Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Breaking Bad: Ozymandias

Breaking Bad is, hands down, my favourite TV show. And yet, I don't write about it. I was someone who caught up late, watching the first episode of season 1, then leaving it for a while, and then watching the first three seasons in a marathon before watching seasons 4 and 5 live. So during those first three years, other people wrote about it. And their followings grew, and they did a fantastic job, so instead, if you follow me on Facebook, you'll just see me losing my mind every Sunday night watching this meticulously plotted, brilliantly written, and perfectly acted series... but I don't write about it.

And then yesterday, while on a long plane flight to Hawaii, my husband and I popped open his computer and clicked on this week's episode. And I gasped, and cried, and gasped again, and my hands flew into the air, and then to my mouth, and my jaw dropped, and I sobbed, and then I gasped, and then ended the episode crying and crying. My husband said, "Ok, now what do you want to watch?" And I said I was going to need a while to recover. And I stared out the window, thinking about how this show just gave me the best, most satisfying hour of television I think I've ever seen.

If you haven't watched it, STOP NOW. I've been dying all season NOT discussing it on Facebook so as not to spoil it for those who don't watch it until it's On Demand later in the week. But I MUST discuss this episode.

First, I had no idea until after I watched it that it was called "Ozymandias." For those English lit students out there, remember how you have to mainline about 1,500 poems throughout your degree, but you really only remember about four or five of them at the end? (No? Just me? OK FINE.) "Ozymandias" was one of those poems. Let's leave off the Watchmen reference (which was clearly a nod to Shelley's poem) and just look at Shelley's poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"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.

Like the great king Ozymandias, Walt's kingdom officially crumbles in this episode. He's lost his family, his partner, his dignity, his power... and his money. Look on his works, ye Mighty Viewers... and despair. The sand has washed over everything.

The episode begins with one of those absolutely fantastic cold opens. At first I thought it was a repeat of a scene from season 1, but they've clearly gone back and recreated it (both Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston look a little older) but what they do is take us right back to the beginning, to the moment when, as Walt discussed in season 3's "The Fly," they could have stopped and things would have been OK. Skyler is pregnant and happily shipping knickknacks from the house to earn some extra money. She and Walt have a sweet conversation on the phone. She loves him, and he adores her. They discuss doing something as a family. Jesse Pinkman is considered by Walt to be a dumbass. Walt is meek, but he's loved and respected by those he loves and respects, and that's all that should matter.

But it didn't matter enough, and now it's all gone. The phone call at the opening is to remind us of everything Walt has lost. This is the moment of the cook, right before the two gangsters show up and everything goes apeshit and people die and Walt and Jesse are inextricably linked forever.

This Walt...

...is gone. Meek, happy, beloved, but — to his mind — fundamentally useless.

And in his place, we have this Walt:

No hair, scars on his face, his hand — slashed by his wife, no less — held together by duct tape. He's a drug kingpin, a murderer, and the most terrifying man in New Mexico. Bitter, broken, vengeful, and destroyed, he still has the lung cancer, and will be leaving his family with the most devastating legacy imaginable.

The contrast between the two phone calls is what makes this episode perfect. In the first, Skyler's chatting about pizza and cooing to him about how it's OK that his boss is keeping him late. Moments before making the call, Walt's running the lie through, practising it because he wants it to sound genuine. Skyler doesn't think of Walt as a liar, so she doesn't suspect a thing. But in the second phone call? She's surrounded by police, her sister despises him, Hank is dead, Flynn hates his father even more than Marie does, and Walt has kidnapped the daughter Skyler was pregnant with in the first phone call.

And then Walt lies. Beautifully, perfectly, without any practice, he just pops open that phone, dials, and lies. And at first, even the viewers fall for it. But Skyler knows exactly what he's doing. "Are you alone?" he asks. "No police?" "No. No police," she responds. And he begins yelling at her and abusing her in such a way that at first the viewers think he's completely lost it, but it only takes a few seconds before you realize what he's really doing: he's saving her. He knows damn well the police are there. He knows Marie will be sitting there, and Flynn, and that they can all hear him. And so he tells the biggest lie of all: that he tortured and abused and threatened Skyler for the past year, that she had no choice but to go along with it, that she couldn't tell anyone or help herself or her family. That he acted purely out of greed, family be damned. Just like he tried to incriminate Hank by creating a DVD that made it look like he was the scumbag, now he pulls the same switcheroo, and says things to her that he would never say to her, even at his worst.

And Skyler knows it. If the police weren't standing there, she would have ripped him a new one. But instead she knows what he's doing. She knows he's letting her off the hook, that he's incriminating himself and separating his family from everything he did, and he's giving her back her son, her relationship with her sister, her dignity, and her freedom. So instead she plays along, and says, "I'm sorry." And with those two words, Walt closes his eyes and knows the cops are standing right there. That's her signal to him, and so he ups the ante and makes the threats worse. In this moment, for the first time since he stood pantsless in the New Mexico desert, he really is doing this for his family. The cooks, the murders, the bargains... all of that was for himself and his own sense of pride and usefulness, despite him always saying it was for them. But this, this one act: this was for Skyler. This is Walt's one moment of pure selflessness, and in this act he redeems himself in Skyler's eyes.

Butbutbut... this is also the episode where Walt throws Jesse to the dogs. His family means everything to him, and Jesse is as much family as anyone but Walt has never seen it that way. Hank can turn on him; Skyler can wield a knife on him; Flynn can refuse his breakfast sausages... and Walt will forgive all of them. But Jesse is a partnership, and partnerships are based on loyalty. And if Jesse is willing to turn him over, then Walt will turn Jesse over, too. It's a shocking moment.

At the beginning of the season, Gilligan was asked: what would be the more painful thing for Jesse to discover: that Walt poisoned Brock, or allowed Jane to die? Gilligan, without hesitation, said Jane's death. And that's when I knew that Jesse would find out. I predicted early in the season that Jesse is going to hit rock bottom, perhaps Walt will be the one with his hand on the trigger, and he'll snarl the truth about Jane in his face just to hurt him more. And then he did.

Walt tells Jesse everything, and we watch Jesse's entire world crumble, knowing that the man he'd been helping.. the man whom he KILLED for... was the one who killed his soulmate. Jesse has been hanging on by a thread for most of two seasons, but with that confession by Walt, Jesse's entire world just ends. And moments later we see him chained, imprisoned, beaten so badly his one eye is closed (closed and damaged eyes are an ongoing trope of the series), and he has absolutely nothing to live for. But Landry and the boys aren't going to let him die: they'll force him to cook. And, oh yeah, they've put a little photo of Brock and his mom there just to remind Jesse of what will happen if he doesn't.

And then there's Hank. The good ol' boy who came off as a colossal dick in season 1 has grown into one of the most unexpectedly brilliant characters of the entire series. In the beginning he seemed to be a bit of a dolt, but you realize pretty quickly that he's an incredible detective. He's so smart, but he's a man who, like Walt, loves his family more than anything, so of course he's blind (there's the eye thing again) to the one person who's been manipulating him this entire time. Heisenberg couldn't possibly be his brother-in-law, right? Nah. Not family.

When the first half of season 5 ended with Hank discovering the Walt Whitman book, that moment went down in history as one of the cruellest cliffhangers EVER. Breaking Bad fan theories have been flying around for an entire year: Hank KNOWS, and how will he do the little dance around Walt so that Walt doesn't know that he knows? Turns out... Hank refused to do that dance. He let Walt know right away in the explosive end to the first episode back this summer, and watching Dean Norris in this second half has been sublime. He's so angry he can barely speak. Everything bad that's happened to him happened because of a man that he loved like a brother. Walt tries to play him with the phoney DVD confession, but Hank doesn't roll over like so many people do in Walt's path: he pulls Agent Gomez on side so he'll have an ally who will watch him do his work and know he's not the bad guy: Walt is. Then he gets Jesse on board and creates an elaborate scheme to catch Walt. But Jesse has other ideas.

There are two lines in this episode that really stood out for me and they're interlinked. The first is when Jesse looks at Walt in the cold open, after Walt has told him not to light the cigarette in the trailer, and Jesse says he's not a dumbass. Walt underestimated Jesse one too many times, and Jesse got him. Secondly, while Walt tries to bargain for Hank's life, Hank looks at Walt and says, "You're the smartest man I've ever met. But you can't see that he already made up his mind 10 minutes ago." Walt is a genius, but when he's under pressure, he doesn't think. That's how Jesse got him last week (Hank's plan was a drawn-out sting operation; Jesse knew that if you just put Walt under pressure, he'll crumble and you'll get him). Hank couldn't see Walt right under his nose; Walt couldn't see that Uncle Jack was going to kill Hank no matter what and instead he gave up the location of his money. Jesse's certainly not the dumbass in this situation.

Where Walt redeems himself with his call to Skyler at the end of this episode, his bartering for Hank's life redeems him a tiny bit in the beginning as well. For a while now the big question has been: what's more important to Walt: his family or his money? Last week his, "DON'T YOU TOUCH MY MONEY!!!" snarl to Jesse seemed to point in the direction of the latter. But this week he offers up $80 million to save the life of his brother-in-law, a man who has hunted him down and was willing to lock him up and throw away the key moments earlier. Despite everything, Hank's still family, and that means everything to Walt.

But it's not enough: Hank's smart enough to know that Jack is going to kill him either way, and he dies perhaps with the one tiny satisfaction that Walt just lost all his money in the process. He also dies, however, wondering if Jack is going to hunt down and kill the rest of Walt's family. There will never be any peace for Hank. I knew this death was coming, and I knew it would be in this episode, but the shot still made me jump in my seat and start crying.

We don't see Hank die, but instead watch Walt's devastating reaction. His entire meth career has come to this. He started off as a man with lung cancer who wanted to have a nest egg to leave his family. He began with lofty goals, but was dragged down, and his hubris and greed got the better of him. We've watched him break bad for five years now, and Vince Gilligan has achieved his goal: early on he said he wanted to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface, and he did that. But now it's all gone. The statue of the great Ozymandias is broken, lying in pieces in the sand of the desert.

He began everything with good intentions, and now his money, his family — everything — is gone. Walt is unable to move for what could be over an hour (they manage to dig up all of the barrels and he's still lying like this). This is the end of his career. But this tragic image of a broken man calls up a very similar one we saw a couple of seasons ago:

Gus saw his partner (possibly his lover) gunned down before him, and it turned him into the evil badass he eventually became. He acted out of revenge, and lost. Walt acted out of love, and his love turned into greed, and he lost, too. We know what happened to Gus in the end; we can only imagine where Walt will end up.

At the end of "Ozymandias," the king leaves Albuquerque via Saul's guy. Presumably, next week's episode will begin a year from now, and we'll see the Walt of those two cold opens: on his 52nd birthday, racked with lung cancer, a head full of hair, looking scrawny and frail, with a trunk full of guns and ammo and a tiny vial of ricin, and a house full of degenerates, spray-painted to suggest that the world knows about the crimes of Walter White/Heisenberg. The cold opens have been an exciting head scratcher for fans throughout season 5, but now I have a sense of who all that is aimed at. Gus returned to the scene of his heartbreak by the pool and took out the entire cartel. What will Walt do?


Paticus said...

GREAT analysis, Nikki! I'm surprised(by some of the comments I have seen out there on the net) how many people missed what Walt was doing in that second phone call.
Amazing episode of an amazing series. I am both bummed and relieved that there are only 2 more episodes. I will miss it, but I don't know how much more I could take.

Judy Herling said...

Aloha! I could tell from your FB post that this review would be coming - - - excellent job. What a great show this is - - sad it will be ending. One of the writers told EW - "Any advice for watching the next/second-to-last episode?
Medication. Whatever form that takes. Astronaut diapers. Keep soft objects around. You’re in for a couple of uncomfortable, extraordinary, nerve-shattering evenings." Well, at least we're warned!

And then soon, we'll have a Saul spin-off. (maybe, whoever survives BB will do a cameo on Saul?)

JS said...

Thank you, Nikki, for your write up. I have been looking for a review/recap that could do this episode justice, and yours is the first. It really all came down to this. I have to admit, I was in shock by the end of the episode, it took me a few minutes to even understand what I just saw. And slowly I realized, it was love. Finally, Walt putting his family before himself in a way that matters. I was heartbroken, for them all. Especially Mr. White.

Aside - Was baby Holly played by the most incredible baby actor ever? The "Mamama", the crying and hiding her face in the firetruck! It tore me apart.

Aside 2 - We knew Hank would die because Marie has been wearing black instead of her purple for the last few episodes.

And Jesse. Does Walt have ANYTHING left for Jesse? After such a betrayal, I know Heisenburg doesn't, but we'll have to see what Walt does after his 52nd birthday.

I am so excited/depressed for the final two episodes. They cannot live up to this one. The producers already said this was the BEST EPISODE OF THE SERIES. So, now we know. We just get to see how everything gets wrapped up.

Thank you.

humanebean said...

This episode was a shattering experience. If last week's installment was a thrill ride, combined with a nearly unendurable, elongated tension, this week was a wallop to the solar plexus, leaving the viewer stunned, gasping for air and feeling both bruised and sick.

I was among those who was taken in by what I believed to be Walt's Heisenbergian-rant at Skyler as the police listened in. Even as I thought "Of COURSE the police are there!" and assumed that he had just lost it blame HER for the loss of his family, just as earlier he had so quickly blamed Jesse for Hank's death and given him up to Uncle Jack, then metaphorically spat in Jesse's face with the brutal truth of Jane's death.

... And then, that word in Walt's rant, the one we associate so closely with Jesse .... "BITCH!" With that one word, I knew that Walt was lying yet again, this time in an attempt to save Skyler from the circling dogs of officialdom. And yet ... I can't find much redemption for him in this. I feel that this was just Walt's ego, gambling yet again, this time in a desperate attempt to win back some of what has been lost though his own arrogance and self-delusion.

Poor Jesse; undervalued and disrespected by Gomie and Hank, targeted for assassination by a jilted Walt, dragged from underneath a bullet-riddled Pontiac, condemned by Walt's bitterness, crushed by the full weight of the trust he misplaced in this towering monster of a man, battered and beaten, chained to a tether ... and now forced to cook by a soulless cypher, a dark twin to his own prior role as Cook-in-Residence while Walt departs yet again to save himself while others remain amidst the ruin of his destruction.

Look upon these works, ye mighty ... and despair.

lorogomo said...

The way Skyler and Walt moved the knife when they were on the floor was really interesting, like they were stabbing something together (their family maybe?)...

I also love the attention to detail, when you see the shot of Jesse under the car, you can clearly see the gasoline leaking... which of course is coming to bite Walt in the ass later...

And with that flashback I became really aware of how the White's house has become darker each season... during the phone call everything was so bright and happy (except for the crying clown in the box),

I can´t wait to see what happens next... I think Lost isn't my favorite TV show anymore!

pete said...

Brilliant - both the episode and your commentary.

shobiz said...

Well done -- I love the comparison of Walt and Gus, both fallen and despairing in nearly identical shots. Amazing.

In case you haven't seen it, this was a haunting promo they ran a few weeks ago for the second half of season 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IohBeoVX4T4

(Minor clarification: it's Uncle Jack who kills Hank, not Todd.)

Have fun in Hawaii!!

Nikki Stafford said...

Just realized I wrote Uncle Todd when I meant Todd's uncle. Oops! ;)

Old Darth said...

All I can say - yep.

Old Darth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George N said...

I haven't read your blog in awhile and today decided to check it out again. I'm glad I did. I remember why I used to read your articles in the first place. Great analysis.

....and Sleepy Hollow was awesome...

Suzanne said...

I was so pleased to see that you wrote about this episode! I had been coming here to see if you would each week since your writing about great tv is so wonderful. I am so glad I checked in today.

I have to admit that I was taken in by Walt's "lie" until I read another review that interpreted it the way you did. I have since rewatched the scene, and I definitely see what you are seeing. However, I still believe that a lot of the emotions behind what he is saying in the lie are real. His emphasis is on the way that he alone is responsible for this, which works to get Skylar off the hook. However, there is also a sense that his extreme pride is still at work in that statement since he has always seen in that way. He wanted to be completely in control, and anyone who questioned or contradicted him was in the way. This is why Jesse ends up as he does. I wonder if this trait in Walt is what caused his rift with his partners at Grey Matters. So I guess I still see his tragic flaw at work even as he uses it to attempt to save his family.

The question, though, is will he succeed in saving them? I worry about that given the ruthlessness of Uncle Jack and Todd. (I love that you called him Landry. I think of him as Lance, Landry's alter-ego.)

And what about Jesse I don't know if I can take a tragic ending for him, too. Losing Hank was bad enough!

Suzan P said...

I have been a fan of your website and books for years and I am so happy to continue to visit your blog and read updates about my favorite shows. THANK YOU so much for writting about Breaking Bad again!! Ah! It is the best show! Finally something to fill the void that Lost has left...Not a replacement, but a darn good filler!! So sad it's almost over as well. :(

Nikki Stafford said...

Suzanne: HAHA! I call him Lance, too!! But I worried that might be even more obscure than calling him Landry. But I'm so glad that your mind works like mine. :)

Nikki Stafford said...

George: Definitely looking forward to Sleepy Hollow; I set the timer on my DVR and I've heard only good things about it. Can't wait!

umut said...

I have been a fan of your website and books for years and I am so happy to continue to visit your blog and read updates about my favorite shows. THANK YOU so much for writting about Breaking Bad again!! Ah! It is the best show! Finally something to fill the void that Lost has left...Not a replacement, but a darn good filler!! So sad it's almost over as well. :(