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
– “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Prior recaps can be found in here.
“Ozymandias” is a poem about the ashes of an empire, washed away by the inexorable, indifferent passage of time. The Heisenpire did not need the march of ages to lay it low, but once ASAC Schrader takes a bullet to the head and the Nazis are digging up Walt’s barrels of cash, we do see the half sunk, shattered visage of its former king lying in the sand, stripped of the sneer of cold command he wore for much of the final season. “That colossal wreck” hardly does justice to the ruin Walt leaves behind as he heads for New Hampshire.
But before we get there, we revisit better (it’s a relative term) days. On their very first cook, Walt tells Jesse that “the reaction has begun.” This reaction, he explains, is exothermic, which means it gives off heat to the surrounding area (see: Collateral Damage section below). And we’ve seen it play out across the streets and skies of Albuquerque until it circles back to Tohajiilee and the one-sided gunfight that closed last week’s episode.
There were a lot of theories going around the last week as to how the various players (except Gomez, nobody even entertained the possibility he might live) could walk away from this. These theories mostly seemed to arise from the sensible observation that shows don’t leave major characters in jeopardy at the end of an episode just to kill them in the opening of the next. That’s just not how TV works. Except this time it did. Gomez is already dead when the vehicles fade in after the credits. Hank is killed after one more excruciating bout of Walt wheedling that he defiantly refuses to participate in. Then, as if it needed underlining just how completely Walt’s best laid schemes have crumbled, he has to watch the Nazis dumping the body of the family he couldn’t protect into the hole from which they just seized his precious money, the only benefit this soul-destroying road has produced for anyone. For some reason that bit gave me a sharper pang than the gunshot. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Well, we certainly have the despair part of the equation covered by the end of Act One.
Even Jesse’s seeming escape is revoked before the sequence ends, in a twist of the knife that feels about half a step removed from the remote control scene in Funny Games. And then Walt sets about revoking the sympathy that offering up his money in a hopeless attempt to bargain for Hank’s life might’ve bought back from me by first exposing Jesse and insisting that the Nazi’s make good on the deal to kill him, then also signing off on Todd torturing him (in exceedingly polite fashion, no doubt) beforehand, then also revealing the truth about Jane’s death purely for spite. The last time that shoe looked like it was going to drop, it was back in “Fly”, Rian Johnson’s (Brick, Looper) first time guest-directing for BB. I doubt that was as much of a factor as basic scheduling concerns in deciding which of these episode he’d do, but a neat bit of symmetry nonetheless.
Jesse ends up not only brutalized physically and mentally, but enslaved to cook meth for the Nazis. Many of us were expecting this, as the machine gun and ricin have to be for something, and not centering the finale around the most developed relationship on the show would be ludicrous. But seeing his shattered face, chained to a dog run, with the chilling photo of Brock and Andrea to keep him in line…that hurt, especially on the heels of the vicious scenes in the desert.
So let’s count the Emmys that got locked up here, shall we? The only reason I don’t think this will be Dean Norris’s submission episode is that he has a handful of other to pick from where he has more than one scene. I’d still hazard a guess that he takes home Supporting Actor at the end of the day, though Paul has 2 more episodes to wrestle it back. This has to be Cranston’s submission as well, as he has multiple powerhouse sequences where he takes us through a wild spectrum of emotions with expert precision. Forget the desert, where he goes from desperation to despair to coldly vengeful to hollowed, and even forget the confrontation where he ends up knife-fighting his family in the living room (and it’s not even Thanksgiving!) before leaving them for good, he would have it sewed up just for the phone call where he channels every idiot who ever liked the Skyler White Is A **** facebook page. A performance that only gradually reveals, through expression and brief, loaded moments where he gathers himself up to press on, that whatever real anger and resentment he is venting, the primary purpose is to reiterate for the eavesdropping authorities that he had threatened Skyler to keep quiet about his criminal empire, and that by the way I built that up all by myself, me and only me, me, me. Breaking Bad has never been a show with heavy meta elements, but this worked entirely in context while also slyly demonstrating that the narrative that Skyler has been nothing but a “stupid bitch” who held Walt back is a false one.
Speaking of Skyler, Anna Gunn also probably won her Emmy last night, between finally coming clean to Walter Jr. (Mitte also did best ever work last night, but remains thoroughly, if understandably, outclassed by the rest of the cast) and fighting off Walt with the knife. The phone call is another instantly-iconic moment, like the ending of “Crawl Space”, where she has almost no lines but is integral to selling the power of the scene with just her shell-shocked expression, one that she has honed to the finest point in the business this deep in the run.
You don’t really walk away from “Ozymandias” thinking “wow, what a great Marie episode” but Betsy Brandt is also fantastic as she whiplashes from relief and triumph to the depths of despair over the course of 3 scenes. But if there’s one star that can compete with Cranston for thoroughly owning this episode, it’s Rian Johnson. I’m sure Mad Men and Game Of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire will wow us with some immaculately-composed episodes throughout the next year, but there is just no way Johnson doesn’t take home the Direction award, particularly given how much the Emmy’s love to recognize movie people for “slumming it” on TV. Johnson’s feature work has shown diminishing returns for me – Brick is an A++ masterwork, followed by the A- Brothers Bloom and solid B for Looper – but he embraces the showy style of BB with gusto, and delivers episodes that have a little more flair than average without breaking completely out of it. This was filled with flourishes like the fade in and out of vehicles at Tohajiilee, or the signature darkly comic music montage, or the speed-ramping when Skyler’s knife makes the blood on Walt’s hands literal. But what kept me so off balance and consistently gasping in shock and horror was how he filmed things that didn’t happen. This is obviously a combination of the scripting and direction, but for simplicity’s sake I’m giving Johnson the credit.
It seems like the guiding principle was to ask “how would we construct this is X was going to happen, even though it’s not?” So for those of us hoping against hope that Hank would live, they pause to give us a full scene of Walt begging and squirming for his life, just as he’s been able to squirm off the hook so many times before when it was him and Jesse on the chopping block. We get several lines throughout the opening establishing that Jesse has slipped the Nazi net, before Walt exposes his hiding spot. And we get that horrifically tense knife-fight, rife with close ups of its tip quivering dangerously in the air before various characters go diving and rolling over it. I was moving so quickly back and forth between expecting Skyler and Walter Jr. to suddenly gasp and reveal it buried in their ribs, that I was still trying to process how it was possible no one had been killed when Walt snatched baby Holly and bolted.
And all of that misdirection with things that I felt like should have happened also served to block me from seeing what I never thought would happen coming. Of all the predictions that have been thrown out over the course of the last season, “Walt kidnaps baby Holly” is one I had never seen anywhere. And I thought that in our 5,000+ post message board thread and 14 episodic reviews we had covered about every possible set of circumstances at some point. Well played, Breaking Bad, you managed to stay a step ahead of us after all this time and all this obsessiveness.
“Ozymandias” plays out like the best of classical tragedy. These rapidly unspooling disasters feel, as discussed last week, both surprising and inevitable. And as horrible as these events are, and as much as they are all Walt’s chickens coming home to roost, what keeps me feeling a shred of sympathy for the man is that I think he is smart enough to recognize that. Not so much that he offers up his barrels of cash to save Hank from the doom he brought down on him, or calls to try to exonerate Skyler from the doom he brought down on her. Those are the very least he can do in those circumstances. But that when he pauses to regard Hank and Gomez’s unmarked grave in the desert, I think he sees the bitter irony that he literally dug it himself to protect his ill-gotten fortune. And that when he desperately tells Jr. and Skyler “I need both of you to trust me,” he understands all the reasons they can’t possibly do that are of his own making. At least at the end, he is beginning to understand why no one ever seemed to believe his earnest contentions that a giant pile of money represented a clean slate, and freedom from the consequences of the things you’ve done in its pursuit. Jesse wasn’t buying what he was selling back in “Problem Dog”. Jack isn’t buying it when he’s standing over the bodies of shot-up DEA agents. Skyler didn’t buy it when he begged her to pack a bag. And when Saul’s Disappearer is driving him away from New Mexico and both his born and criminal identities, it doesn’t look like Walter H. White is buying it anymore.
Oh, and there is still 2 hr+ to go before things actually end for good. It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse than they do in “Ozymandias”, but then the king of kings in the poem didn’t seem to see the drop coming ahead of him either.
Murders – Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale Boetticher, Gustavo Fring, Tyrus, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, two other Fring goons, 14 year-old arachnophile Drew Sharp, Mike Ehrmantraut, Dennis the Laundry Manager, Dan the lawyer, 8 more of Mike’s guys, Steve Gomez, Hank Schrader (Walt didn’t want the Nazis to do it, but it was a foreseeable outcome of his engaging them to commit another capital murder, so he could be charged)
Collateral Damage – One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge. Hank had to kill a guy, even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved to die, giving him fairly severe PTSD. Combo was killed dealing for Walt. Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined. 167 passengers on two planes are dead. Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact (or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt). 3 broken Pontiac Aztek windshields. Jesse’s RV is destroyed. On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman and the Reservation sheriff that investigates. Also they shoot Hank multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy process. Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up. Jesse murders Gale, crushing him with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety. Gus murders Victor to send a message to Walt and Jesse. Three Honduran workers get deported (or maybe worse). Walt purposefully wrecks a car, straining an already-injured Hank’s neck in an unspecified fashion. Ted Beneke breaks his neck fleeing from Heisenpire goons. Brock is poisoned and nearly dies. Tio blows himself up, but no one’s weeping for that vicious old fucker. The staff of an industrial laundry is out of their jobs. Dozens (hundreds?) of criminal prosecutions are compromised when the guys wreck the APD evidence locker. Hank’s boss gets pushed out of his job for his failure to apprehend Fring or Heisenberg. Herr Schuler, Chau and a low rent hitman get offed as Lydia scrambles to cover up Madrigal’s connection to Fring’s drug empire in the wake of his death. Walt manipulates Jesse into breaking up with Andrea. Mike’s lawyer is arrested, depriving his favorite banker of sweets. Hank has that last great pleasure of a middle-aged man, a quiet, leisurely excretion, ruined by one of history’s greatest monsters. Walt’s tutelage of Todd and enabling of Lydia lead to their murder of Declan and a half dozen of his guys. Jesse beats Saul for his role in Brock’s poisoning. Walt’s living room carpet and car upholstery are ruined via soaking in gasoline. Marie is widowed, and Flynn is going to have need about $11 million just for therapy bills. Jesse is brutally beaten by the Nazis and forced into meth cooking slavery for approximately 8 months.
Heisenberg Certainty Principle – “The name is ASAC Schrader. And you can go fuck yourself.” Heisenberg can’t compete in his own category this week.
Best Lie – Walt finally uses his skills at deceit for something relatively, positive, staging a vitriolic call to Skyler to remove as much of the abetting stink from her as possible.
Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 15. Kid is unlikely to have an appetite for some time now.
We Are Done, Professionally – Walt not only gives the go ahead to execute Jesse in the desert, but discloses the truth about Jane out of spite. Bridges=burned, Earth=salted. I still think Walt is returning to free Jesse from captivity, but I don’t think that will buy him forgiveness.
It’s The Little Things – Jesse doing a Star Wars Kid routine in the background of Walt’s call to Skyler. The way that conversation foreshadowed the knives and telephone with which Skyler will attack Walt and take another carefully-scripted call from him by the episode’s end. Or the way she crows about her $9 profit on the crying clown while he is embarking down the road to Hell to secure their financial future. “Jesus, what’s with all the greed? It’s unattractive.” The way everyone without prompting starts calling Walter Jr. “Flynn” once it’s time to tell him the truth. That we never saw the Disappearer as anything but an anonymous minivan.