Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 14
Look on my works, ye mighty, and
I wanted this.
When Breaking Bad was in its early days, I often spoke about my fears that the show would go off the rails, that it would lose its nerve, that it couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations. The Breaking Bad of my dreams was the Breaking Bad of my nightmares, an unrepentant, brutal march into a heart of darkness so black, it could only belong to the monster we’d watched a man become. I spoke last week of the way “To’hajiilee” forced viewers to confront what they wanted from the show, made them reckon with their own desires and what it told them about themselves. “Ozymandias” made me sick. It made me feel waves of nausea and despair, it made me feel tension and terror, it made me live and ask myself what it meant to do so. It doubled down on the questions “To’hajiilee” posed for the viewer because it started to give us answers. It started to show us what we’d wrought.
When I wrote about “To’hajiilee,” I argued that the cliffhanger didn’t make structural sense if Hank was going to die. Now I see it makes better sense than I possibly could have imagined. “To’hajiilee” forced us to ask what we wanted, even as we knew it was out of our control. “Ozymandias” gives us (or me, at least) what we wanted. It gives us answers to questions we’ve been asking for the entire series. It gives us moments the show has built to for years. It spends virtually its entire runtime showing us what all of this was coming to.
I didn’t want this.
I didn’t want to see Hank, in his last moments, resolute and yet just a little sad, sticking it to Walt even as he revealed just how much he had respected the man he came to revile. I didn’t want to see Jesse, cowering under a car, and then, cowering from further torture, and seeing the slavery he has been under for years becoming literalized. I didn’t want to see the look on Walter Jr.’s face as he learned the truth about his father. I didn’t want to watch Skyler screaming in the streets at the loss of her daughter. I didn’t want to have to look Holly in the eyes as she said her first word (at least that we have seen). Again and again and again, inexorably, “Ozymandias” gave me what I had asked for, and forced me to contend with the direction I had virtually demanded this show to go. It was a bracing episode of television, an emotionally draining tour de force that relentlessly delivered on all of my darkest ideas about the direction this show should go to earn its title.
I asked for this.
The cold open of this episode is a masterpiece, laying out so much that we need to see in ways that are both immediately clear and ways that reveal themselves over the course of the episode. Look at how carefree Jesse was, playing around outside the trailer, annoyed by Mr. White but not deterred by his insults. Look at how happy Walt and Skyler were, planning a weekend get away. Look at the way this sequence makes something out of Holly, turns her into more than just a prop by making us actually think about her as a human being about to emerge. Look at the way it shows us Walt rehearsing his lies before he calls Skyler. Look where Skyler is standing. Look where Walt is standing. The cold open isn’t just ace tension building after last week’s cliffhanger, though it is that. Every single bit of information we’re given in those moments matters. Everything we see will resonate throughout the episode.
After “ABQ,” the second season finale, I spent a long time wondering about how effective the plane crash was as a story point. Initially, it was disappointing. We were lead to believe Walter White had done something, that something had happened to him or to someone he loved. And we were left with a tragedy that felt, well, disconnected. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized how brilliant that was, how much it externalized Walter’s quest for control, how much it showed him the dark ramifications of his reach. Walter White did do something, even if it wasn’t what we were lead to believe, and something did happen. Hundreds of people died, and that blood was on his hands.
That moment has become blisteringly effective in my mind, and yet still, I didn’t learn its lessons. Still, last week, I argued that I needed to see Walt cross the one line he drew for himself, that I needed to see him kill Hank. I was as much a fool in the moments after I finished watching “To’hajiilee” as I had been in the days following “ABQ.” I hadn’t learned that Walt is responsible for the consequences of his actions. He called Jack to the desert. He threw himself in with psychopathic neo-Nazis. He cooked that first batch of meth right there in the spot where he was forced to look upon his works and despair.
In the moments when Walt rolls his one remaining barrel across the desert, Skyler is left to think her husband has been arrested. She is left to think everything she has done has been in vain, that she has debased herself and disgraced her family and will get nothing in return except the grudging forgiveness of Marie. In those moments, her whole life recalibrates, and she sees the light again. She sees a way out. Skyler is prepared to deal with Walter Jr., she’s prepared to deal with Marie and Hank. She might not be able to get away blameless in this scenario, but she will, at last, get away.
And when Walt shows up at the house, when she realizes what he’s done, picking up that knife is the most natural response in the world. It was easy to rationalize all she did while she was sleeping next to Walt in the dark. But Marie has forced her out into the harsh light of day, and from there, she can see the thing she’s been in bed with. Skyler makes a decision to cut ties, to sever her partnership and to try to salvage what’s left of the life her husband has run roughshod over.
Walt makes a decision too. For the entire series, he has clung to family as his justification for everything he’s done, and when faced with his wife attacking him and his son calling the cops on him, he does the thing he has hardwired himself to do: he clings to family. He snatches Holly from her crib. We saw Walt abandon his pseudo son Jesse when Jesse no longer believed in his righteousness. Walt had Walter Jr. to fall back on, a real son who believed his father was the best man alive. Seeing his wife and his son cower in fear before him, he doesn’t think; he reacts. He grabs the one member of his family he might still be able to make believe he is good, and he runs.
But he just can’t bring himself to ruin her too. He tries to make her new, comforting her, drying her tears, and changing her diaper. But even for an 18-month-old, there’s no such thing as a blank slate. She cries for “Mama,” and Walt’s sliver of humanity shows. Everything we saw in the cold open matters. Everything is played off and resonates throughout what follows. We watch Walter White rehearse his lies before he calls Skyler in the opening, but the man who calls her at the end needs no rehearsal. His whole life has become the show. Walter White doesn’t need to practice lying because he virtually never tells the truth. So the man who has lost everything puts on the face of Heisenberg one last time, playing the part for the cops he must know are listening and making it seem like Skyler has been in the thrall of a monster. The tragic thing about the conversation is, she has. The Walter White we see make that call is tortured, because he’s lost the last thing he had to fight for, the last bargaining chip between himself and moral oblivion.
And yet. Last week, we saw Walter White prepared to give up everything. The moment in “To’hajiilee” where he steps out from behind that rock in some ways mirrors the moment in “Pilot” where he puts the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. He’s embracing the darkness. He’s giving up. That Walter White learned he had something to live for, and found himself determined to survive. We’ve seen everything stripped away from him this season, but as he says his parting words to Skyler, he tells her, resolutely, “I’ve still got things left to do.”
“Ozymandias” is quite possibly the greatest episode of Breaking Bad. Though time must pass, and I will need to rewatch it several times, it may very well be my favorite episode of one of my favorite shows. It is a sickeningly brutal hour of television, a grim rollercoaster through the things I thought this show needed to do to be great. It’s something else, too. It’s something I didn’t know I wanted, something I was prepared to reject. It’s an argument that Walter White is not a monster. I’ve used that word a lot to describe him in the last half of this series. I’ve made references to Jekyll and Hyde, I’ve called him the Devil, and I’ve argued he’s an inhuman creature. But that’s because it’s so hard to contend with what he really is: Walter White is a man.
This doesn’t make him better, it doesn’t lessen my hate or alleviate my disgust. What it does do is make him more interesting. Walter White has built himself into something more. When faced with a death sentence, he decided instead to build a legacy. When told he was a man, he decided to become a symbol. As he ascended, he thought of himself as a ruler, he built himself an empire. The taglines used to promote the two halves of this final season were: “All Hail The King” and “Remember My Name.” But what the poem (by Percy Bysshe Shelley) that gives this episode its name reminds us is that nothing is permanent. Every king dies; every empire crumbles. The acts of man are tiny rebellions against an uncaring universe that lumbers on far after their legacies have turned to ash. The quote that I opened this review with, in Shelley’s telling, is written upon the pedestal erected to commemorate the fallen leader and to force history to remember his name. The poem’s ending hammers home the point of this brilliant, visionary episode of television that reminded us what we’ve been watching is a man raging against the dying of the light, giving up everything to make sure he has been remembered, regardless of the cost:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
-“We just wasted his partner and he’s wearing a bullet, so yeah, it does concern me.”
-“You want me to beg? You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see. He made up his mind 10 minutes ago.”
-“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, but I didn’t.”
-“Everything changes now. And you have got to prepare yourself.”
-“If all this is true, and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.”
-“I need both of you to trust me right now.”
-“What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family! We’re a family!”
-“Let her go!”
-“This is your fault. This is what comes of your disrespect.”
-“I built this. Me. Me alone. Nobody else.”
-“You mark my words, Skyler. Toe the line, or you’ll end up just like Hank.”
-“Family or no. You let that sink in.”
-“I’ve still got things left to do.”