'Breaking Bad' Deconstruction, Ep. 14: 'Ozymandias'

RJ Mitte Bryan Cranston Breaking Bad - H 2013
Ursula Coyote/AMC

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.

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“Ozymandias,” like the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem it was named after, echoed the king’s (or in this case, kingpin's) failed bravado and the desert wasteland of utter failure:

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.

It was an episode that put an exclamation point of a climax on last week’s unfinished but predictably bad business: Gomey is killed in the shootout. Hank lives long enough to be shot dead in cold blood by Jack. Hank’s death both simultaneously crushes Walt and in turn makes him embrace the evil that he’s become. Marie, still thinking Hank is alive, confronts Skyler and makes her tell Walter Jr. the tragic truth. In scenes that rushed by so quickly and were heart-stopping in their intensity and crushing truth, the White family lies came undone.

But it didn’t stop there. The episode seemed to race through reveals and shocking moments -- Walter Jr.’s anguish and anger at both of his parents and calling out Skyler for being an accomplice. “How can you keep this a secret? Why would you go along?” he yells at Skyler. “If all this is true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.”

Except that she’s not, because it would be almost impossible to be as bad, broken, disillusioned, unrepentant and evil as Walt. This episode was written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson. The duo worked real genius in this hour. Johnson, in the middle of a tense scene after Hank has been shot dead in front of Walt, lets Walt’s eyes drift under the Cadillac where Jesse has avoided detection. Other elements play out -- the hint being that Walt said nothing and Jack and his Nazi pals, plus Todd (“Sorry for your loss”) have stolen all but one barrel of Walt’s money and are about to leave. The elapsed time is a wonderful feint because of what Walt does before they leave. He doesn't save Jesse. He doesn't protect him. He calls for his killing. “Pinkman. You still owe me,” he says to Jack, who in turn replies, “If you can find him, we’ll kill him.”

“Found him.”

God, was that last line chilling. I might even argue that’s the precise moment that Gilligan’s plan to “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface” was completed. Walt wants Jesse dead. He wants to watch. When Jack puts the gun to Jesse’s head and asks if it’s a go, Walt stares coldly at Jesse and nods yes. But Todd saves Jesse because he realizes Jesse came with Hank and Gomey, so why not find out what he told them. And he’ll torture it out of Jesse.

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As they drag Jesse away, kicking and screaming, Walt tells them to wait. He’s got something to say to Jesse. “I watched Jane die,” he says with concentrated malice. “I could have saved her, but I didn’t.” He tells Jesse how his girlfriend choked on her own vomit -- it’s Walt twisting the knife into Jesse because, well, he’s Scarface now. He's working in new depths.

In “Ozymandias,” it was like every moment contained a line or an action that you couldn’t believe was playing out-- partly because we’ve all been waiting for them to unfold, pretty much since the show began but most definitely, and with authority, in this final season. This, with two episodes to go, felt like the biggest reveal in all five seasons -- the writers flipping almost all the cards over, playing their hands, ending the suspense (and yet, most people were still probably barely breathing or stuck to the ceiling).

I loved the subtle look of head-shaking disbelief that Jesse gave the man he’s called “Mr. White” from the day he met him in chemistry class. Jesse was the audience’s stand in. How could you do this, Walt? How can one man have become so evil, so cold-blooded?

From there, the accelerator remained floored. Gomey and Hank are dumped in the pit Walt had originally dug to hide his money. As Jack and the goons leave, Walt gets in the car and looks slowly into the rear view mirror, where he sees himself as he truly is now. He turns the mirror away.

But like all things with Walt, even new revelations about the depth of his amoral being were not enough to make him stop and take account. He was back to business, driving what was left of the money home. Of course, it wouldn’t be Breaking Bad if the writers didn’t offer us another iconic moment in the ABQ desert. With Walt’s car out of gas, he rolls the heavy barrel of money through the oppressive desert. A succession of long shots, each farther from the last, with the landscape growing and Walt shrinking was a wonderful piece of work from Johnson.

The enormity of this episode kept revealing itself. When Skyler and Walter Jr. come home to find that Walt isn’t in custody, Skyler knows exactly what that means.

“Where is Hank?” she keeps asking Walt, who puts her off. Finally she says it, because she knows. “You killed him. You killed Hank.” This was an intriguing episode for Skyler because she was forced to tell the hardest secret to her son, have his mind blown and then filled with disbelief and rage as he says she’s no better than his father. But then Skyler makes her stand -- she makes a decision that it’s enough. Walt’s insane rationalization and her participation in it have come to an end. Next, after a shocking knife fight between Skyler and Walt (never thought I’d be writing that) and Walter Jr. tackling his father and protecting his mother, Walt screams at them: “What the hell is wrong with you?! We’re a family!”

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Walt has talked about family quite often -- hell, it was his justification for breaking bad in the first place. But as he exhaled and stared at the situation -- Skyler crying, baby Holly wailing, Walt Jr. shielding his mother with one arm and calling 911 with his free hand -- it all became clear to Walt that a threshold of delusional rationalization was crossed. An empire and a king's grand plans in shambles. He grabbed Holly and raced off.

Yes, just when you thought there must be a moment to exhale, this heart-wrenching scene quickly erupts and Walt is smashing his way out of the driveway with a screaming, frantic Skyler running after him, crying, pleading for him to stop. It was the complete immolation of failed dreams.

(By the way, I’d like to start the Emmy for Holly campaign right now … that toddler nailed it all the way through the episode -- a heartbreaker.)

There will undoubtedly be a difference of opinion as to the intent of what happens next. Walt’s madman, egotistical phone call to Skyer, with the FBI listening, played into the belief of so many viewers that pride and ego are Walt’s biggest blind spot and that his tirade to Skyler about this being her fault and saying “I warned you -- you cross me, there will be consequences” was essentially gift-wrapping his own downfall. But it certainly seemed to be his attempt to take all the responsibility and untether Skyler from her involvement. This makes sense not only because it immediately followed Holly’s sad scene where she looked frightened and was asking about her mommy, but because earlier Marie intimated that there might be hope for Skyler since she was forced by Walt to go along with everything.

I think Walt somehow must keep clinging to his original idea -- that he's doing this for the family, for the kids. It's an element that has come up repeatedly for him. No matter how far-fetched, it still has to be. It's what drives him to keep going, to keep denying (well, that part is over, sure) and to keep hoping to pull off the miracle of giving something to his children before the cancer gets him. I think that was Walt’s plan -- to take the blame completely, turn Holly into the ABQ fire department and flee, with the aid of Saul’s guy who makes people disappear.

Of course, we all know Walt comes back. That was the flash-forward from episode one and episode nine both. He’s got unfinished business. And yes, it certainly looks like Todd forcing Jesse to cook is going to keep the battered, haunted Jesse alive a little bit longer. And with an increase in the quality of the cook -- and most likely a return of the blue coloring -- it will appear that Heisenberg is back in business. OK, at that point, I totally buy into Walt’s ego taking over. He’s not bringing that badass machine gun back to save Jesse -- that would be implausible because he already in cold blood called for his death. And it’s not like freeing Jesse from Jack and his goons would make Jesse forget everything in the past. No, Walt is coming back to do battle, probably fueled by ego, but not to help Jesse.

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At this point, guessing doesn’t really help, because as “Ozymandias” proved so thoroughly, even if the things you secretly hope to happen do happen, you can’t handle them. Certainly your heart can’t. Not for much longer.

I doubt the next two episodes will be letdowns. There’s still so much that can happen, that must happen. And, yup, anything can happen. But I’d venture that Gilligan is right. We probably just witnessed the greatest Breaking Bad episode ever.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine