the turmoil, and a bittersweet moment of comic relief, when Walt realizes his gas tank has been shot and rolls his barrel through the desert. Stumbling on a house in the middle of the desert, Walt buys the man’s pickup truck. His car is left behind, but what that means as far as a clue is concerned probably isn’t much. By the end of the episode, the police know Walt is Heisenberg so they don’t really need any more evidence.
At the car wash, Marie tells Skyler the news that Hank has Walt in handcuffs. Neither of them have any idea what’s gone down in the desert. At long last, the truth is revealed to Junior. Everyone is at the top of their game acting-wise in this episode, not the least of whom are Betsy Brandt, Anna Gunn, and RJ Mitte. Junior in particular is great, and this episode is far and away his best. For the first time, he is treated like a real character whose role in the story matters, and his best moment is still to come.
There’s a peaceful feeling seeing Marie talking to Skyler again and lending her support. The family is clinging together in any desperate way it can. I am always impressed at the way Breaking Bad unfolds its stories so organically – fans debated what would be the circumstances under which Junior learns about his father’s secret criminal life. In this episode, it just happens. It isn’t a flashy reveal; no one might have guessed something as humdrum as Marie showing up at the car wash and asking Skyler to tell him. But the scene is no less memorable for this. It’s authentic and believable, which is a big part of the success of Breaking Bad and part of the reason it’s possible to so deeply and actually feel these dark times.
When we see Jesse next, he is battered and beaten, lying in a dark hole in the ground. Todd got the information he wanted from him; Jesse told him there is a taped confession at the Schrader household. This makes it seem likely that the neo-Nazis will pay the Schrader household a visit at some point. But in the meantime, Todd does what I think everyone suspected he would: he puts Jesse to work in the meth lab. There’s a suggestion that Todd might be going rogue on this, simply because no one else from the gang is in the scene. We know Todd wants to learn how to cook blue right. At this point, being held at gunpoint and forced to cook in Gus Fring’s lab probably feels like the good old days to Jesse. When he isn’t chained to himself in the neo-Nazi’s prison, he is chained to a cable in the meth lab. Most harrowingly of all, hanging on the far wall is a private investigator-style picture of Brock and Andrea. The message is clear. Jesse’s refusal to work means bad things for the few people left who Jesse still loves.
Breaking Bad just dares you to ask, “How could things get any worse?” The setup to the scene at the White household is excellent. One of my favorite things about the show is how it foreshadows what it’s going to do and then immediately does it. After Marie tells Skyler to go home with Walt Jr. and cool off, we see Walt at the house frantically packing and preparing to vanish his entire family. Given everything else I’ve said in this review, it may sound strange to say it but this is where the episode turns dark.
The last Skyler and Junior heard, Walt was in handcuffs being booked by Hank. Yet when they get to the house he’s there, covered in dirt and in full-blown panic mode. He’s urging everybody to pack, but they aren’t listening to him. Actually, it’s a subtle thing, but the scene uncovers one of the show’s biggest weaknesses. Junior and Skyler have been so underdeveloped for so long that their stubborn refusal to follow Walt’s orders is frustrating. Breaking Bad is the Walter White show. We’ve seen his logic and rationale drive most of the action up until just the last couple episodes. When he tells Skyler and Junior they can start a new life with his $11 million and they don’t cooperate, I just went them to shut up and go along with it. Then again, such is the show’s strength that Walt even has the viewers falling victim to a kind of Stockholm syndrome.
But Skyler is done listening to him. She’s smart enough to figure out that something bad happened to Hank and blames Walt for it. For the first time, their tumultuous and abusive relationship turns violent. The suspense when Skyler pulls a butcher’s knife on Walt has my heart pumping even as I write this review. Lots of terrible things have happened in the series, but none of them have ever prompted me to turn my head and think, “I don’t want to see this.” What goes down at the White household with Walt, Skyler, and Junior gave me that reaction. I had to pause, think about the worst thing that could happen, try to make peace with it, and then resume watching.
The cinematography of the scene is torturously full of red herrings. In the first place, when Skyler reaches for the knife, it’s sheathed on the counter right next to the phone. The phone is in the foreground of the frame, so I thought she’d reach for that and call either Marie or the police. When she grabbed the knife instead, the first person it looks like she’s going to use it on is, amazingly enough, Junior. Due to the mad, broken look on Anna Gunn’s face, her loyalty to Walt up to this point, and the arguing in the background between Walt and Junior, it almost seems possible. But she threatens Walt with the knife instead, telling him not to say one more word. When he continues to try to force her and Junior to go with him, she gives him a mean gash across his hand. The two roll around and at one terrifying point, the knife is pointing straight up in the air with Junior standing above them. It makes you question whether or not he’s going to fall and impale himself on it.
Finally, Junior breaks them up and positions himself between his mother and father. It gives him a chance to save the day. He’s the last uncorrupted character left on the show. Such behavior out of Walt is no surprise to Skyler, but since Junior only very recently learned about Walt’s criminal activity he’s had no time to become numb to the violence. He immediately calls the police while a stunned Walt stands and listens to the conversation. Despite Walt’s claims to have done everything for his family, once uncovered for the monster he is he is completely unrecognizable to Junior. This realization unfolds brilliantly over Bryan Cranston’s face.
It should have ended there, but Walt does the unthinkable. On his way out the door, he kidnaps Holly. It brings the episode full-circle to the opening flashback in which Walt and Skyler decide on Holly’s name. But Holly barely knows Walt. To her, he’s been a provider but never a father. All she does while Walt has her is ask for her mom.
With Marie and the police gathered at the White household, Walt calls Skyler. Up to this point, no matter how far Walt has gone his concern for his family seemed real. But during this shocking phone call, even that last redeemable trait is traded in for a series of horrifying, direct threats to Skyler. He tells her in no uncertain terms that he’ll kill her if she tries to take him on. Yet even at what appears to be the height of his villainy, Walt sheds tears that make it unclear whether we should believe his threats. It’s as though he’s faking it, acting like an even bigger monster than he really is. Perhaps he knows, despite Skyler’s denial, that the police are listening. He wants to seem as dangerous and monstrous as possible so that Skyler doesn’t have to face any jail time for being an accomplice.
In addition to the threats, he all but admits, without actually using the words, that Hank is dead. He tells Skyler he has unfinished business and leaves Holly at the Albuquerque fire station with a note stuck to her that gives her address. The episode ends with Walt getting into the van of Saul’s vanisher and driving off.
What comes next is truly anybody’s guess. It’s fun to make Breaking Bad predictions after every episode, but except for Jesse’s captivity most of the loose ends are tied up by the end of Ozymandias. There are no logical next steps aside from the police hunting down Walt. Based on Walt’s threats, the ricin from the season’s opening teaser could be for Skyler. Another scenario could be Jesse escaping from the neo-Nazis by making something in the lab that knocks out Todd or kills him and then going after Walt.
Come what may, the chess game is over. Nobody won. The board has been flipped over, along with the table, spilling all the pieces out in a chaotic array across the floor. Some might get picked up, but they are already broken; others are destined to live out their existence collecting cobwebs and dust in an invisible crevice behind a piece of furniture.
Thankfully, there are still two episodes to find out which is which. But it’s hard not to get a sense of finality from this episode, from its title, and from the poem that is its namesake. The last two episodes are sure to feel like an epilogue. This is the real ending.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“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.
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