Breaking Bad S05E14: “Ozymandias”

“This is your fault. This is what comes of your disrespect. I warned you for a solid year. You cross me, there will be consequences. What part of that didn’t you understand?”

Last Sunday, I was talking to my friend who does not watch Breaking Bad (kind of an oxymoron. He’s on thin ice). “Why does it make people so insane?” he asked. Actually he asked “Why does it make you so insane?” but I changed the names here to protect the innocent.

I didn’t bother to correct “insane” to a gentler descriptor like “selectively unstable.” How could I make an outsider understand why I felt these events and these characters so deeply? I said, “Because it’s real.”

The plausibility kills me. This world in which actions garner consequences and no one may exit the way they came. Breaking Bad is as pure and dangerous as Blue Sky meth; at near 100% integrity, it’s guaranteed to move a much greater volume of feels than I’m used to. “Ozymandias” was a killer, wasn’t it? I took the pulse of the Internet for awhile after its airing and was just delighted by the outpouring of intelligent discussion and fan passion. Every week it gets better and worse, and this episode is one of the top ever produced. I don’t get tired of saying it: Thank you, Vince Gilligan, thank you, writers, thank you, cast, for loving your creation the way it should be loved.

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So. Foregrounded in my discussion of constructed realities, the rules of fiction-physics, and crime and punishment is the brutal death of Hank Schrader.

It happened in the first 15 minutes of “Ozymandias.” Where the Nazi vs. DEA gunfight left off last week, Hank’s doom seemed inevitable. Skinhead ringleader Uncle Jack is a pragmatist with a mean streak and his gun is trained on a lone agent, bleeding leg, no backup. Walt tries to save his brother-in-law by offering up his entire buried $80 million: a desperately human gesture that proves to be too much, too late.

Just like that, the money and the man are gone. Jack puts it bluntly: “There’s no scenario where this guy lives.” Setup; payoff. Hank gets one last moment of badassery to remind us what a goddamn solid man we had:

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And then a shot to the head. Curtains on Hank. A really beautifully written character, a meditation on masculinity and goodness and the backbone as a man’s Achilles heel. Dean Norris shall sleep on a bed of Emmys before the year is out. And these were some of his last words: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met. But you’re too stupid to realize he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” When the word “stupid” (a stock insult for egghead Walt) ricochets back at him, it comes from the family he’d hoped his cunning would always protect. Sad justice.

Hank’s death precipitates the tailspin Walt enters during the entirety of “Ozymandias.” His first victim is Jesse, an easy target after his betrayal last week and the fact that he’s always been a stand-in for family. In his grief, Walt does Walt; he lashes out at anyone who’s ever cared for him, because their love defies logic and pokes holes in his rotten resolve. He wastes no time in pointing out Jesse’s hiding place to Jack and his crew, and looks on emotionlessly as Hank’s killers cock a handgun to the kid’s head.

At this point, the connection between our protagonists has been effectively severed. Another slow clap for Aaron Paul, who had me bawling with Jesse’s terror and hopelessness. Particularly quiet, disturbing shot here as he fixes his eyes on two birds and internalizes the image before his death.

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I really do not think I could have handled it, had Jesse actually been murdered in cold blood at this moment. I was prepared for it, you see – like I said, BB goes there when it could very well go there. Since we know this episode is all about crumbling empires – have you read the poem “Ozymandias”? – the death of literally every living human in a 47-mile radius of Albuquerque seemed possible and imminent.

There was also another little death here, and that’s the part of Jesse’s heart in which Jane has always lived. Her overdose in Season 2 had far-reaching repercussions, the most significant of which was the tumorous growth of Jesse’s guilt/self-hatred complex that made him so malleable for Walt’s use. We all wondered when the real details of her death would come out, and how that knowledge would break Jesse or spur him to action. It was horrifying – and again, painfully realistic – that this truth was delivered not by way of an errant clue, or a mistake, but deliberately. From Walt’s mouth. With measurement and  venom.

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Hook. Line. And years later…Sinker. It will be interesting to see how Jesse deals with this information. And trust; he’ll deal with it.

After this bomb, Jesse was saved at the last moment by Todd “Meth Damon,” who helpfully suggests that the Nazis beat some DEA-related facts out of Jesse before offing him. Plus, Todd still really needs an after-school tutor to figure out how to make Blue Sky above 74% purity. It really blows for Jesse, and I hate to say it, but thank god. He’s brutally beaten and chained to a meth lab, but there’s an escape here. Maybe. Just maybe. Hang in there, babe.

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(Can you believe makeup and closeup shots like this? Not as graphic as AMC-mate The Walking Dead, but somehow more frightening, again, because of how realistic these injuries are).

So while all of this is going on, the suburban set is still a few steps behind as usual. Heartbreakingly, Marie has newfound resolve after Hank’s (last) phone call to her, and she marches over to the car wash to force Skyler to cooperate with the investigation. And this – finally! – means telling Walt Jr. everything. Obviously there’s a layer of subtextual melancholy here. Everyone thinks a big nightmare is beginning, with Hank jailing Walt. But they don’t know that a new personal hell has begun, where Hank is dead and Walt still has the reins. They still think the hardest thing they’ll have to deal with right now is letting in Walt Jr. on all the secrets. He is really not about to have an A-1 day.

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I really love that gif. *save for forever reuse*

I did not care for parts of RJ Mitte’s performance in this scene. I think mostly the writing for Walt Jr. is to blame; the character is chronically underwritten. This really isn’t a show flaw, since the sweet teenager with crutches and a winning smile is supposed to be an oblivious foil for BB‘s overarcing misery. But the kid is annoying, repeating “This is bullshit!” and “It can’t be true!” Dude. Nut up. Get a grip. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to eyeroll at Walt Jr., because he is so endearingly simple and he really does look like a cornered kitten at this moment. I should have known his innocent shock would foreshadow family drama later.

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Back to our Devil with Brown Pants On. Jack leaves Walt with a single money barrel – nothing to sneeze at, it’s still 10 million dollars. He rolls the thing across miles of desert, buys a truck from a wary Native American, and speeds home to whisk his family away. Explanations later. Fleeing the state NOW.

Alas for Walt, an idyllic road trip is not to be. When he arrives home, he encounters a freshly traumatized Junior, a frayed Skyler, and a sobbing Holly (but she’s a baby, they’re just sensitive). It comes out pretty quick that Hank is dead. How else would a crazed former chemistry teacher be wandering free with a drumful of $100 bills and the name of an identity-forger in his pocket? Skyler incorrectly assumes that Walt has murdered Hank; she’s wrong this time, but in a larger sense she is of course dead-on. She reaches a breaking point here; she just cannot have Walt fucking with her kids and her soul anymore, and her husband just killed the only source of normal human justice she could ever turn to. With the death of Hank, another death, more death, the White marriage.

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This is a phenomenal moment for Skyler’s character, and thereafter she takes a good deal of focus in the episode. I was just thrilled. I have always had a slight feminist issue with BB, not because I felt Skyler was a bad character but because her interior life was given such short shrift. The women on this show simply do not see center stage all that much. But this was an awesome opportunity for the audience to see that Skyler has hurt and anguish and a dizzying strength, a beautiful resolve. An intense capacity for hate. She has many reasons to slash at Walt with a butcher knife, and her impulse to protect Walt Jr. from his manic criminal father is married to her deep lust for revenge when she brandishes that weapon. A SUPER fight!

And I had to eat my hat when I watched Walt Jr. come between them to back up his mom and eventually call the cops on Walt. Poor Junior is just working with the facts he has, and when he sees his father wrestle for the knife, he knows the man for whom he built that stupid website is long since dead. Mitte is really excellent in this scene. Watching him struggle with the adults and slam a shield-like arm into the couch across Skyler’s chest was just heartbreaking. Look what you’ve done, Heisy! You happy? The pathetic way he backs off, mumbling, “We’re a family…” I swear to god I smelled a thousand onions being chopped. So sad.

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The rest of “Ozymandias” covers Walt’s short-lived flight away from the city – with baby Holly in tow! She’s the last symbol of total innocence now in Walt’s life., and it makes sense that he would abduct her as a lasting memento of the man he used to be. She doesn’t know Heisenberg, she barely knew Hank, and maybe they could start anew, father and daughter. May I call your attention to a throwaway Walt Jr. quote from the aforementioned www.savewalterwhite.com?

And every day that goes by is one less day I’ll have with him. And I don’t want to tell my little sister about my dad.  I want her to know him for herself.

Well, nobody wants that anymore. Holly definitely doesn’t, anyway. Walt can coo to her all he wants in a gas station bathroom, but she’ll still cry “Mama, mama.” Who’s he fooling? He can’t take a baby on the lam, and Skyler doesn’t deserve that.

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This sets the stage for another wrenching scene in “Ozymandias,” where wrenching is kind of the baseline. In the cool evening, Walt calls Skyler at home, where she waits on the line surrounded by police. Walt knows this, even as she tells him they’re alone on the phone. He levies a tirade at her, rising in pitch and hysteria, beating home the point that she’s clueless and she deserves every indignity and wound she gets. Why? Because she didn’t listen. Because she betrayed him by getting others involved. Because she’s a “stupid bitch.”

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Now, at first I was like, yo, this is it. He’s completely black-hearted now. This is the height of his un-sympathy. But then it dawned on me…

Walt knows the authorities are listening in, and he’s performing. This is probably Heisy’s greatest and most necessary put-on. Read these lines closely:

Walt: You never believed in me. You were never grateful for anything I did for this family. Oh Walt, Walt, you have to stop! You have to stop this! It’s immoral, it’s illegal, someone might get hurt. You’re always whining and complaining about how I make my money, just dragging me down, while I do everything. And now, now you tell my son what I do? After I’ve told you, and told you to keep your damn mouth shut? You stupid bitch! How dare you?

Skyler: I’m sorry.

Walt: You have no right to discuss anything about what I do. What the hell do you know about it, anyway? Nothing! I built this. Me. Me alone. Nobody else!

He implies there’s no blame for Skyler and paints her as a victim, not a partner. It’s the kindest thing he’s done for his wife in years. She understands the nuances of the move. Walt rounds off his last spate of good deeds by confirming Hank’s death and dropping off teary-eyed baby Holly at a fire station. This next part of the journey is his alone to walk. With a decaying cancer-ridden body and a black heart full of misdeeds. A red van to nowhere. A trail of blood.

Two episodes left.

Idle notes:

– I nearly cried at the opening flashback. So bittersweet. A random and portentious moment on that small plot of desert in To’hajiilee, when Walt and Jesse were still two bumbling amateurs in underwear and a do-rag. The rewind makeup wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter. It felt real. The repartee (“You’re an idiot.” “Dick”), Jesse’s karate, Walt’s careful rehearsal of his small-scale lies. The nostalgia really hurt. And nice touch with Walt mentioning that he’d pick up a pizza. Never again will our culture look at pizza and roofs the same way. And this beautiful narrative technique-ing:
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– This episode was directed by Rian Johnson, most well-known for directing Looper and many of Breaking Bad‘s standout episodes. His style is just perfect for this episode, with so many gorgeous landscape sweeps and telling closeups. So many small touches that stagger in their photographic genius and kinetic energy.
tumblr_mt79o9D3MY1s5ky44o1_500Also, nice Looper Easter Egg in the fire department scene, where the volunteer who discovers baby Holly is none other than Kid Blue! I guess he becomes Jeff Daniels sometime after his noble career as a New Mexico lawman.

– The episode was also co-written by Vince “Fuck You” Gilligan and Moira Walley-Beckett, who is responsible for many of the same standout episodes directed by Johnson – including the perennial subtext-drenched classic “The Fly.” This all points to a Walt/Jesse showdown of epic proportions. You know which other episode Walley-Beckett wrote?

– “Problem Dog.” The same one that trots across this episode right before the credits roll. Jesse ain’t down and out just yet.
photoYeah, I took that one with my phone, off the TV. It’s plan B, after raiding the internet for as many same-night pics and GIFs as I can find.

So? Phew! Comment! Let’s be together in this dark time.

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5 thoughts on “Breaking Bad S05E14: “Ozymandias”

  1. An episode? More like a punch to the stomach. More like one of the best episodes of television ever seen. How could I not realize last week’s episode was only a prelude to a prelude!? I was whining about how the particulars of a showdown weren’t adding up when they already had me taken care of completely, waiting just on the other side of the dark tunnel that is Monday-Saturday to wrap me in the warm blanket of impeccable writing and acting and lead me to the open car-door of the emotional roller-coaster. I predicted so much about what happened in this episode, yet it never felt trite, always felt unexpected. Walt driving away in that truck, I may broke some kind of record with my emotional involvement in a television show. But how could I have ever doubted that in the end, as is clearly foreshadowed here, it would all come down to Walt and Jesse. How could I have doubted their genius. Walt’s “family” is finally shattered (poor RJ, he’d been waiting 6 seasons for that moment and the writing totally hamstrung him), leaving nothing but his spirit son, the son of Heisenberg, left to save. Walt will “redeem” himself!? Maybe the final shot WILL be Jesse breathing fresh Alaskan air! Keep the reviews coming!

  2. Pingback: Breaking Bad S05E15: Granite State | pop mitzvah!

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