Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 14, “Ozymandias”

Many points of no return are finally reached in this week’s amazing episode: Walt finally tells Jesse he watched Jane die; Skyler finally listens to her conscience and breaks with Walt; Walt Jr. finally finds out the truth about his dad; Walt finally gets found out by the greater law enforcement community, and he also finally has stripped away from him the last vestiges of the illusion that he can survive the consequences of his actions with his family intact. These were plot points I hoped and suspected that Breaking Bad would hit eventually, but despite the show’s excellent track record, I was still unprepared for how stellar (and devastatingly) they would be handled. This episode is unequivocally the best of the season so far, and perhaps the very best of the entire series.

Let’s start with the last of those points of no return first: Jack murders Hank, right in front of Walt, and there’s nothing Walt can do to stop it. Not that Walt doesn’t try; he knows that if Hank is murdered, Walt’s family falls apart, right along with the illusion of normalcy he’s carefully cultivated and maintained, so he tries everything he can think of to manipulate Jack and Hank into doing what he wants. He even offers up his previously-sacred $80 million dollars, but it’s utterly futile. Jack would never let Hank live, especially not after killing poor Gomez, and Hank would never just let all of this go. Walt’s pleas to Hank have about as much chance of success as Walt agreeing to take the charity of his former business partners at Gray Matter.

It might seem incredulous that Walt could be so blind as to the uselessness of his efforts here (before he dies, even Hank is shocked at how someone as smart as Walt could be so stupid about the uselessness of negotiating with either him or Jack), but Walt’s blindness here is in character with his other dispositions and previous behavior. After all, Walt’s become so good at manipulating so many people for so long -- and he’s found so many ways out of other impossible scenarios -- that it makes sense that he thinks he could find a way out of this one too. Moreover, Walt’s skill at manipulation has also allowed him to largely ignore how his love for his family conflicts with the immorality of his meth business. He’s always been able to come up with rationalizations and justifications for his behavior that at least make sense to him, even if they’re a tough sell for others (one might even say he’s his own greatest living victim, so thoroughly has he convinced himself of the rightness of his actions). But Hank’s murder fractures the illusory division he’s created between his family and his business. It's not something that Walt can rationalize as a necessary evil, and a part of "family man Walt" dies along with Hank (the rest of this persona will die in stages later in the episode).

Walt’s illusions might be fractured, but his blindness remains intact, both in the immediate aftermath of Hank’s death, and throughout the rest of the episode, as Walt doesn’t blame himself for Hank’s fate. No, instead he does what he always does, and shifts the blame onto others who refused to cooperate with him. In this case, Jesse is the primary culprit, and Walt demands that Jack honor their previous contract for Jesse’s life when Walt spots Jesse hiding under Walt’s Chrysler. This leads to another point of no return: Walt tells Jesse about how he watched Jane die and did nothing to save her. His revelation is motivated by a cruel arithmetic: he wants to hurt Jesse in the exact same way that he believes Jesse has just hurt him. In Walt’s eyes, Jesse is responsible for Hank’s death, thus the only way Walt can get even with Jesse is to disclose that he, too, is responsible for the death of someone Jesse loved (never mind that he’s also consigned Jesse to torture and death at the hands of the Neo-Nazis). It won’t relieve Walt’s pain, but it will make Jesse feel the pain Walt now feels as well. It’s petty, cruel, and vindictive, and has the desired effect on Jesse. Both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are terrific in this exchange.

Hank’s final phone call to Marie at the end of last week’s episode sets the wheels in motion for two other points of no return: Walt Jr. finding out the truth, and Skyler finally breaking with Walt. When he finds out, poor Walt Jr. reacts much like any teenager who adores his dad; he is equal turns apoplectic, incredulous, and deeply hurt, lashing out at Skyler and Marie for destroying his idea of the kind of man his father is. The most important aspect of Walt Jr.’s reaction, however, is the blame he assigns Skyler. He asks her why she didn’t say anything if she knew the truth, and then later in the car ride home, he tells her that if everything she says is true, and she knew about it, she’s as bad as Walt.

This blame is crucial because it begins to realign Skyler’s moral compass. Ever since Skyler made peace with Walt, her allegiance to him has only been slightly greater than her own self-loathing, so it comes as no surprise that news of Walt’s arrest and Walt Jr.’s painful truths begin to awaken her dormant conscience. However, the final push comes when Skyler and Walt Jr. return home to find Walt in the house, frantically telling them to pack their things. Skyler realizes that Walt cannot be at their home unless something has happened to Hank, and Walt’s franticness further ignites her suspicions. She stands her ground and demands that Walt tell her what happened to Hank, and when Walt tires to dodge the question, she comes to the worst possible conclusion, accusing Walt of killing Hank. This is her point of no return. She’s now lost whatever little allegiance she still had to Walt because she thinks Walt has started to destroy the one thing he had been using to rationalize his behavior: their family.

Subsequently, the White family shatters before our eyes, and along with it, whatever remaining illusions Walt still maintains about who he is and why he does what he does. Skyler grabs a knife, tells Walt to get out, and when he doesn’t listen, she slashes at him, cutting his hand. After the ensuing struggle with her and Walt Jr., Walt gets up and shouts at them, “What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family!” A shot from Walt’s point of view shows Walt Jr. and Skyler huddling together, staring up at Walt in terror, and when Walt Jr. calls the police, Walt realizes he's lost them, along with the part of himself he thought he would be able to protect. He flees, and takes baby Holly with him, as she is the last member of the White
household who isn’t completely lost to him. The last action in the scene nicely parallels Walt’s reaction to Hank’s death: Skyler falls to her knees in the street after Walt flees with Holly, and the sound drops out as she screams and cries, much like it did when Walt moaned over Hank’s death. It’s easily the most devastating scene of an episode comprised almost entirely of nothing but devastating scenes.

As powerful as that scene is, nowhere is the dissolution of the White family and the destruction of Walt’s self-conception clearer than in the brutal phone call between Walt and Skyler near the end of the episode. Walt reverts to the same patterns of behavior as before, blaming Skyler rather than himself for everything that’s gone wrong. He tries to be as aggressive and intimidating with Skyler as he has in any of his best Heisenberg performances, but he is bitter and wounded, rather than cool and commanding; his performance is tainted by the pain, outrage and shock at unexpectedly having to play the role with Skyler. He mocks her morality, and lies to her about what happened with Hank and how he feels about it, and even threatens her with Hank’s fate, even though to do so is immensely painful for him. It’s a hasty attempt to erect walls between them, and to protect himself from becoming the focus of his own fury and sense of loss. It seems to have the desired effect on Skyler, who can scarcely recognize the terrifying creature on the other end of the phone, but it does not seem to be
entirely effective at shielding Walt from self-blame, as he practically chokes on his own words, and tears stream down his cheeks as his glasses fog up in the cold night air. Walt behaves this way because Heisenberg is all he has left; he’s lost his family, so he no longer has any other means of meaningful communication with the world. He has no other recourse but to try as hard as he can to believe in this version of himself. It’s a brutal and emotional highpoint in a fantastic episode, and a point from which there is no more illusion of normalcy to retreat to.

UPDATE: Alan Sepinwall has a very different take on this final phone conversation with Skyler, one that makes Walt self-aware about his performing the monster: he does it as a way of protecting Skyler from the fallout of his being caught. It's a compelling take on the scene, one that makes me reconsider my thoughts on it, although I also think there is some truth to his anger with Skyler, and that he believes things would have been fine if she had only trusted him.

I would be remiss if I did not also discuss the excellent flashback that begins the episode. The flashback is from a moment in the show’s pilot, one showing Walt and Jesse cooking meth in the “crystal ship” during simpler times, back when Walt was still a doddering teacher and browbeaten family man, and Jesse a carefree punk.* It nicely ties together the beginning and ending of Walt’s meth cooking career through its taking place in the same location as the showdown that concluded last week’s episode (as Jesse himself pointed out). It also makes rather explicit Vince Gilligan’s mission statement for the show – taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface – by showing just how far Walt’s character has mutated from the start of the series.

* You can tell that the flashback scene takes place during the pilot because the side door of the RV is not yet full of the bullet holes that Emilio and Krazy-8 will soon create when Walt poisons them and locks them inside.

The flashback scene doesn’t just illustrate how much Walt has changed, but also does the same for Jesse and Skyler. Jesse behaves as though Walt’s nearly naked body is the worst thing he has ever seen, and goofs off in the background as Walt talks on the phone with Skyler. Jesse’s behavior works as a piece of comedy (I couldn’t get enough of Jesse playing in the background), but it also works to create a contrast between then and now. He was such a child at the start of the series. He probably would not have been able to even conceive of the horrors he faces in this episode: physical torture, and then being forced to cook with Todd under the threat of harm to Andrea and Brock. As for Skyler, it’s been so long since we’ve seen a carefree Skyler that it is almost hard to recognize her as the same character in the flashback. The effect was even more pronounced with her than it is for Walt or Jesse. Walt has maintained the Mr. Chips pretense with various characters (like Walt Jr.) for nearly the entire run of the show, so we’re still familiar the version of him that we see in the flashback, and Jesse has always had a sarcastic frankness about him, even in his darkest moments, but Skyler’s discoveries about Walt, along with her own moral comprising, has so darkened her own self-conception that it has all but eradicated nearly every part of who she thought she used to be.

One last excellent thing about the flashback: the shot of Skyler answering the phone during the flashback (top right) is framed almost identically to the shot later in the episode where she draws a knife from the wood block before threatening Walt (middle right). The latter shot is framed so that the knives and the phone are equally prominent, suggesting that Skyler’s options are to call the police or attack Walt with a knife. I wondered aloud which she was going to choose, but had I remembered the shot from early in the episode, it would have been obvious that she was choosing the knife this time around, since she already picked up the phone the last time we saw this shot. We see this same shot a third time near the episode’s end (bottom right), as Walt calls Skyler one last time, seething threats and bile. Here, the identical framing serves as yet another way of subtly contrasting who Walt was at the beginning of the series with who he has become at the end: the conversations he has with Skyler during each of these phone calls couldn't be more diametrically opposed. Mr. Chips has indeed finally become Scarface (even if the phone call is motivated by his need to fool the police about Skyler's involvement). 

Other thoughts:

- I enjoyed Walt practicing the lie he’ll tell Skyler before he calls her; it’s a habit he has displayed throughout the show’s run.

- It’s nice to finally have a dollar amount to assign to Walt’s giant pile (or seven barrels) of money.

- Bryan Cranston is fantastic throughout the entire episode: his reaction to Hank’s death, his pleading with Walt Jr. and Skyler to listen to him, and then his phone call to Skyler near the end of the episode were all masterful and complex, especially his reaction when Skyler accuses Walt of murdering Hank: Walt’s voice cracks as he cries out that he tried to save Hank. It’s possibly Cranston’s best moment in an episode filled with great work.

- Todd’s respect for Walt shines through as he gives Walt his condolences about Hank. It would read as disingenuous coming from any less of a sociopath.

- Todd likely saves Jesse’s life less because he’s concerned about whatever evidence Jesse might have left behind, and more because he wants Jesse’s expertise and assistance in cooking. The disjunction between Todd’s mild-mannered demeanor and his scrupulousness has always been disturbing, but it becomes truly chilling in this episode’s most prominent Jesse scene. After Jesse’s been beaten to submission by the Neo-Nazis, Todd gently coaxes him out of his cage, leads him to the meth lab, chains him to a track in the ceiling, and lets him discover on his own the quiet threat represented by the photo of Andrea and Brock. As Jesse shakes in horror, Todd casually says, “Let’s cook,” as though he’s suggesting they play a pickup game of basketball. The disquieting music that plays throughout this scene enhances how chilling the whole exchange is. Welcome to hell, Jesse.

- Even amidst all of the tragedy, the episode still finds a place for a whimsical interlude (complete with jaunty music), as Walt rolls his last remaining barrel of cash through the Native American reservation after his car runs out of gas.

- It’s somewhat odd that Walt didn’t think up a story to tell Skyler when he was pushing his barrel of cash through the desert, but then again, he was probably too emotionally scrambled from Hank’s murder.

- The moment Where Skyler slashes Walt with the knife is given a bit of stylistic flourish akin to that which accompanies Walt’s reaction to Hank’s murder at the start of the episode: the sound drops out (although in the former case it's replaced with a whooshing sound).

- Nice shorthand: we only need to see a shot of Walt sitting alongside the same road as Jesse did a few episodes ago to know that Walt’s taking the Saul Goodman way out of town.

- It’s becoming increasingly clear that the machine gun is likely meant for the Neo-Nazis, but the motivation remains murky: it could be to get his money back, but it could also be to free Jesse (perhaps Walt has a change of heart), or for some other reason. The show is doing an excellent job of parceling out just enough information to still keep the end game mysterious and enticing.


  1. I'm inclined to see Sepinwall's take on that threatening phone call, especially because it was loaded with textbook domestic battery language, that any police officer would recognize and form a story about. (and Walt had to have doubted Skyler's lie that she was alone) I could see it as Walt's attempt to protect Skyler and the kids, by emphasizing, "I did it all alone. You know nothing about." And I wonder if, beneath the devastation Skyler feels, there's a feeling of relief somewhere, that he sort of just got her of the hook in the eyes of the law.

    Also, if Baby Holly has been abandoned at the fire station, I guess that means Skyler will get her back soon? I hope? Oh poor Skyler.

    Also, when did Walt Jr. start going by Flynn again?

  2. Yes, I think Sepinwall is right about it. As for Holly, there's a note pinned to her outfit that has the White address on it.