Leave it up to Breaking Bad to kill off one of the four leads in an episode and have that not be the scene everyone is talking about.
Last week’s “To’hajiilee” was, for me, a mixed bag. A mostly good bag, but with a few questionable items mixed in. I didn’t like its cliffhanger-y conclusion, which felt very safe and very “TV.” (Breaking Bad seldom actually feels like TV, in the classic sense.) We’ve all seen shows that put one of the heroes in mortal peril at the end of an episode, only to immediately arrive at a miraculous conclusion at the beginning of the next. It’s very Batman — Adam West version, not Christian Bale. I trusted Vince Gilligan and company not to stoop so low on this show, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt dissatisfaction more than I felt suspense about Hank’s fate.
I knew I’d need to see this week’s episode to really know how I felt about that ending, and I still think there are a number of ways “To’hajiilee” could have ended that would sit better with me. If we had seen Hank shot in the leg. If we saw Gomez die. Or if we cut out before the first shot was fired. These are a few possibilities, but there are more.
However, the fact that “To’hajiilee” didn’t end to my liking doesn’t mean that just about everything in “Ozymandias” isn’t flawless. It’s one of the best hours of TV I’ve ever seen. Also, one of the tensest and most wrenching.
A surprise from Breaking Bad? Not exactly. But still, this show really outdid itself tonight.
We’re now officially in the home stretch. All the original tensions of the series are gone. “Ozymandias” obliterated them. Directed by Rian Johnson (a fact I forgot until just now, because I was so invested in watching), who has helmed some of the series’ most memorable hours — “Fly” and “Fifty-One” — “Ozymandias” kills off Hank, ending his increasingly dangerous dance with Heisenberg. That isn’t a total shocker to anyone who watched last week, though his death wasn’t a total given.
Except… it was, wasn’t it? Hank knew immediately that there was no way he was getting out of To’hajiilee territory alive once Uncle Jack and the gang showed up. Those guys are real criminals, hardened and remorseless, at least when it comes to the DEA. Walt tries to argue that Hank is family, but does Uncle Jack care? No. Uncle Jack has his own family, and Todd’s respect for Walt is the only reason he isn’t in that ditch with Hank and Gomez. He knows he’d lose his nephew if anything happened to Walt out there — another family-based decision. But why should Uncle Jack care about Walt’s family? Walt’s victims had families, too, yet he always did what was best for his. Uncle Jack is no different in that respect. Walt erroneously expects that when it’s his family on the line, exceptions will be made — remember how he tried to talk Jesse out of burning the money with the same logic? — but no. Uncle Jack does what’s best for his own family, which is to kill Hank and leave Walt alive. Walt is getting a nasty dose of his own medicine now that it’s his loved ones on the chopping block.
As it turns out, the rest of “Ozymandias” is also all about family in a big way. But I can’t move on without saying “R.I.P.” to poor Hank — and Gomez, too. It’s a brutal scene — Gomez is already dead when we return to the shoot-out. This periphery character has been on the sidelines since the pilot. He knew Walt well enough to show up at the White residence for birthday parties. When a recurring character who’s been with us for five seasons dies off-screen, his body lying motionless in the background at the beginning of an episode, you know you’re in for a big one.
I might have liked a little more from Gomez either here or, better yet, at the end of last week’s episode, but of course there are bigger fish to fry in “Ozymandias.” Hank is shot in the leg — a cruel twist of fate, since he already has trouble walking — and once again makes a last-ditch effort to grab a discarded gun with less success than he had with the Cousins. Seems you can only be lucky once in such a situation. It’s obviously hopeless for Hank, despite any question last week about whether or not Breaking Bad would cop out and let him escape unscathed. (There was essentially no way that could work, with Hank having cheated death twice already.) He’s majorly outmanned and there’s no way Uncle Jack can show mercy, even if he wished to. (Doubtful.) Hank refuses to give up his pride or integrity, preferring to go down like a man rather than beg, plead, wheedle, and barter for a safe trip home.
It’s Walt who makes a foolish bid for Hank’s life — he’s even willing to part with his many millions — but there are some things money can’t buy. Walt is always trying to make a deal, and here, it’s a very bad one — but give him sympathy points for effort, since he shows himself to be a slightly better guy than we would have guessed. He may have talked and acted tough when he and Hank were grappling for power earlier this (half-)season, but now that it’s down the wire, we see a lot of love flowing in at least one direction between these two. (Hank, I’m sure, feels differently.)
Hank’s death is agonizingly drawn out, and then, when it comes, shockingly quick. (It’s also tastefully written and directed, not lingering on gory details.) Again, brutal. Lots of TV shows kill off major characters, of course, and sometimes it packs an emotional wallop, but I can’t think of a TV death as harrowing as this — not even on The Sopranos — perhaps because it feels so realistic. This isn’t an operatic moment or even a cinematic one. It’s senseless and cruel and cold-blooded and efficient. It is so directly a consequence of our protagonist’s doing — not one mere action, but every single thing he’s done since the beginning of the show. It’s all lead to this. Walt set it in motion long ago (as we see in flashback), and now that the end is here, it’s easy to see that of course things had to happen this way. How else was it going to go? “Ozymandias” isn’t a single episode of TV; it’s five seasons of a house of cards, stacked bit by bit, card by card, now finally tumbling down.
So Hank is gone, without a lot of fanfare — considering. Both Jesse and Walt’s fates are uncertain at this point, since it would seemingly behoove the gang to get rid of Walt, too, while they’re at it. (Thank God for Todd!) Now Walt has given his precious money to a bunch of goons for no reason whatsoever, but luckily Uncle Jack has at least a little class and spares $11 million for Walt — still more than he can really use — and takes off with Jesse. But before he goes, Walt manages to tie up one last dangling loose end by admitting that he let Jane die. Bombshell!
It’s a final “fuck you” to Jesse, a way to come out on top. Despite his agony over Hank’s death, Walt has no remorse left for his former pupil, which is understandable after the way Jesse gloated last week. (Bad move, Jesse!) Technically, Hank and Jesse were equally against Walt, but it’s Jesse who was a true traitor. Hank never changed sides — Walt knew he was a good guy from day one, and even though that makes them sworn enemies, Walt still respects and admires that. Jesse’s betrayal, on the other hand, is something else entirely. After seeing Heisenberg at work time and time again, he should have known better. (And he did… he just didn’t take his own advice. Walt’s luck wins again.)
I’m still undecided on how I feel about this blow being dealt at the beginning of an episode, rather than the end. It has a wholly different effect, which I’m sure was at least part of the intent behind why Hank didn’t die at the end of last week’s episode instead. We expect stories to be told a certain way. It’s the end when the good and/or bad guys die, then there’s relief when it’s over — perhaps even a grieving process. “Ozymandias” doesn’t allow us to exhale after Hank is shot — we don’t get to stop and process it. There’s no catharsis. It keeps right on ticking, as life does, without mourning Agent Schrader. All in all it was probably a good storytelling decision, but it also made “Ozymandias” a difficult watch. Breaking Bad has never exactly been the easiest, breeziest show, but this episode? As amazingly crafted as it is, it also feels a bit like a punishment for liking it in the first place.
As Walt finds his way out of the desert with a barrel of money, Marie shows up at the car wash, unaware that her hubby’s been iced. I figured Marie was showing up to gloat (Marie does love to gloat!), but instead, she’s making an honest and heartfelt attempt to set things right with Skyler. Upon hearing that Walt’s in cuffs, Skyler goes catatonic again and bends completely to Marie, who now holds the power between these two. (For a limited time.) Marie has a couple demands, not least of which is telling Flynn the truth. Skyler tries to object, but Marie’s right — he’s going to find out anyway. Shouldn’t it be from them?
Initially I was disappointed that the bulk of the confession happens off-screen, because I thought Vince Gilligan and company were short-changing RJ Mitte (as often happens). He’s been so clueless for so long that I wanted his moment of revelation to be a huge one. Sitting down and having a little chat felt too easy by this show’s standards, and then, we get only some disbelief and denial before Flynn is out the door. Had “Ozymandias” left us with that as Flynn’s “big” moment, I’d have cried foul.
But. What happens next is…
Hank’s death was, somehow, not the most intense scene in “Ozymandias.” That belongs to the showdown between Walt, Skyler, and Flynn at the White household. And by showdown, I mean knife fight!
“Ozymandias” opens with a flashback scene that foreshadows a couple of this episode’s highlights — a shot of a phone and a knife block (reminiscent of Scream!), both of which will become important later, and also some discussion of baby names. While I suspected these knives might come into play later, I figured the baby talk was just a random conversation. As it turns out, though, this is Baby Holly’s biggest episode yet!
First, Walt is in full-on panic mode (understandably), trying desperately to get his family to pack and move out. Trouble is, Skyler knows that Hank arrested Walt and Flynn knows his dad’s a drug dealer. All this time, Skyler has been trying to protect her kids from knowing the truth — now that’s gone. Suddenly, going along with Walt’s increasingly crazy schemes isn’t such a brilliant idea. There’s no point anymore.
So Skyler, who flirted with becoming an ice-cold Lady Heisenberg in the past few episodes, plants her feet firmly back on the right side and finally, finally, finally stands up to Walt the way she probably should have all along. With a knife. She’s not fucking around, either — she slices his hand open as he steps near. (Marie’s talk about how there’s still hope for goodness in Skyler may have awakened her inner fighter.) This calls for a knock-down drag-out fight that is almost unbearably tense, especially once Flynn intervenes. Breaking Bad has already killed Gomez and Hank — I wouldn’t put it past them to have Skyler accidentally stabbed as she wrestles Walt, too… or maybe even Flynn.
Fortunately, no one else is stabbed, but Flynn saves the day as he protects his mother and calls the cops on his dad. (A nice switch from when he hated Skyler for wanting a divorce.) This whole scene is a great showcase for RJ Mitte — erasing any doubts I had about his earlier scene being a little on the weak side. Finally, Flynn joins the fray — now he’s as troubled and unhappy as everyone else on this show.
The tragedy of Breaking Bad is turning out to be that Walt’s actions were all for nothing. And Skyler’s, too. Walt wanted to provide for his family’s future but instead got them branded “the Heisenbergs.” Skyler wanted to protect her kids and instead, there’s a knife fight in the living room. Breaking Bad proves that crime doesn’t pay — or if it does, it pays so much that it becomes a problem, and eventually takes it all back again… with serious interest. Walt foolishly loses most of his money trying to barter with criminals for Hank’s life, and the only reason it happened is because he moved the money out to the desert in the first place. If he could have left well enough alone, he and Skyler would be the only ones who knew where it was. But he panicked and decided he didn’t trust her. Walt may be a smart guy in many ways, but now his follies are showing through big time, and even Skyler can see that he’s not in control anymore.
Now Walt is fighting for the same thing — his family’s survival — without realizing that his family has fallen apart right in front of him. Skyler has wised up, Flynn knows the truth about dear old dad, and everyone is about to find out what Heisenberg has done to Hank. Walt thinks they can start over, but it’s a little late for that. (Try explaining that to Flynn — along with why he’d never hear from Aunt Marie or Uncle Hank again.) This episode finds Walt scrambling to clean up messes that are long past fixable — until he gets back into Heisenberg mode and snatches Baby Holly from the house. (Not the first time someone’s tried to make off with that little girl this season.) It’s both a “fuck you” to Skyler for throwing him out of the house and a desperate ploy to keep at least some of his family — the member who is too young to know better. He could still, in theory, raise her to love him just as much as Flynn did until recently, and Holly would be none the wiser.
Everything about this sequence is so tense and exhilarating that my jaw was dropped all the while. It’s probably the most shocked I’ve been by this show since the plane crash in “ABQ.” Going into “Ozymandias,” I had a feeling Hank would die and that would be what led Walt to run off for the next several months, until we catch back up in those flash-forwards. I did not, however, foresee a White family knife brawl culminating in a Holly-snatching. This level of intensity is hardly ever found on a TV show, but then again, that’s this whole episode. (Given the level of agony Skyler experiences here, I’d like to propose a special ceremony at which every actress who has won an Emmy for the past five years must publicly apologize to Anna Gunn and hand theirs over. Seems fair, don’t you think?)
The final few moments find Walt playing daddy to Baby Holly and perhaps realizing how much more difficult a getaway is with an infant in tow… and how a man dying of cancer is probably not the best person to raise a young child. He can be a criminal mastermind or he can be a father, but as this episode proves, he cannot be both. So Walt gives Skyler a call — a nice echo of a much happier conversation in the flashback, when he was only beginning his elaborate lies — knowing the police will be standing by. Is he getting his revenge by making it clear that she knew all along? Is it another “fuck you”? Or is he doing her a favor by making it clear that she wasn’t directly involved (and omitting the details about her money laundering)?
I’m still not sure what his intention is with the second half of that call — Walt makes himself out to be a dangerous badass, but to what end? This feels calculated rather than a mere stroke of the ego. I’m not sure what Walt gains if the police think he had Hank killed intentionally, but I suppose we’ll find out next week. In the meantime, Walt destroys yet another cell phone (which happens so many times on this show that I feel it should be called Breaking Phones), leaves Holly in a fire truck for a safe trip back to Mom, and meets the mysterious man who can make people disappear. (I’m very curious about him.)
Meanwhile, Jesse has been tortured and now, apparently, is Todd’s new Mr. White, as the two protegees will cook together. (Is this another spin-off in the making?) I wasn’t entirely convinced that Jesse would survive “Ozymandias” either, even if Jesse would seem an integral element for the true series finale. (But seriously, how many episodes lately have felt like the last episode?) The last shot features Walt riding off into the sunset, toward an unknown future, as a dog darts across the screen — seemingly random, until you remember that there’s still a “Rabid Dog” running around out there. That’s Jesse.
Seems Jesse is about to cause some problems for Mr. White, which could very well be what draws him out of hiding. Next time, Walt won’t make the mistake of hiring Uncle Jack to do his dirty work… he’ll come for Jesse himself.
All in all, “Ozymandias” is a stellar hour of television. For all its dark dealings, Breaking Bad is often a “fun” show to watch, even if the fun at the expense of a grounded story with real consequences. But there’s not much room for fun in “Ozymandias,” not even when Walt rolls that barrel of millions across the desert with a jaunty tune on the soundtrack. (It’s too soon after Hank’s death to take any pleasure in this.) It’s is a hard hour to watch — “Ozymandias” begins with a beloved character dying and gets even darker sets the mood. “Ozymandias” reminded me of the previous “oh shit, everything is falling to pieces” episode “Crawl Space” from Season Four, one of my very favorites. It’s similarly grim, though, this one pushes even further. It can do that, now that we’re so close to the finale.
As of this episode, though, the show could end now and I’d be satisfied by the journey. Of course there are a few loose elements yet to be tied, and I’m ecstatic that there are two more episodes — but in many ways, emotionally, the story now feels complete. These characters have gone to such emotional extremes — especially in this episode. Hank chooses a noble death, Walt despairs over his brother-in-law’s demise, Walt condemns Jesse to a long and painful death, Skyler learns that the jig is up, Flynn is told that his father is a drug dealer, Skyler realizes that Walt killed Hank, Skyler chooses to turn away from Walt at last, Walt kidnaps his own daughter, Walt takes ownership of a heinous act he didn’t even want to happen in order to be feared and reviled.
These are all unthinkably huge moments in their own right, but combined in one episode? Well, that’s just fantastic television! The final two episodes could be pure garbage and I’d still say “Ozymandias” is a fitting culmination, a fantastic payoff to so many storylines we’ve invested in over these years. (I knew an episode named after this poem and directed by Rian Johnson would be major.) I could write a whole college paper on just how perfectly written and executed this episode is, but instead, I’ll leave you with a poem to chew on.
“Ozymandias” is named after the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which reads as follows:
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.