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.
Recovering from the absolute emotional overload that was tonight’s stupendous episode of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias,” I found myself reading the 1818 sonnet from which the episode takes its name over and over again. Pouring over every perfectly chosen word, losing myself in the haunting, expertly crafted rhythmic beauty of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, I saw things in the sonnet I had never quite sensed before, even though I have looked upon it countless times, including other instances where literary references in pop culture – Watchmen, most notably – compelled me to revisit it.
Breaking Bad forced me to see these things, for its “Ozymandias” is in many ways similar to Shelley’s Ozymandias. Both are, for instance, keenly focused on aesthetic impact, using imagery, rhythm, composition, and pace – in the respectively different styles of poetry and television – to assist in imparting the full weight of their ideas. Both make grand, sweeping statements, yet each does so within a rigid, given format (the parameters of the sonnet, and the 5-act, 48-minute structure of commercial cable television). Thematically, each speak to the nature of empire, and the inevitable erosion of great and powerful figures, while recognizing that speech – particularly speech that grandstands, or self-fulfills – lives on and leaves a mark. Indeed, the centerpiece emotional wallop of both the sonnet and the episode involves the key figure shouting down to his perceived subjects, fiercely and with unwavering force, but with a hint (or much more, in Walter White’s case) of insecurity and fear.
The key thematic difference between Shelley’s Ozymandias and Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” though, is perspective. Where the sonnet is written from a heavily removed point-of-view – that of a traveller, who hears a story, told by a man who did not experience this empire’s fall, but merely saw evidence of it – tonight’s Breaking Bad episode takes place at the heart of the storm, and focuses rather squarely on the emotional journey of the emperor in decline. Reading the sonnet, we can infer certain things about Ozymandias, king of kings – that his power was core to his character, that he held on to it tightly, that he forced others (like the sculptor) to see what he wanted them to see – but we do not know him the way we know Walter White. And while Walter White’s story ultimately delivers a similar message as Ozymandias’, with all his perceived accomplishments giving way to forces beyond his control, the moments that will historically define Walt to those who knew him – selling his surrogate son into Nazi-meth-slavery, brandishing a knife at his spouse, shouting at his son, kidnapping his daughter, and finally, verbally abusing his wife as brutally as possible – carry a different, if similar, weight to the words carved on the King’s decaying statue.
Ozymandias challenged the mighty to look upon his works and despair that none could match his accomplishments. Walter White, conversely, is challenged to look upon his own works, to see the course of his wicked life in totality, and in that moment, he is the one made to despair.
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The moment comes early in “Ozymandias,” as Hank – who we all knew was not long for this world after last week’s episode, and who still received as noble and tragic and fulfilling and emotionally devastating a death as could ever be realized in creative fiction – is shot in the head by Uncle Jack, while Walter protests with every ounce of strength he has left. From Walt’s point of view, those protests should work. He has gotten out of sticky situations before, using little more than his intellect and speech, most notably in many of his dealings with Gustavo Fring. And all last year, as his empire rose and rose, Walter White seemed to have a magical tongue, getting his way whenever he wanted it with only the smallest amounts of effort.
So when that bullet takes out Hank, Walt is broken in more ways than one. On the most immediate level, a family member has died, a line he never, under any circumstances, wanted to cross, even at his most despicable. But Hank’s death bears even greater significance to Walt, as do his brother-in-law’s final words. “You’re the smartest guy I ever met,” Hank says. “And you’re too stupid to see. He made up his mind ten minutes ago.” In this way, Uncle Jack represents everything Walt’s life has lead to, an unstoppable force of violence and villainy that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be talked down, and cannot be overcome. There is no amount of effort Walt could expel that would change things – Hank is dead, and it is utterly Walt’s own fault, because every step of his criminal career led here, to this fateful, horrible moment, and this moment, in turn, represents the actual value and meaning of the life Walt has lead.
“Ozymandias” opens with a flashback to the very beginning of the series, to a scene of calm and confident stability, as Walt gets to cook his meth, banter with Jesse, and call his pregnant wife, knowing he will get to come home to her, his son, and his unborn child, even if he has to lie to get around the inevitable questions. At this point, his plan seemed rational. Cook meth. Make money. Forge a future for his family, and savor the final months he had to spend with them. Things seem so simple in that scene, so removed from the upcoming struggles of empire-building, and yet we watch it with the knowledge that such simplicity is a short-lived fantasy. Even in that moment, Walt’s future – and Hank’s death – is set in stone, because he has already started down this path, and that path is bound to consume him at the expense of all else. We need not even infer it, as the episode tells us as much visually. With the camera stationary, Walt fades away, and then Jesse, and then the RV, until all that remains is the landscape, soon to give way to the carnage of “To’hajiilee,” which fades back in over the very same backdrop. Like the desert in Shelley’s poem, the scenery of the Indian reservation is a constant, against which human actions must inevitably move, evolving away from what Walt once had planned towards the brutality that now tears apart his family.
This is what Walt senses in the moment Hank is shot. The enormity of time, and of all the actions he took in the past 18 months, are thrust upon Walt when Jack’s gun is fired. When Hank is murdered, Walt is forced to look upon his works, and this is what he sees – senseless violence aimed at a man who symbolizes the family he initially set out to work for. And it isn’t the meth, or the money, or even the perverted self-fulfillment empire building brings that is Walt’s ultimate accomplishment. It is Hank, lying dead in the spot where Walt’s criminal activities first began, that summarizes everything Walt has achieved. This is his doing, his work, and when he looks upon it, Walter White despairs.
As his anguish crescendos, the soundtrack dies away, and we are left only with the visual of Bryan Cranston’s incredible performance to illustrate how Walt is transformed by this turn of events. The moment stands in stark contrast to another major moment of transition for Walt, namely the disturbing, eponymous sequence from the season 4 episode “Crawl Space,” in which a seemingly defeated Walt, lying in the dirt beneath his house, laughs maniacally for what feels like minutes on end. That sequence contains a haunting visual, with Walt framed like a man being buried alive, but it is the sound that compels us, the sound of unhinged laughter that indicates Walter White is gone, with the ruthless evil of Heisenberg having taken his place. The comparable scene in “Ozymandias” has no sound – it is all about Walt’s face, contorted in grief, forced to feel the weight of everything he has done. None of this is explicitly stated, but that is the brilliance of Cranston’s performance and Rian Johnson’s direction. We do not need to know precisely what is going through Walt’s mind. As in a poem, we may infer from the artistry of the storytelling that Walt has been completely broken down, that the death of a family member and his own powerlessness to stop it has finally made him understand the true, horrific nature of his many criminal activities. I even believe he senses the profound amounts of evil he has carried inside him all this time; now that he sees with his own two eyes what they have wrought, that evil tears him apart.
Walt’s despair is so overwhelming, in fact, that the only way he can cope is to immediately begin projecting that grief, confusion, and rage off towards other people. Otherwise, it will continue to be directed inward, and he will continue to be torn apart.
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His first target is Jesse. Deep down, I think Walt probably knows that it is his actions, not Jesse’s, that have led them to this awful place, but that is a truth Walt cannot currently process. So he blames Jesse for all of this, for driving him and Hank to this awful point of no return, and tells Jack to kill the young man he once regarded – up until very, very recently, in fact – as a surrogate son. He gives away Jesse’s position, watches as Jack puts a gun to his protégée’s head, and does not even protest when Todd requests to first torture Jesse for information. And even that is not enough. Walt needs to stick the knife in further, needs to make Jesse feel as much pain as he currently feels, because that is what we do when we project – we lash out until others are brought into the same orbit of suffering we feel we inhabit. For Walt, that means filling Jesse with the emotions associated with losing a loved one, and so he reveals, in the cruelest terms possible, the true terms of Jane’s untimely death.
“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.”
I have written many times this season of moments Breaking Bad viewers have been waiting years to see, moments that come with enormous expectations and yet are somehow realized in ways that land with tremendous impact. The past five episodes have been full of moments like these, but Walt revealing the circumstances of Jane’s death tops them all. It is a piece of the narrative we all knew would have to come out before the end, and yet I still did not expect Walt himself to be the one to reveal it, to look Jesse in the eye and recount the crime not as a confession, but as a vicious verbal attack. It is both narratively satisfying and emotionally heart-wrenching – focusing on Aaron Paul’s eyes in that scene will inevitably bring the viewer to the brink of tears – and while I expected that revelation, whenever it came out, to be a big moment for Jesse, it ultimately says more about Walt and his current mental state. Again, this is all about projection – Walt does not hate Jesse so much as he hates himself (as late as last week’s episode, he wanted Jesse to have a quick, quiet, and painless death), and the volume of that hatred is such that when he turns it outward, it stings more sharply than we could anticipate.
But Walt’s most terrifyingly harsh verbal assault is still yet to come, as the encounter with his immediate family back at the White house pushes him even further into despair. The man we see in that scene is neither Walter White nor Heisenberg, but some confused, grotesque combination of the two, flitting back and forth between loving and domineering personalities as he tries to get his family to come with him. The dormant humanity shaken forth by Hank’s death desperately wants his family to join him, to love him, to trust him, to see him as better than he currently sees himself, while the evil, criminal side of his mind simply wishes for them to follow his orders blindly. He shouts at Walter Jr. and grapples violently with Skyler, and Cranston plays those moments so precisely that what are on the surface brutal, inhumane actions are made to look vulnerable, scared, and sincerely distressed. Whatever Walter White is in this moment, he is still human, and it is those traces of genuine emotional craving that make his actions so terrifying to watch.
Walt does not, of course, get his family back, nor will he ever, as is made clear as plainly as possible when Skyler attempts to fight him off with a knife, or Walter Jr. calls the police, both seeing this man only as a criminal. And that, to Walt, may be even more damning than Hank’s death. He is so desperate to gain their approval in that scene, I believe, because he wants to be reassured that there is more left inside than the villain he sensed at the moment of Hank’s murder. Walt saw himself for what he truly is out in the desert, but if his family can still feel love for him, then perhaps he can move forward. When it is made clear that they see what he sees, and cannot give the love he requires to be reassured, he lashes even more callously than before.
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First, he takes baby Holly, partially as a means to emotionally devastate Skyler (in much the same way he feels she has emotionally devastated him), but also in the hopes that with this baby he can have a fresh start. Holly has to love him, he thinks, because she is young, and innocent, and blank – perhaps in her eyes, he can forge a new image for himself. But all Holly can say, as he tries to engage with her after changing her diaper, is “Mama,” over and over again, an unambiguous reminder of how Walt’s criminal choices made him utterly absent in his precious child’s life.
There is no future for him there, either. So Walt decides to return Holly, but only after chewing out Skyler over the phone in what must surely stand as one of the single most difficult, piercing Breaking Bad scenes of all time. The writing throughout the sequence is expertly vicious – “This is what comes of your disrespect”; “You were never grateful for anything I did for this family”; “You mark my words, Skyler. Tow the line, or you will wind up just like Hank” – as is Bryan Cranston’s unbelievably layered, nuanced performance, but what I find most fascinating and painful about it all is how utterly lost Walt seems throughout it. This may not be a character I have felt sympathetic towards in many seasons, but the man we see on that phone call is even more unrecognizable from the protagonist of the pilot than the figure who stood idly by and watched Jane perish, or poisoned a child to gain Jesse’s support, or got in league with neo-Nazis to order the murders of ten men in two minutes. Walt has done many evil, despicable, irredeemable things over the course of Breaking Bad, but no matter our opinion of him, he never viewed himself as the bad guy. On the phone with Skyler, though, he embraces his role as villain, and pushes his wickedness as far as it will go, because the evil in his heart is all he has left. He spent the majority of “Ozymandias” running from the horror he saw in himself after witnessing Hank’s death, but by the time of that climactic conversation, he cannot run any farther. This is who he is. This is what he has become. And so he embraces it, and enhances it, and spews every ounce of vitriol at the woman who was once the love his life, crying as he does it because he so despises what he has become. (*)
And in a strange, conflicted, extremely complex way, I found myself caring more for Walter White in that moment than I have since the show’s first or second seasons. Evil, and the knowledge that one has committed it, must be an inconceivably heavy, unendurably lonely weight to carry. I want to hate Walter White. I still want him to get his comeuppance, and I certainly never wish to see anybody else hurt by his actions. But for that most fleeting of moments, as Walter cried and screamed and hurled insults as Skyler(**), I felt genuinely, sincerely sorry for this broken shell of a man. He could have been so much more than this. He was so much more than this, once upon a time, even if he was only a bored but loving father and husband.
(*) UPDATE: As several commenters have pointed out, Walt is also seemingly trying to make the police believe Skyler is innocent in all of this during that scene. I honestly wasn’t thinking that way when I watched the episode, and I still believe there are elements of genuine malice in the sheer amount of vitriol he spews at Skyler during that monologue – placating the police could probably be done in about a third as much time – but this does seem to be the pervading reading of the scene online, so I do want to acknowledge it here. For the record, you folks are probably correct, now that I think about it some more. But I still think a lot of what I wrote above applies, even if Walt is playing the part to do his wife a small mercy.
(**) Who, for the record, I feel much, much worse for under these circumstances than I do Walt. I just want to make sure we are clear than that. Skyler is the infinitely more sympathetic figure here.
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“Ozymandias” is a terrific episode for countless reasons, but that it made me feel such sympathy for Walter White again, so near the end of the series and at the apex of his cruelty, absolutely puts this hour in the running for the title of ‘greatest Breaking Bad ever.’ Previously, I thought that title belonged to the season 3 episode “One Minute,” and while we have had many great hours since then – most notably “Full Measures,” “Fly,” “Face Off,” and last week’s “To’hajiilee,” just to name a few – I was fairly set in believing “One Minute” would never be topped. It had the perfect blend of imagery, suspense, performance, and character work, a blend that defines, to me, what Breaking Bad is at its very best.
“Ozymandias” is equally representative of this series’ legacy, though, and possibly more so, a gorgeous, terrifying, and endlessly painful hour that further solidifies Breaking Bad’s place in the television pantheon. I have had problems with Breaking Bad over the years, and often felt less strongly about it that many other critics, but this final season has, to me, elevated the overall legacy of the series, and “Ozymandias” even more so than its predecessors. This episode – and, by extension, the series leading up to it – stands as one of the great television explorations into the cost evil inflicts on the human heart, and for that, I cannot help but be amazed. I look upon this show’s works, and I do not despair – instead, I am inspired, utterly and completely, by the power of artistry on display.
- One of the key reasons “Ozymandias” stands in contention for the title of ‘best Breaking Bad episode’ is the direction by Rian Johnson, an excellent feature filmmaker (of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper fame) who previously helmed the “Fly” and “Fifty-One,” each marked by gorgeous imagery and deep introspection. “Ozymandias” is on a different level, though, because the aesthetic strengths of the episode go beyond Johnson’s prior work on this series, or even Breaking Bad at its previous visual best (usually provided by Michelle MacLaren). Looking over my many pages of notes on the episode, probably half of them are concerned with describing the power of various images, not just in how Johnson captures and employs landscape, but in the ways he frames shots to produce multiple layers of conscious and subconscious meaning. To list but a few: The opening shot of a flask reaching boiling point, the emotional state we were left in at the end of last week’s episode. The aforementioned fade in and out on the still landscape at the Indian reservation. The dynamic use of color in Hank’s final moments, with evil Jack haloed by an impossibly blue sky and complemented by the fierce oranges and greens of the surrounding environment. The time lapse of clouds going by the rocky cliffs. The painterly shot of Walt rolling his barrel of money through the desert, with the ridge cutting through the horizon at a slight angle in the back, and weeds punctuating the scenery in chaotic patterns. The Nazi meth lab as horror movie set, dark and dank and terrifyingly hopeless. The kitchen knives framed in the forefront, with Walt and Jr. arguing in the background and Skyler slowly, inevitably moving in. Walt in the car with baby Holly, calmly driving backwards and pushing Skyler’s vehicle out into the street. Walt driving off to change his identity, into the sunset as if this is the end of a Western – but not one with a remotely heroic arc. The list goes on and on and on, and I think “Ozymandias” very well might be the most visually powerful hour in the show’s history, one that goes beyond gorgeous to become outright aesthetically provocative.
- Johnson, like MacLaren last week, also took the time to let this episode breathe, giving us multiple moments of pause – like Walt in the car in the desert after Jack and company departed – to allow the emotions to sink in. On the flipside, he created tension and suspense just as effectively, with Walt and Skyler’s kitchen knife standoff – during which I felt positive Jr., Holly, Skyler, or a combination of the three would be mortally wounded – standing as one of the all-time tensest Breaking Bad sequences.
- RIP Hank. It was more than obvious his death was on the horizon after last week’s heavy foreshadowing, but dammit if that moment did not land, especially given what great dialogue Dean Norris had to recite. Breaking Bad generally employs one F-word a season, and I love that this year, they gave it to Hank for the hopefully soon-to-be-iconic one-liner “My name is ASAC Schrader. And you can go fuck yourself.” Dean Norris did great work throughout this series, transforming Hank from an off-putting, one-note jock to one of the show’s most compelling figures, and he will certainly be missed. He would be my pick to win next year’s Best Supporting Actor Emmy (assuming the award goes to a Breaking Bad performer), even over Aaron Paul.
- That being said, Paul has been tremendous this season as well, and everything that happens to Jesse in this episode is just endlessly disturbing. One has to wonder if creator Vince Gilligan gets some sort of fetishistic pleasure out of tormenting this character. No matter what, Jesse has definitely reached his lowest point, enduring extreme physical torture at the hands of sociopathic Todd, and being forced to cook meth while leashed like a dog, with Andrea’s picture posted on the wall as a means of incentive. Pretty horrific stuff. I think it is safe to assume, at this point, that the finale will involve Jesse getting retribution on Mr. White in one way or another (and then, in all likelihood, turning the gun on himself, because Jesse is about as thoroughly broken by now as a human being can be).
- Michael Bowen has been doing fantastic work as Uncle Jack all season, but I have not taken time to mention him yet. His performance here was better than ever, deliciously and disgustingly evil, and I feel a little perplexed as to why he has been listed as a guest star this season when Laura Fraser and Jesse Plemons, both of whom have had much less screentime than Uncle Jack in these last six episodes, were promoted to series regulars.
- It is always worth noting that when called upon to do so, RJ Mitte can really deliver. These had to be his most challenging scenes on the series to date, with Walter Jr. finally seeing his father’s true face, and Mitte absolutely lived up to what those sequences called for.
- So now we have pretty much come full circle to the flash-forwards. Walt has fled the state to change his identity, his criminal activities will soon be revealed to the world, and with the Nazis holding the majority of his money, there is still unfinished business left in Albequerque. The only question is whether or not we pick up in the future next week, or if there is still story left to tell in the present.
- Tonight’s episode was the final installment written by Moira Walley-Beckett, one of the show’s most prolific writers. She joined the series in Season 2, first penning the episode “Breakage,” and going on to write or co-write many very good hours like “Más,” “Fly,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Gliding Over All.” “Ozymandias” is clearly her best work to date, and a great send off for an important Breaking Bad figure.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous