Walter White is dead.
He’s still got a heartbeat, pumping what passes for blood inside his body, but there’s nothing left of the man we, and his family, once knew. The opening scene of Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias” drove that home with a jarring flashback to happier times, when Walt and Jesse were sparring partners rather than mortal enemies, when Walt was a novice liar rather than one to whom deceit is second nature. (I’d been thinking this week how hard it would be to go back and re-watch Breaking Bad‘s first season, seeing Walt as an amiably bumbling novice criminal rather than a hollowed-out monster; “Ozyamandias” spared me the trouble.) At the end of the episode, Walt drives off with Saul’s “guy,” the one who promises to give Walt a brand-new identity, the “fresh start” we’ve heard invoked several times this season. But there’s no need to erase who he was. That man is gone.
All along, Walt has rationalized his actions by claiming that he was providing for his family, the lies told and the lives ruined — including by his supremely powerful and presumably equally addictive product, although the show has never shown us that — were all to leave something behind. A legacy, if you will, or, to quote last week’s episode, “To’hajiilee,” which attending the Toronto Film Festival prevented me from writing about, although it seems possible at this point that brand will outlive Walter White himself: Heisenberg as the Famous Amos of meth. But if there were any hope left that Walt’s family would survive, it died with Hank Schrader, put down by a neo-Nazi’s bullet and buried in the hole that once held Walt’s $80 million.
Even given the traumatic repercussions of his brother-in-law’s death, it’s hard to recognize the man who coldly nods when Jack asks if he should kill Jesse Pinkman, an act that would now have less to do with self-protection that simple vengeance. Jesse survives, thanks to a last-minute intervention by Todd, who’s still looking for a way to improve his meth cook and impress Lydia, but Walt strikes at his heart with words, finally telling Jesse that he watched Jane overdose and choke to death while he stood watch over them both. When there was still a hope of mending their relationship, Walt tried to sell Jesse on the idea that every bad thing he’d done was to protect them both, but now he uses his past act as a weapon. Maybe you were responsible for the death of someone I cared for, but I did it first.
As goes Walt’s surrogate son, so too his biological one. Believing Walt in custody — among the more heartbreaking parts of the episode was watching Marie Schrader try to help Skyler adjust to the loss of her husband without knowing she’s lost hers — Skyler finally tells Walter Jr. the truth, and after five seasons of playing the sweethearted naif, R.J. Mitte finally gets to register the weight of betrayal, and not just his father’s. “You’re a liar!” he yells at his mom, as if he’s never considered the possibility before. I probably could have done without Walt and Skyler wrestling over a carving knife, although the image of Walter Jr. placing a protective arm between them and calling the cops on his own father was perfect, especially since that may be the last time Walt ever lays eyes on his family.
If the post-show Twitter conversation is any indication, we’ll be talking about what happens next all week. After Walt abducts baby Holly, the Whites’ house is crawling with cops, but he calls home anyway, and lays into Skyler as we’ve never heard him before. In plot terms, it makes the most sense to assume that the call is more for the policemen Walt must know are listening than it is for Skyler, painting a fraudulent picture of her as a woman held in check by the threat of bodily harm who never understood the extent of Walt’s criminality. But the way Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn play the exchange, there’s plenty of reality to it as well. Would Walt really threaten Skyler with death? Probably not. Does he feel she held him back, that she never fully understood or supported him, that he could have been a great man were it not for her? Without a single doubt. There’s a killing irony in the idea that Walter White comes closest to telling the truth when he’s engaged in a lie.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, told the TV Fanatic website before the premiere of Sunday’s “Ozymandias” that it was “the best episode we ever had or ever will have.” Looks like he was dead right about that.
James Poniewozik, Time
If each remaining episode intensifies this much more than the last, I am going to burst into flames.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
Even when Heisenberg is running the show, Walter’s still in there somewhere, and vice-versa, and that — despite the my sister/my daughter/my sister/my daughter psychological violence of Walter and Heisenberg in this episode — the character is still not either/or. He’s both/and.
Donna Bowman, A.V. Club
Everyone reaps the grim, bloody harvest of entertaining the fantasy that there’s a way forward from the first fateful decision — that some further decision, down the road, can bury that first wrong turn. Tragedy doesn’t work that way.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Walt has always justified his meth cooking as something he was doing for his family, but as his wife and son stare at him like he is history’s greatest monster, and as he steals his baby daughter from her terrified mother, his actions are exposed for what they’ve always been: indefensible.
June Thomas, Slate
Walt grabbed the baby on his way out of the house to punish Skyler, of course, and to remind her how powerful he was. But he wanted Holly because she was the last person in the family who still respected him.
Even giving Walt’s rant the most generous possible reading, it’s striking that he felt the need — one last time — to convince Skyler that all of his actions have been for the good of his family. Yes, the phone call will probably help to keep Skyler safe. But isn’t that just another way to reassert his control? To prove to Skyler — and more importantly, to himself — that he really is the only one capable of protecting the family?
The prevailing lie of this series isn’t one Walt told Skyler or Walt Jr. or Jesse. The only lie that matters was the one Walt told himself: that he could keep things neat and tidy, that he was in the right, and that the catalyst that sparked his transmutation from milquetoast to murderer was an overwhelming, desperate love for his family.
It’s not that the show is a crock, and it’s not that the sophisticated considerations of fault and the human heart are a crock. It’s that trying to locate the humanity inside a man who has killed and harmed and terrorized, all with the underlying goal of making a lot of money and avoiding consequences, is a fool’s errand. Not because Walt is evil or isn’t evil, but because it doesn’t matter.
Allison Keene, Collider
After having dropped Holly off to be returned to Skyler and knowing there is no way home again, he’s truly a lone wolf. He has himself and the money. What was the point of it all for him? He’s on his own now. Where does he go from here?