In the weeks leading up to the final eight-episode run of Breaking Bad, AMC promoted the show with a commercial featuring Bryan Cranston reading Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" over shots of the New Mexico desert. Now that the long-awaited episode with the title "Ozymandias" has finally aired, take a moment to watch that video again:
We can't say we weren't warned. But how much more devastating was it to watch the whole thing unfold? "Ozymandias" is a shattering hour of television; a tight, focused, relentlessly grim episode that invites us to witness the ultimate downfall of Walter White, and the numerous collateral victims who go down along with him.
How cruel Breaking Bad has become. In previous years, when major characters like Gus Fring or Mike Ehrmantraut have been killed off, the show has treated their deaths as the climactic cappers to a season. Here, the deaths of Steve Gomez and Hank are just a brief appetizer leading into the gantlet of horrors Breaking Bad unrolls over the course of "Ozymandias." Hank has to die — of course he has to die — but we, like Walter, are accustomed to his unnatural ability to mastermind his way out of any situation.
Walt bargains because it's all he knows how to do, and because it's worked before. But Hank is smart enough to recognize a losing hand. "You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made his mind up 10 minutes ago," says Hank. "Do what you're gonna-" — and then he's dead, without even the small dignity of finishing his final sentence. Hank and Gomez don't even get their own graves; instead, they end up in the far more convenient hole Walt dug for his $80 million, in yet another unsettling example of the blood-for-money trade that Walt first made when he decided to build his empire.
With last week's unfinished business settled, "Ozymandias" turns to a series of heart-stopping revelations that have been brewing under the surface of Breaking Bad for years (and in some cases since the first episode of the series). Jesse learns that Walt allowed Jane to die. Skyler learns that Hank arrested Walt. Walter Jr. learns that his father was a drug dealer. Marie learns that Hank is dead, and that she'll probably never even get to bury his body.
It probably goes without saying that this is all enormously difficult to watch unfold — and taken alone, the sheer shock of seeing so many long-buried truths come to light would probably have been enough to put "Ozymandias" in the pantheon of all-time great Breaking Bad episodes. But the most riveting thing about "Ozymandias" is the way director Rian Johnson focuses not on the characters who are finally making these confessions, but on the characters who are finally hearing them. Watch the way Jesse's face crumples when Walt says, "I watched her overdose and choke to death," or how Skyler's eyes flit around the room like a cornered animal when Marie finally confronts her in the office.
I'm in the camp of Breaking Bad viewers who have lost all empathy for Walter White, and I thought, on some level, that it would be a little satisfying when he finally lost everything. But there's no catharsis in "Ozymandias" because his exposure has such immediate and heartrending consequences for everyone who has become ensnared in his web. Just two episodes ago, Walt was willing to risk capture to make things right with Jesse. Now, he's the one who personally ensures Jesse's downfall, and twists the knife a few more times just to be sure.
(And while we're on the subject: Has Todd, creepy little sociopath that he is, been waiting for the opportunity to get revenge on Jesse since their fight in the wake of the train job? "I could do it. Me and him, we got history," says Todd, who has single-handedly managed to reduce Jesse to bloodied, desperate pleading the next time we see him.)
But the centerpiece of the episode is the shockingly visceral fight between the White family as Walt tries, pathetically, to convince them to leave with him. "I need both of you to trust me right now," he insists. "Please just work with me right now and I promise I will explain everything later."
We've seen Walt this frantic once before. In season four's penultimate "Crawl Space," his solution to certain danger was exactly the same: Paying an exorbitant amount of money to run away from it with the same kind of "fresh start" he unsuccessfully promised Jesse. But now that Walt has the money, it's far too late to use it. If Walter Jr. didn't believe his father was a sociopathic drug dealer after talking with Skyler and Marie, he believes it after watching Walt and Skyler grapple over a butcher's knife. But Walt's last-ditch escape with Holly — the one member of his family who seems powerless to reject him — is short-lived; he's been on the road for just a few hours before she starts crying for her mother.
The purpose of Walt's final phone call to Skyler is the opposite of what it sounds like. His angry attacks on her are clearly designed to minimize her role in his crimes, and will probably help in her future dealings with law enforcement. I suspect that many will regard Walt's phone call, and his decision to give up Holly, as a small moment of redemption — a selfless act to atone for his crimes and ensure that his family can go on without him.
But I'm not willing to go that far. Even giving Walt's rant the most generous possible reading, it's striking that he felt the need — one last time — to convince Skyler that all of his actions have been for the good of his family. Yes, the phone call will probably help to keep Skyler safe. But isn't that just another way to reassert his control? To prove to Skyler — and more importantly, to himself — that he really is the only one capable of protecting the family?
"Ozymandias" ends with Walt's desperate escape to a new name and a new life — but to a degree, he's still the one in control. It's his fault that Jesse has been consigned to indefinite servitude in Todd's meth lab — because he ensured Jesse's capture, and because he made Jesse his meth protégé in the first place. Marie and Skyler have both, for all intents and purposes, been widowed because of Walt. Holly and Walter Jr. (or Flynn, as he'll undoubtedly insist on being called) will have to live the rest of their lives under the shadow of their father's crimes. And Walt still thinks he deserves to ride off with his remaining $11 million into the sunset. Clever allusions aside, Walter White is actually the anti-Ozymandias; he may be gone, but the impact of his crimes continues to spread — and with just two episodes left, it won't be long before we know his true legacy.
Read more Breaking Bad recaps:
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Here comes the Pentagon's newest space plane
- Extreme haunted houses: Inside Halloween's most terrifying new trend
- Let us now praise Billy Joel
- 10 things you need to know today: October 25, 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How 1,000-year lifespans could remake the economy
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- Everything you need to know about the voter ID controversy
- How foreign aid screwed up Liberia's ability to fight Ebola
Subscribe to the Week