The article below contains spoilers for “Ozymandias,” the September 15th, 2013 episode of “Breaking Bad.”
Once, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was a cancer-ridden high school teacher running out of options and afraid for the future of his family. Once, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was a dropout meth dealer trying to make a name for himself as “Cap’n Cook.” Once, less than two years ago in the world of “Breaking Bad,” the two were an unlikely pair working in a beat-up RV in the middle of the desert, making drugs together for the first time. Forget the POV shots, the fast-forwards, the narcocorrido music videos and Los Pollos Hermanos ads — it’s the flashbacks that have to be the show’s greatest stylistic trick, reminding us of how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone with this story and how much distance yawns out behind us, between who the characters were and who they’ve become.
The one that kicked off “Ozymandias” took us back to where this mess began, when Walt and Jesse parked their ramshackle mobile lab out in the wilderness and clumsily attempted to become big shots in the narcotics world. Walt is still acting like he’s imparting chemistry knowledge to a wayward student, Jesse is a goofball unhappy to be paired with his uptight former instructor and Skyler (Anna Gunn) is happy making $9 off an eBay sale and talking baby names with her husband. And then they fade away, and what’s left is the terrible present, where in the same damn spot Walt, Jesse, Hank (Dean Norris) and a handful of white supremacists are trying to destroy each other over $80 million and a drug empire. There’s no fish-out-of-water charm left, no odd couple dynamic, just a group of people who genuinely hate and feel betrayed by one having a desperate shootout.
Jesus, what a fantastic, breathtaking and bleak episode. Any sense in last week’s installment of the show doing a little last-minute wheel-spinning for the sake of suspense is gone, along with everything Walt has held near, any of his irrational illusions about returning to normalcy or checking out of criminal life with no more harm done. He has now hurt or killed every single person he’s claimed to care about and be doing this for — he has nothing left but a (not small, admittedly) fraction of the money he stockpiled and the illness that first got him into this business.
The Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet after which this episode was named, one recited by Cranston in a nifty promo released by AMC in July, is about a broken monument to a long-dead king in the wilderness, inscribed with “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Walt’s ruined kingdom is far more personal (“Remember my name”) — it’s the one he built in his mind, one involving his family being there, grateful and appreciative for his sacrifices and hard work. Instead, he’s alone, driving off in that minivan with Saul’s guy, heading towards a useless new life.
“Ozymandias” was written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by filmmaker Rian Johnson, who’s now helmed three terrific installments of the series. This one was particularly adept, especially with that vicious final phone call between Walt and Skyler, one that recalls the scene in the last episode Johnson directed, “Fifty-One,” in which Skyler walked into the pool. In that, as the camera cut between their faces, Skyler submerged herself as a temporary escape from Walt’s self-serving monologue of bullshit about being grateful, about his tough bout with his disease and his appreciation of those around him — the sanctimonious lies he managed to wrap around himself like a shield.
This time, separated by unknown miles, she sat stunned as she got that toxic and totally sad dose of her spouse as he really is underneath the caring shell, that built-up rage and bile, the driving need to be in control and celebrated. It’s not all that Walt is, but it’s the bitter core that’s been there the whole time, the one that’s driven him for years — that need for recognition and the impulse to blame others for his own mistakes. “This is your fault — this is your disrespect,” he spat at Skyler over the phone after stealing their baby to punish her for not obeying. “You were never grateful for anything I did for this family… Now you tell my son what I do when I told you and told you to keep your damn mouth shut. You stupid bitch. How dare you.” It was Walter White in his least filtered, darkest form, finally out in the open for his loved ones to see — and some magnificent work by Cranston, as his voice cracked with tears at the end, through all that ugly fury.
One of the friends I’ve been watching the show with suggested that the 911 call Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) made on his father after that sickening fight with Skyler over the knife that seem destined to leave someone accidentally dead was the most rational, real world reaction to Walt’s secret we’ve seen on the show. It’s true that Walt’s coming home with the news that Hank died because of him, that they need to pack up and go and, yes, he’s a drug dealer who’s been lying that whole time is an incredible blow and a leap way too far for Walt Jr. to make, even for his father. But it also speaks to the careful, slow descent that Walt and Skyler have been taking together for some time now, as she’s become reluctantly complicit in his new career. From the outside, what he’s become looks crazy. From the inside, it’s the rock bottom of a long spiral down.
The death of Steven Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) seemed inevitable enough that he passed in the space between episodes, but Hank’s murder was far harder to take, as much as it seemed certain to happen after he called Marie (Betsy Brandt) in the last episode. Hank — funny, competent, good guy Hank — knew he was dead as soon as Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) stopped him from reaching that gun.
Walt, for all that he’s been willing to arrange hits and to kill a few of his enemies himself, for all that he’s been ready to involve innocents like Andrea and Brock, has never really accepted that the people in his life could be endangered because of him. He’s always thought he had things handled, that he could protect, at least, his family. That desperate bargaining over something both Hank and Jack knew was already a done deal was all the more wrenching because of its willful ignorance. As a resigned Hank said, “You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago.”
Walt’s decision to turn Jesse over, on the other hand, wasn’t guided by selective blindness — he wanted his former protege to get killed or, as it turns out, tortured and then used by Todd (Jesse Plemons), who’s really turning out to be politely scary as hell, as a meth lab slave. By that point, Walt knew he had to flee town — he could have spared Jesse to go potentially undiscovered for the sake of the time they’ve spent together and their faux familial bond.
But Jesse, like Skyler, is the recipient for all of the responsibility Walt has displaced from himself — Walt has likely decided it’s Jesse’s fault that Hank died, because Jesse dared inform on him, dared not accept that it was reasonable for Walt to poison a child to manipulate him, dared go up against him. As terrible as Walt’s phone call to Skyler was, his dooming of Jesse and that spiteful confession of his responsibility in Jane’s death was just as monstrous, an indication that Walt, despite his ideas about what’s necessary and for the best, has always been aware of how terrible the things are he’s done.
That’s it. They’re all out in the open, his wretched secrets and truths. His partner, his wife and his son have gotten to see the worst parts of him. And despite all of this, Walt isn’t a total villain — he didn’t keep his daughter, after listening to her babble “mama” sounds. He could do that to Skyler, but not to the baby. If there’s redemption of any sort left for Walt in these last two episodes, it’s going to by definition be too little, too late — just him trying to avoid bringing any further hurt to the people he once decided he was going to protect.