Back in mid-September, “Breaking Bad” gave us its best episode ever in “Ozymandias, on the exact same day I wound up in the hospital with a burst appendix and a bad infection. I watched, and wrote about, “Ozymandias” only hours after surgery, while very high on painkillers, and though my review was not full gibberish, it was gibberish enough that it's nagged at me ever since.
So the following is an attempt to get right what once went wrong, possibly “Quantum Leap”-style, by writing the review I wish I could have written back on September 15. I can't promise it won't be colored by things that happened in the ensuing “Granite State” or “Felina,” so if you happen to be coming to this review years from now as a person lucky enough to be watching “Breaking Bad” for the first time, you may want to read the semi-coherent original review and return to this later.
A whole lot of thoughts on “Ozymandias” coming up just as soon as I remind you to put on your seat belt…
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?! WE'RE A FAMILY!!!… We're a family.” -Walter White
About seven seconds pass between the time Walter White screams the words “we're a family” and the time he whispers them, and they are an eternity. They are everything. Those seven seconds are what “Breaking Bad” has been building to for the previous 59 hours. They are every illusion Walter White has ever had about himself being shattered. They are the terrified faces of his wife and son as they huddle together on the floor, trying to wish him into the cornfield. They are all the bogus self-rationalizations he has told himself and others being dipped in acid until they are no longer identifiable by forensic science. They are Walter White finally, after so much time and so much sin, coming to terms with everything he has lost.
“Ozymandias” is the greatest hour “Breaking Bad” has ever given its audience. It is also the most terrible. It is unmerciful in what it does to Walt, what it does to Hank and Skyler and Flynn and Marie, and what it does to us.
It's staggering how many horrible things happen in this hour, presented to us by writer Moira Walley-Beckett, director Rian Johnson and company. We return to the shootout in the desert with Gomez already dead, and Hank soon follows him. Jack and the Nazis get their hands on nearly all of Walt's fortune. Walt tells Jesse about Jane, then leaves him in the hands of Todd, who tortures Jesse and forces him to cook meth. Walt steals baby Holly, leaving a wrecked Skyler kneeling in the street. It's the nightmare scenario for everyone we care about even a little (though an awfully good day at the office for the Nazis). Individually, any of these events would be enough to make for one of the darkest “Breaking Bads” ever; all together, we're hurled into a bottomless pit, left feeling somewhere in between the catatonic look on Walt's face after Jack shoots Hank and the hysterical one on Skyler's when Walt drives off with their daughter.
In an episode full of metaphorical stabs to the gut (and one literal slash of Walt's hand), none resonated more with me that night, or in the months after it (nor will, I suspect, in the future) than those seven seconds at the end of Walt and Skyler's fight. It's not just that the brawl itself is so ugly, with Holly's cries echoing from just off-camera, while Flynn watches paralyzed with shock. Walter White has been in the middle of ugly fights before, after all. It's that it's the air being let out of the final balloon Walt floated for himself and others as he tried to justify the path he was going down. Every part of it has been a lie, and bit by bit he's been forced to reckon with that.
He told himself that he could make money cooking meth without hurting anyone, but that one was abandoned almost instantly. He told himself he would only do it until he had enough money to pay for his treatment, but he got better and kept cooking. He thought he could talk Skyler into continuing the marriage, but she called the cops on him(*), walked into the swimming pool to get the kids away from him and told him that she was just waiting for him to die. He thought he could do this without ever running afoul of or endangering Hank, and instead Hank and Steve Gomez are lying in the hole where Walt had previously hidden his fortune. He thought he could keep his hands clean of Jesse's murder – which, really, is the cause of so much of what happens here, since if he hadn't needed to outsource this particular murder, Hank would still be alive and Walt would be behind bars – and thought he could talk his way out of any situation, up to and including convincing a stone killer like Uncle Jack to let Hank live.
(*) The brilliance of that lingering shot of the phone resting next to the kitchen knives comes from our knowledge that Skyler has called the authorities (or family) for help with Walt in the past; we know just as well as she does that it doesn't work. Walter White can not be reasoned with at this point, and if he really has killed Hank – as she assumes after some D'Angelo Barksdale-style interrogation about her brother-in-law's whereabouts – then it's time to bring a knife to this particular fight.
When all those illusions are gone – when Hank and Gomez are dead, when Jack rides off with all but one barrel of cash, and Jesse as his prisoner – the one that Walt still clings so tightly to is that he has done all of this for his family, and that as a result, his family will go with him into the unknown, no matter what they have heard and what they believe. Walt's capacity for self-deception is so enormous that even after Skyler intuits what happened in the desert, even after she pulls a very large carving knife on him and shrieks at him to leave the house, he is still convinced he can talk her out of it. And after she cuts his palm, after they wrestle on the floor and Flynn – who only minutes earlier was directing all his anger at the situation towards Skyler – has tackled him and positioned himself as his mother's human shield, Walt somehow still thinks he's being the only reasonable party.
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?!” he bellows. “WE'RE A FAMILY!” Because being in a family, in Walt's eyes, means forgiving any deed, up to and including being responsible for the murder of another member of that family.
And then those eyes truly see what he has wrought, and how his wife and son look at him, and that lie is gone, forever. Yes, they are a family, but some sins run too deep even for family. Walt has lost them, and as a result he's lost everything. Each of these monstrous things he has done has been for them – or so he has told himself, even as we've seen many seasons worth of evidence of the pleasure Walt took in becoming a master criminal – and if they want no part of him, then what was the point? Why did all of these people, up to and including Hank, have to die? Why couldn't the damn cancer have just taken him on the night he talked about with Jesse back in “Fly”?
When he whispers, “We're a family,” the words are still a lie, but the tone of complete and utter defeat is perhaps the most honest thing we've ever heard emerge from Walter White's mouth.
That his next move is to grab Holly and drive away from the house over Skyler's frenzied objection might suggest that Walt has not, in fact, recognized the flaw in his reasoning. But it's an irrational impulse born out of the shock of that epiphany. Seeing the hate and terror in Skler and Flynn's eyes is so brutal that Walt briefly retreats to his default mode of lying to himself. He may think that his relationship with Holly remains untainted, and that in a new locale with $11 million to spend, he can build a bond with her that's stronger than the one he severed with the rest of the family. But he's also a sick, dying man who's in no real shape to care for a baby, and who almost certainly won't be around long enough to see that relationship blossom. It takes hearing Holly cry for her mommy(**) in the restroom to let go, once and for all, of the idea that he can take any of his family with him.
(**) The baby playing Holly said it unprompted during filming – among the more important improvisations in TV history, right alongside Johnny Carson reacting to Ed Ames' errant tomahawk throw – and Bryan Cranston, pro's pro that he is, went along with it. He could have sold the moment even without the cries of “Mama,” but they unintentionally took the power of the moment to another level.
Holly's cries also make Walt realize that his kids will need their mother alive and out of prison to take care of them. And that realization leads to yet another incredible scene in an hour full of them, as Walt calls Skyler and unleashes a torrent of invective at her, assuming that the police will overhear and and be convinced she's a wholly innocent party. On the one hand, it's a generous move. On the other, the vile things he says to her do not come from nowhere. Like the fake confession he recorded as a threat to Hank, the lies are carefully laid on a foundation of truth. Walt has thought many of these disgusting sentiments about Skyler – just as, intentionally or not, the dialogue echoes much of the unfortunate anti-Skyler sentiment among the fanbase – and is uttering them now at the moment when they may prove most useful.
In the end, Jesse is a slave to the Nazis, Holly is safe at a fire station, and Walt is sitting in front of the dam that looks like a graveyard, waiting to be picked up by Saul's relocation specialist, alongside the only thing he has left: the one barrel of cash Jack left him as a sop to his Walt-admiring nephew. After all the lies Walt told to himself and others about why he was doing this and what the results would be, this is the cold, dirty, empty truth, and it's a stark image that beautifully matches the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem that gives the episode its name:
“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.'
The night this episode aired, I noted that the combination of nausea, pain and loopiness I was feeling from my surgery and my meds oddly put me in just the right frame of mind to experience it. Watched again three months later under more sober and healthy conditions, it is no less shattering. This is the climax to Walter White's story, and it's as masterful as we could have possibly hoped for. That it's also such an emotionally devastating hour is the point. Walter White is a bad man. He has brought all of this on himself and others, and we've gone along for the ride, sometimes being turned off by his deeds, sometimes thrilling to them and buying into the same rationalizations he does. He needs to be cause and witness to the unspeakable events of “Ozymandias” to truly understand what he has done, and we need to pay witness to it, too, no matter how agonizing that may be.
“We're a family.” No. Not now. Not in the future. These things have always been about Walter White, not his family. Now he's alone with the fruits of his labor, just as it should be.
Some other thoughts:
* It's remarkable how few scenes the episode has, given how eventful it is. The immediate aftermath of the shootout from “To'hajiilee” takes up nearly half the episode, and the show had to get special dispensation from the Hollywood guilds to avoid showing the credits (which could have been a distraction from such an important moment) until 19 minutes in. The first we even see of someone who wasn't part of the shootout is Marie in the A1 parking lot, 23 minutes in.
* From the moment Walt watched Jane die choking on her own vomit – an event that he inadvertently caused, by the way, by pushing on the mattress until she rolled onto her back – near the end of season 2, I've been waiting for Jesse to find out. In all that time, I never once considered the possibility that Walt would simply tell it to him out of spite – as a way to vent all the rage he's feeling towards the Hank-murdering, fortune-stealing Nazis – and yet it seems perfect (and evil) when it happens. Walt was the only one who knew what actually happened, so he would have to be the one to tell Jesse (as he came close to doing while under the influence back in “Fly”), and pettiness is one of Walter White's default modes. Again, none of these things happen if he doesn't quit his company out of resenting Gretchen's relationship with Elliott (and most of it doesn't happen if he accepts their offer to pay for treatment).
* Learning about Jane is bad enough, but for Jesse to then be tortured by the Nazis and forced to cook by Todd (with the photo of Andrea and Brock as an implicit threat as to what will happen if he doesn't)? Again, other than Jack, Todd and Kenny, everyone in the episode is the winner (or loser?) of the Who Suffered the Most? game, but Jesse's predicament is among the more visceral in its hopelessness.
* Hank dies well – at least from a Western movie kind of perspective – not begging for his life or playing along with Walt's futile attempt to save it. They're not his final words (Jack shoots him in mid-sentence a moment later), but “You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago” is the most incisive possible summary of the difference between how the two brothers-in-law saw the world. Walt remains deluded about what he can talk people into, where Hank sees the situation for exactly what it is.
* The opening flashback to Walt and Jesse's first cook (and Skyler's time as a seller of things on eBay) was actually the final scene of the series filmed, mainly to allow Cranston and Paul to look as relatively clean-cut as they did back in the pilot.
* The song playing as Walt rolls the barrel through the desert – and note that you can spot Walt's khaki pants from the pilot episode lying in the background – is Eddy Arnold's “Time's A Gettin' Hard,” and its tale of a man who has lost everything could not seem more apropos for the moment, even as we know how much cash is in that barrel.
Once again, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org