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by Alison Willmore
September 16, 2013 9:31 AM
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In a Breathtaking, Brutal Episode, 'Breaking Bad' Reveals Walt at His Most Monstrous

Bryan Cranston in 'Breaking Bad' Ursula Coyote/AMC

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.

"He has now hurt or killed every single person he's claimed to care about and be doing this for."

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.

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45 Comments

  • altmann | September 19, 2013 7:41 AMReply

    that's the whole point you've missed: "He gave Skylar a get-out-jail free card with that phone call AND he even took the blame for Hank's murder so the Nazi gang wouldn't go after his family for retribution" (Bian is right).

  • ruth | September 18, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    Yes, of course I agree with you Brian...you got it spot on. Alison, you didn't get the phone call right. As for Jesse, I am not sure what I believe yet, (and not afraid to say!) Todd the sociopath's quick save of Jesse's trip to Belize was too formula, as proven by the picture of Brock and Mom that hung in the lab. I cannot imagine this loose end will not be tied up. And I have never read Alison either, but be fair, a lot of good reviewers got it wrong too.

  • Luke | September 19, 2013 12:48 AM

    They are not "good reviewers" if they got THAT wrong.

  • BRIAN | September 18, 2013 12:42 PMReply

    Alison,

    I've never read one of your articles before. I don't know if you were half paying attention to the show, if you're just really disconnected from human emotion or what but you COMPLETELY missed the whole point of the phone call. Yeah, I know other people have pointed this out but it wasn't just this that you missed. You keep calling Walt a monster - the guy has obviously done terrible things but one thing you cannot say is that he doesn't do everything and anything to keep his family safe. He tried to give up 80 million to save Hank. He gave Skylar a get-outt-jail free card with that phone call AND he even took the blame for Hank's murder so the Nazi gang wouldn't go after his family for retribution.

    Seriously, Alison. you really should not be reviewing shows. I'm done.

  • Mike Drake | September 20, 2013 9:53 AM

    I totally missed this subtext the first time i watched (admittedly, i may not have been paying the full attention to the show while i watched, so I'm left wondering whether it would have made any difference in my perception if i'd been fully alert). I watched it again and it seems clear as day - and i'm pretty sure we see skylar picking up on what he's doing.

  • Phits | September 18, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    Very good write-up. You nailed WW's character. As for all of the "subtle, context" that other reader's suggest that you missed....it's all in the interpretation. WW, is no longer the good family man....he hasn't been for some time now. The phone call was real and intended. There was no reason to undermine himself, especially with video evidence of his "confession". I think a lot of people are trying to make an Angel out of a Devil.

  • BRIAN | September 23, 2013 11:20 AM

    Yeah, you can see the realization in her eyes of what he's trying to do and then her whole demeanor changes from a really angry wife to one who was more like an abused / battered housewife. Some people say that Walt had this whole thing planned from the moment he took Holly. I say no to this - the phone call plan came around when the baby began pleading for her mama. He realized then that if he didn't do something to help save Skylar from prison then neither Flynn nor Holly would have no mom as well as no dad (probably have to move in with Aunt Marie).

  • Add | September 18, 2013 11:43 PM

    uhh... no. interpretation...? There was clear and obvious conflict in WW's voice during the call. By the end of it, he was CRYING. If that didn't give it away, then Skyler's reaction should have. No one is defending an "Angel" -- they are simply pointing out the ObViOuS!

  • @PHITS | September 18, 2013 1:37 PM

    *FACEPALM*

    You are a moron

  • Carlos | September 17, 2013 5:51 PMReply

    Walter cares very much about Jesse. Jesse has been his trusted side-kick almost throughout. Walter kept him there because he saw a lot of potential in Jesse. He saw Jesse as being able to get his head straight, to clean up and make something of himself with the money they could potentially make in the drug world. Walter saved Jesse's life by running over those thug, drug dealers at the end of season three. I believe it was also Walter who took revenge and bombed Toco's hideout after Toco gave Jesse the beating of a life-time. Jesse was also a catalyst for Walter's drug venture. It was FOR JESSE and WALTER'S FAMILY. After everything they had been through. All the close calls with death. All the close calls with the law, Walter really cared what happened to Jesse. He bonded with him in ways he couldn't with his real son, Walt Jr. In that way, Jesse became Walter's family. I think Walter had anticipated the move by Ted's uncle, which is why at the beginning of the season, Walter is carrying some heavy-duty arsenal in the trunk of his car. I think Walter is going to go and rescue Jesse. That is my prediction. Walter did everything for his family. EVERYTHING!

  • Addison | September 17, 2013 5:40 AMReply

    Obviously most of the commenters already pointed out the misinterpretation of the "final phone call"...
    I just want to comment on the beautiful yet brutal irony of the scene. Basically how the whole series has been about Walt's decent becoming the monster, Heisenberg. Yet the moment Walt goes FULL-ON-HEISENBERG, is really one of his most human/selfless...

  • Ron | September 17, 2013 4:42 AMReply

    Yeah like a lot of people already said; that phone call flew completely over your head and because of that the title of your article is completely off-base.

  • Ken | September 17, 2013 1:26 AMReply

    This is the second response I have read that completely missed the point, dissapointing. Glad the commentors are out in force though. The other I just read said something like "Thank God he didn't kill the baby!" Really? It boggles my mind that people perceive him as totally depraved enough to kill his daughter to spite how wife. The brilliance of this show is the ever-tipping scale towards depravity, but in his mind it is all FOR his family, just as his last conversation with his wife and his heart-breaking last day with his daughter is. I'm not going to spew hate at Jesse or Skyler for what they did, because he deserves all of it, but to suggest his humanity is gone is bonkers.

  • Chemgirl | September 17, 2013 12:25 AMReply

    Walt is blaming Jesse for hanks death which is why he finally tells him about Jane. Underneath, Walt still peeks out when it comes to his family and he was truly devastated at hanks death, yet Heisenburg rears his head to get even and make Jesse feel the hurt about Jane.

  • Louisa Montealvo | September 16, 2013 9:46 PMReply

    The irony of the situation, and the subtext everyone commenting on here has missed is Walt has become such an incredible liar, he doesn't even realize he's lying to himself. Yes, he knows the police are there listening, yes he's trying to exonerate Skylar, BUT the sad truth is he means every word. He just doesn't fully realize he does- instead the ends always justifies the means to him, and Walt is forever convinced his actions are necessary. The last time (or one of- my memory sometimes fails me) he spoke with such venom to Skylar was the infamous "I am the one who knocks!" speech. Walt is an arrogant man, and it's his arrogance and his desire for recognition, which ultimately did him in if we go way back to Hank talking about Gale Boetticher over dinner and Walt's ego needing to set the record straight. This is a man who has created a chain reaction of cataclysmic proportions and is utterly blind to it. Yes, he sees the chaos; he just thinks it's all an unfortunate side effect of what HAD to be done. Therefore, if he can't truly see what he's caused, how can he truly take responsibility? Walt's ego won't let him be self-sacrificial- not for his family, and not truly.

    For those of you who still view Walt and Skylar's phone conversation as Walt's attempt to save Skylar (which I'm not saying isn't partially true, rather I posit Walt wants it to be his last great sacrifice, but he's incapable of such a sacrifice- instead he unwittingly reveals his true self.) how do you reconcile Walt's vicious last words to Jesse about Jane? There's no great sacrificial subtext, instead there's simply a monster.

  • MY | September 17, 2013 2:01 PM

    I would disagree. Walt is clearly "performing" Heisenberg here and performance requires a degree of agency and self-awareness.

  • Ken | September 17, 2013 1:33 AM

    Jesse isn't family and in fact became an enemy when he threatened his true family, even Skyler realized that. And we all know he is fine with being monstrous to enemies. To offer that as proof that he hates his daughter, wife, and son is a major stretch. Can't his "true self" sacrifice for his family, even in monstrous ways? Is everything so black and (Walter) white?

  • Jimbo | September 16, 2013 6:57 PMReply

    Interestingly enough, Emily Nussbaum over at The New Yorker initially overlooked the phone call subtext as well.

  • JIMBO | September 16, 2013 6:59 PM

    (Sorry, for obvious reasons, Indiewire wouldn't let me link to the New Yorker article)

  • Chemgirl | September 16, 2013 6:51 PMReply

    Do you even watch this show? Walt's call to Skyler was to give her an out with the law.. So she wouldn't be an accomplice to everything he's done.

  • Mike Drake | September 18, 2013 4:18 PM

    Anyone wonder whether that's the only reason he bothered to nab the baby?

  • Anthony | September 16, 2013 6:26 PMReply

    No tears for Hank. good guy? How about walking Napoleon complex? He did not deserve to go in the desert by the hand of those guys, but he had to go episodes ago. Jesse the rat got what was coming too. That money he gave Andrea and Brock was money he earned thanks to WW...and this is the thanks Walt gets. The man had to survive. I am still rooting for Heisenberg. Academic beats gangsters at their own game...yeah, I'm still with ya' big guy.

  • Daryl | September 16, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    It seems that most of the other comments have picked up on this as well but Alison you entirely misunderstood the episode. Re-watch the phone call and you'll realize Walt is making sure Skyler does not appear complicit to the cops, but that she was intimidated into it. He not only saves her from prosecution but also from Walt Jr thinking he'd been deceived by his mother.
    You should probably consider writing a follow up piece to save face here.

  • Sharon Kahn | September 16, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    I had no doubt that Walt knew the police were likely to be on the phone: everything he said seemed calculated to exonerate Skyler. He reinforces over and again that, with threat of violence, he had been forcing Skyler to comply with him, and was now "angry" at her for finally breaking away. And it sure looked to me like there a moment that Skyler understood exactly what he was doing.

  • John McGrath | September 16, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    Wait a minute! Yes the song sums up three quarters of the episode. "take my love by the hand," Walt rolling the barrel of money, money his love. "Say good bye everyone," Yeah, that happens, but it's forced on Walt. Time to go "roaming," that's certainly how Walt end up.

    BUT "take my love by the hand" plus Walt's desperate invocation, "We're a family" gets transformed toward the end of episode. After his rage is spent at his family's "betrayal" of him, and he has a chance to be alone, to draw back from passionate emotion to the thinking schemer of a family man that he is, he concocts a new lie, a lie that enables him to spare Skylar from any blame, leaving his needy son with a mother. In the end the love he takes by the hand is money, yes, but it is also family and family wins out his highest value.

    Walt certainly knew the police were listening in. In the end he remains a man who lives a lie, but this final lie, like his previous lying life, is for love of family, only this lie is really final and unequivocally about family. As a thinking many he realizes that all the lies he lived for money, as his expression of love of family, only served to take his family from him. He brings his emotions into lines with his thinking and finally acts with a pure love of family, with him excluded, the geatest pain he can feel. We already saw this pain foreshadowed when he begged for Hank's life.

    He threatens the life of the baby, but leaves her to be found after the call is traced. Skyler's family remains intact, but without him. I suspect that her sister will draw even closer to Skyler and her children. She too will accept the gift of Walt's final lie for the love of family. The handicapped son will also accept the gift of Walt's final lie to reconcile with his mother. They have to pull together as a family as Walt disappears. Love of family emerges as a higher truth than plot truth.

    At some point Walt might find a way to get money to Skyler and his sister in law. Will they accept? Probably, for love of family.

    Pay more attention to what you see and hear. This show is not about plot, however masterful the plotting is. It's about character and the contradictions of character. And the horrible losses we have to live with, those foisted on us and those of our own making. Anyone who lives long enough knows about this side of life.

  • Steven | September 16, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    As previously stated, I don't think anyone is JUSTIFYING what Walt is doing or even defending him. Though it is important to note when a reviewer is COMPLETELY missing the subtext of a situation. He meant NONE of the things he said on the phone. I actually find the parallel in this season that when all the cards are on the table, Walt is the only one with some moral code of some kind. Skylar just wants to kill Jesse to keep them safe, Hank will do ANYTHING to get Walt, Marie up until the point she thinks Walt is caught does nothing to connect with her sister. Walt is the only one who really tries to keep it together and stays true to his code up until the point where another party doesn't play by the rules. It's why Uncle Jack just doesn't make sense to him, he isn't bound by logic, he is bound by, well, the same needs. Protect the family at any cost. Uncle Jack is what Walt COULD become if he truly used any means necessary at any cost. Uncle Jack is Walt with no rules.

    It's all his fault of course and it wouldn't have happened in the first place if it wasn't for him. However he has never wavered from his code with family. It's been interesting to watch because I never thought we could sympathize with him again after the first half of this final season.

    Brilliant writing that sadly this reviewer seems to miss completely for the sake of pulling out there own agenda on sexism and misogyny and abusive relationships which are ALL topics dealt with in this show (via Skyler and Jesse). I find people who completely sympathize with Walt also disturbing in their own right. But this reviewer just completely misses the subtext and really discredits their opinions entirely sadly. It is just a reviewer but at the end of the day this person is being paid to do a job most likely, and they failed. Basic subtext missed by trying to push their own agenda and ideas instead of viewing the facts objectively. Shape up Alison and watch the facts, not what you want to pull out of it. You are getting paid to do a job and right now you are no better than a glorified start up blogger.

  • DAVID | September 16, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    Yeah, I'm not buying all this "walts a monster" shit. If you can remember so far back as to the beginning of the season, WALT WAS OUT OF THE GAME. It was HANK and JESSE'S punk asses who kept shit going. But Walt was DONEZO!

  • shelly | September 16, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    If you didn't see that Walt was providing Skyler with an alibi with that phone call then you should not be reviewing television.

  • Luke | September 16, 2013 2:12 PM

    And also about keep calling Walt a monster?! So trying to give 80 million to save his bro-in-law or giving his wife an alibi after she cut him with a knife! Is that what makes him a monster?

  • Jen | September 16, 2013 12:46 PM

    THANK YOU. My mind is blown by people who are not picking this up.

  • ace wonder | September 16, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    Walt knew the police were there. He had to do everything he could to absolve Skylark of being complicity in what he has done. Ultimately, it was his way of confessing and keeping her separate from the crime. Great writing, acting, and directing. Even for all of Walt's horrible decisions, he still chose to protect his family.

  • ace wonder | September 16, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    Walt knew the police were there. He had to do everything he could to absolve Skylark of being complicity in what he has done. Ultimately, it was his way of confessing and keeping her separate from the crime. Great writing, acting, and directing. Even for all of Walt's horrible decisions, he still chose to protect his family.

  • Armond Jenkins | September 16, 2013 11:09 AMReply

    Walt Jr. was wrong to call the police and lie on his dad. That borders unforgivable. I hate people like Skylar who don't listen when they're supposed to. It's people like her that unneccesary circumstances develop that shouldn't have to. Now Walt pretty much needs to leave his family behind because of their lack of compliance.

  • John Heuer | September 16, 2013 11:44 AM

    Hahahahaha, Walt apologists are freaking bizarre and scary.

  • Joe | September 16, 2013 11:37 AM

    You are funny!

  • Dillon Flynn | September 16, 2013 11:01 AMReply

    This was very well-written! You did a great job communicating your emotional reactions to watching the episode, and you used very clear and evocative language. If I can offer one suggestion (and please feel free to stop reading now, I'm just a random person on the Internet), you might want to pay a little bit more attention to subtext when you're watching something that you plan to write about publicly/professionally. Unfortunately, you missed a very important plot point in tonight's episode because it was communicated subtly through context and performance instead of directly (through dialog). In the phone call between Walt and Sky , much of the pertinent information was suggested by the facial expressions of the actors in the scene (particularly in their eyes and mouths. Some people have a hard time picking up on these emotional nuances, so you shouldn't feel embarrassed that it slipped by you! I know that with blogs, there's always a big rush to get the articles up ASAP, but if you're someone who struggles a bit more than most viewers when it comes to catching these kinds of things, it might help you to pause, take a little bit of time and meditate on what you saw and what it might be trying to communicate to you. Otherwise, though, I thought it was a lovely write-up and you did a very good job!

  • @dillon | September 17, 2013 9:17 PM

    what kind of condescending bullshit...

  • Joe | September 16, 2013 11:39 AM

    Pat yourself on the back much, Dillon?

  • Rick | September 16, 2013 10:51 AMReply

    Yeah, context missed. Actually, a lot missed. Alison seems to be more concerned with shifting hate from Skylar to Walt as some sort of reverse/revenge sexism. I'm sure next week's article will be "Walt is literally the anti-christ"

  • Eric | September 16, 2013 10:01 AMReply

    Yeah, you missed the "true" reason for that call. He knew the police were listening.

  • Luke | September 16, 2013 9:50 AMReply

    @Alison Please tell you just ignored the 'subtext' in Walt's call to Skyler!- He was trying to save her from the investigation that is sure to pursue on him. yes, there was some reality in his words, but common..

  • Tom Perry | September 16, 2013 9:49 AMReply

    The hysteric anger from Walt over the phone to Skyler wasn't Walter at his least filtered. It was deliberate. He knew the police would be listening, and his phone call was designed to absolve Slyler of his crimes.

  • Denny | September 16, 2013 9:44 AMReply

    this is unfortunately a total misinterpretation of that final phone call
    walt said those things, so skyler would look like a victim rather than a complice

  • Dan | September 16, 2013 12:11 PM

    You are all so right! Walt knew the popo were listening! Skyler knew exactly what Walt was doing as well, you could see the recognition in her face. That is why she said sorry to him too.

  • Jim | September 16, 2013 9:58 AM

    Totally agree Denny, he was crying through the WHOLE phone call not just at the end. He knew the police were llistening and had to put on a show.