Monday, September 16, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.14 - "Ozymandias"

Without a doubt, this was the most gut-wrenching episode of BREAKING BAD to date, and in a series that deals regularly in the consequences of lies, deceit and death, that's really saying something. It feels wrong to try to chop my coverage of this episode into my precious little categories, so I've decided to freestyle it a bit and see what spills forth. What could go wrong?

The poem "Ozymandias" tells the tale of how a once all-powerful king has been brought down, his empire destroyed, and all that remains is the stony debris of dust and decay. All leaders, be they benevolent or ruthless -- eventually decline. Kingdoms rise, but they inevitably fall. And that's the story of Walter White. I remember how the title of every Friends episode begins with "The one where..." So the alternative title for Episode 5.14 could easily be "The One Where Walt Loses Everything"

The opening flashback takes us back to when & where it all it began. The beginning of Walt & Jesse's relationship: the former student and the chemistry teacher in his smock and undies.  And Walt and Skyler were still the sort of couple that said "Love you" when they ended a phone conversation.

But the significant thing about this scene is not the naming of the as-of-yet unborn Holly (though one can say mentioning the child foreshadows the final act of the episode); it's the first time Walt has to fabricate a lie about his new "line of work". We see him practicing his cover story, choosing the right words, adding details that (as always) are unnecessary. Of course, he barely gets a sentence out when Skyler cuts him off with a blithe yet blissful acceptance of his delay.

Forget the foreshadowing of the baby; THAT's the real hint of what's to come in the final act.

And when Walt, then Jedi Master Jesse, and finally the RV each fade out of existence, there is a certain poignancy, as we remember how comparatively innocent the beginnings of this tragic saga truly was.

Sixteen months later, To'hajiilee is once again the site of buried secrets and murder.  Uncle Adolf and the Aryan Brotherhood have already shot and killed Gomez, and now Walt is pleading for Hank's life, even offering his entire fortune in exchange for his brother-in-law's safety.

But Hank knows what the "deal" really is, even if Walt's again in denial:

"What? You want me to beg? 
You're the smartest guy I've ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago."

Uncle Adolf punctuates Hank's last words ("Do what you're gonna do-") with a bullet to the brain, and that causes Walt's own brain to short out. He collapses in a state of whimpering near-catatonia, very closely resembling Gus Fring's reaction to seeing his partner killed back in Season Four.  Of course, characters falling into a state of speechless shock is nothing new on BREAKING BAD.

But even though the Aryan Brotherhood is about to make off with most of his money, Walt is still seething far more over Jesse. Because as far as he knows, EVERYTHING that has happened is Jesse's fault. He knows that Jesse is a traitor, betraying him to Hank. And that alliance is what led to the ultimately tragic standoff at To'hajiilee. 

It doesn't matter if one can say the blame is truly Walt's. Of COURSE it is (duh). The entire story of Walter White is about the decisions he makes, which are often times bad, poor or immoral -- and what the eventual consequences of those crossroad moments are. One can play the "If Walt Had Only..." game going all the way back to the very first episode.

And if we're going to be silly about it in our attempt to absolve everyone BUT Walt, then I have to point out the fact that if Hank hadn't been the self-aggrandizing goofball that puts on the local TV news at someone else's 50th birthday party, none of this ever would have happened. Forget the ride-along; THAT's when Walt gets the idea in the first place!

However, since Matt Damon with a missing chromosome steps in to give Jesse a stay of execution (and beyond finding out what Jesse said and to whom, it's a clear sign that Jesse's going to be cooking again -- see last week's blog), Walt is robbed of his cathartic revenge. But as he wants Jesse to suffer the way he just did, he hits him with the darkest secret of all:

"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."

The fleeting moment of sympathy some may have felt for Walt vanishes like the tail end of the flashback. But Walt's a wounded animal, lashing out the only way he can. Again, he holds Jesse responsible for Hank's death (not to mention losing close to $70 million dollars). So this verbal kick to the gut is not merely justifiable in Walt's mind, it's justice.

~Walt's car running on empty is a nod to the RV running out of gas in "Four Days Out".

~Walt rolling the barrel of money shows he learned from his previous method of barrel transportation back in "A No Rough Stuff Type Deal".

~And eagle eyed viewers might have spotted a pair of pants, crusty and stiff in the foregrounds - recalling the iconic image that led off the entire series in the "Pilot".

Whenever anyone allows their emotions to get the better of them, to give in to baser impulses such as anger, revenge, spite and so on -- it invariably leads to no good. That has been one of Walt's biggest weaknesses and flaws, from his stubborn stance of remaining in the meth business (despite a number of opportunities to get out) to killing Mike Ehrmantraut.  The same can be said of Jesse (be it going after the drug dealers in "Half Measures" or trying to burn down the "White House" in "Confessions"/"Rabid Dog"), Gus (how else does he fall for Walt's scheme in "Face Off") and even the way Hank has operated as a rogue DEA agent for the past several episodes.

And now, it's Marie's turn. Logically speaking, she absolutely should have waited for Hank to return home before forcing Skyler to tell her son the truth about his meth-making murderer of a dad. She would want Hank there to not only fill in any gaps in Skyler's story, but to provide support for the sure-to-be devastated kid. Hank would (yet again) be the surrogate dad for him. 

But Marie has the need to rub it in her sister's face, even as she talks about forgiveness.  Forcing Skyler to tell Walt Junior/Flynn NOW -- is nothing short of malicious.

The writers make yet another canny move by sparing us needless (and possibly endless) exposition. Much the way we didn't need to see Jesse's confession -- we don't see Skyler telling her son the whole story, we only see the awful aftermath. The pain of learning what his father truly is (and by extension, his mother as well) is the next biggest crime after murder in this episode -- as the kid has his innocence ripped away from him. His family of liars...lies in ruins.

But this merciless episode presses on, and the sight of a bruised, cut and swollen Jesse is all too familiar and sad. The knowledge that it's been Todd delivering the punishment (perhaps recalling how Jesse decked him back in "Buyout") makes it even worse. As expected, Jesse will be forced to cook once again.  He's even chained up like some sort of puppet, which is appropriate, as Jesse has been one often enough (for Gus Fring and Walter White).  

But what even I didn't predict was the true method of coercion: a photo of Andrea & Brock.  Jesse won't be cooking to save his OWN life but to keep his last remaining loved ones safe. Of course, I'm not sure how he gets the hazmat suit on over that puppet wire...but maybe Todd doesn't think Jesse will need protection since they're eventually going to kill him anyway. Eventually...

Walt's showdown and actual physical fight with Skyler is more than a little reminiscent of Tony vs. Carmela Soprano, but taken two levels beyond. First, the setup shot of the knives and the phone.  Fight or flight, take matters into your own hands or call for help. As Skyler slides out that butcher knife, the death of a member of the White household feels inevitable.  

When Flynn (as I can't imagine he'll ever call himself Walter Junior again) jumps into the fray to protect his MOTHER, I was all but positive that blade would soon be protruding from the boy's chest.  Hell, I even had a sick and macabre thought that the knife would be sent hurtling through the air and through Holly's eye socket (and then she'd really look like that teddy bear). But much like Walt, the writers don't take the easy and obvious way out.

"What the hell is wrong with you! We're a family! We're a family..."

And THAT's when Walter realizes he has LOST his family: when he sees the fear and loathing in his son's eyes as the kid calls the police. Again Walt is betrayed.  First Jesse (telling Hank), then Skyler (telling his son), and now finally Flynn (calling the cops on him). Now there is no escaping and no denying this incontrovertible fact: everything Walt has ever done is now completely for naught. Acting again on emotion rather than rational thought, he snatches up Holly.

However, when Holly later says "Mama" (first time we've heard the child speak as far as I know), that's when Walt realizes not just what he has done, but what he has to do. And THIS is the biggest reason for that opening flashback, because even if we don't see it (like other bits of exposition I cited earlier), one can almost guarantee Walt is about to spend the next couple hours crafting and rehearsing his biggest and most important performance since a certain videotaped confession.

There are some who didn't "get that"upon their first viewing of this episode.  Those people need to go back and watch it all over again. This is not just an interpretation, it's clearer than the purest crystal meth. Walt knows his son called the police when he ran off with Holly, so he also would know that they MUST be there and listening to the call.

Still, it's possible one might not pick up on the mention of the police being an indicator that Walt KNOWS they're listening. Who's really thinking THAT clearly when watching this for the first time? 

However, when he states he "warned her for a solid year" there would be consequences if she crossed him, even the most casual viewer must realize what Walt is up to, since that never happened.

As Walt mocks Skyler for all her whining and complaining, that also functions as a slight knee to the groin to the "I Hate Skyler" crowd. But that's also the moment when Skyler catches on to what's happening.

Jesse never gets to say "Bitch" in this episode, but he also never said it with such cruelty the way Walt spits out "Stupid bitch." Even if it is an act, it's a very convincing one. 

And when Skyler responds, "I'm sorry", THAT's when Walt knows that SHE knows what he's doing, and that's when he cries throughout the rest of his latest not -altogether true "confession". 

Last time, it was all about self-preservation; this time, it's to protect Skyler so she can still raise Flynn...and Firehouse Holly. As the sun rises on the end of this tear-filled stomach ache of an episode, Walt boards a minivan to his new life in (presumably) New Hampshire.

~ Where was Saul? I've gotten so used to Mister Goodman showing up in every episode this half-season, I was initially shocked by his absence. Then I realized this was about as laugh-free an episode as has ever been done for BREAKING BAD, so maybe his exclusion was necessary. We do know Walt must have used Saul to contact the minivan man.

~ Speaking of Saul, whatever happened to Huell? Is he still sitting in that motel room guarded by an agent who doesn't know what's going on?

~ Did Walt leave the To'hajiilee coordinates on the note pinned to the sadly crying Holly? Or will Hank  (and Gomez) forever be buried out in the desert?

~ Would Skyler and her brood qualify for WITSEC? Do they remain under police protection for an extended period of time?

~ Is everything Saul knows protected by attorney-client privilege? I think it is, but I'm no legal expert.

~ Does the Aryan Brotherhood plan to keep Jesse alive forever as their cook, or will Todd eventually feel he can handle it on his own?

~ Will Lydia find out about Jesse?  Remember, since he actually saved her life (or at least spoke out for her when Mike was about to blow her away), she may feel indebted to him.

~ The Aryan Brotherhood has $70 million plus a guy who's as good a cook as Heisenberg, so is there any reason they'd want to track down Walt or menace his family?

~ Which brings us back to Walt: we know about eight months later, he arrives in town with a (supposedly) full head of hair and a beard.  He buys an M60 machine gun and goes back to his now abandoned house to get that vial of ricin. 

If the gun is for the Neo-Nazis -- then why?  For revenge?  For the money?  I espoused a theory last week about going back to save Jesse -- but what causes a change in Walt's conscience regarding Jesse? The realization that the blame for all his misfortunes is his and his alone? Or is his family in danger?  But why WOULD they be in danger, and HOW would he know? I initially thought even Saul wouldn't have a way to track down Walt, or else it defeats the purpose of what the minivan man can do. However, maybe Saul would have such info. Just in case...

Based on the first 60 episodes of this series, I'm confident that practically all of these questions and many more will be tackled and answered in the final two episodes. We may not ever get a happy ending (barn door open), but I'm damn sure we will get a satisfying ending.

That's it for this week's episode.  Until next time, be good even if BREAKING BAD is better!


  1. Great write-up Scot. I too was thrown by the "warned you for a solid year" line and new something was up. I still can't figure out the M60 either.

    This ep left me a broken and emotional mess.

  2. Great recap of the episode. Damn, it was such a punch in the gut to see Hank get killed, even though it was pretty predictable after his call to Marie. It was very hard to see Jesse all beat up and forced to cook with the lives of his "family" at stake. Time to get to the flash forward for the next couple of episodes, I guess. Gonna be a wild ride, I think.

  3. Hey Scot,
    It wasn't till he was leaving Holly at the fire station that it clicked what he tried to do for Skyler.

    The more I think about the episode the more my heart breaks for Marie. I have to disagree though, I might blame Marie for hubris, in thinking Hank had everything taken care of, and now she had a certain level of control that had evaded her, but I don't think she made Skyler tell Flynn to hurt her sister. I think she was sincere in thinking he should be told as soon as possible, before the police do.

    Either way, great blog :)