Breaking Bad: Ozymandias (Who needs a little group therapy?)
Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for the episode of Breaking Bad that aired Sunday, September 15, 2013. If you haven’t viewed this episode yet and do not wish to know what happened, stop now or forever hold your peace. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
I’ve got half a mind to add an additional warning to my usual spoiler alert this week: if you haven’t seen this week’s episode, just don’t watch it. Not that it isn’t a brilliant hour of television or anything like that, but it’s just too painful and gut wrenching an experience. Save yourself the agony and watch something else on your DVR. And for love of all that is holy and good in the world, if you’ve never seen Breaking Bad before, just turn around and run as fast as you can in the other direction.
In the hours since Ozymandias aired here on the east coast, I’ve been trying to find a television parallel to it and have drawn a blank. It is in my mind a singular television experience. Since I started writing these quasi-recaps, what I’ll usually do is watch the show as it airs on about 10 or 15 minute or so delay, fast forward through the commercials, absorb everything overnight or at least for an hour or so and then re-watch the episode (or at least key moments of it) before sitting down to write. Here’s the thing though, I don’t think I ever want to watch that episode again, at least not now. I couldn’t even fast forward through the last two commercial breaks per usual – I literally needed them to process everything that had happened in the previous segment and catch my breathe, and, judging by some text and twitter conversations I had with other folks during and right after the show aired, I’m definitely not alone in this sentiment. It was making them (and me), feel physically ill just to watch once.
Now keep in mind, this is FICTION. It’s a made up story. The only parallel I can think of in this regard is the movie Raging Bull. I absolutely loved that movie when I saw it, but it’s such a raw and grueling experience that I’ve never watched it again, nor do I ever plan to do so. (Keep in mind, that I tend to watch movies, shows, etc that I like multiple times). I think Ozymandias has joined that elite club.
In many ways, this was a case of be careful what you wish for, as I and most people who have watched Breaking Bad have spent weeks and months (and in my case, several thousand words, speculating about what kind of wild, chaotic conclusion Vince Gilligan and co would deliver. I posted this Sunday morning kind of gleefully reveling in the utter desolation and destruction the episode title Ozymandias foretold. And a lot of what happened last night was not necessarily unexpected either, but the events, and, more critically, their aftermath were laid out so plainly, and piled on so quickly, that the cumulative effect was just devastating. And, crucially, the trademark Breaking Bad dark humor that has been used so effectively to provide relief from some absolutely horrifying moments was utterly void in this episode. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” indeed.
So, what actually happened last night?
Well, they eased us into things by starting us off with Walt and Jesse’s first cook together in the Crystal Ship, which of course Jesse reminded us just last week took place in the same location that Walt eventually buried his money and Uncle Jack, Uber-pyscho Todd and the rest of the Ayrian Nation pinned down Hank and Gomez in the firefight. We got to see a much less polished Walt, pre-Heisenberg, rehearsing his cover story for Skylar before calling her to tell her that he was going to be late. It’s the lie that started Walt down the path to lying on the floor of the bullet riddled Ford in handcuffs, powerless to control the situation outside. We found out straight away that the seemingly A-Team shooting exhibition from the well-armed redneck Nazis was just a false flag. Agent Gomez is dead and Hank, nay ASAC Schrader, lay badly wounded. In a move that echoed back to the assassination attempt by the Salamanca cousins, Hank desperately crawls for the gun near his fallen partner, but this time there is no miraculous salvation, as Uncle Jack’s boot comes down forcefully on the weapon and seals Hank’s fate. Hank knows it, Jack and clan know it, WE KNOW it, but the only person who doesn’t seem to understand this is Walt, who squanders his buried fortune in a desperate attempt to save Hank and restore some kind of control over the situation. Hank refuses to play along with Walt’s delusion, and bravely accepts his fate, which was no less brutal for its inevitability.
It was at that point, everything went completely to hell.
Walt finally snaps at the sight of Hank’s execution and the loss of his precious money, and falls to the ground in a state of shock. Jack and friends use their “fancy phone” to locate the exact location of the buried windfall and quickly discover that Walt was not bluffing, and in no time at all have all of the barrels uncovered and loaded into the truck. Todd, always observant and just creepily polite, (His “I’m sorry for your loss” to Walt as chilling as any threat uttered by the cheerfully unmerciful Jack.) notices that Jesse Pinkman has escaped so two of the group are dispatched to search for him, in vain. Walt is finally brought around in time to find out that Jack, in a nod to Todd’s reverence and respect for the great Heisenberg, and, because he’s just in a good mood (who wouldn’t be after gunning down two DEA agents in cold blood and taking home tens of millions of dollars for your efforts and savvy with GPS equipment), has decided to leave Walt with one of the barrels, or about $11 million dollars, give or take, but only on the condition that he and Walt “are square.” Walt agrees, and then reminds Jack that Jesse Pinkman is still alive, and Walt, now more than ever after learning of Jesse’s full involvement with Hank and the DEA, wants him dead. From his vantage point face down in the dirt he also knows where to find him, hiding under the Dodge that Walt drove out to the desert like a deranged Steve McQueen in the first place. Jesse is pulled out from under the car and is moments from taking a bullet in the back of the head after Walt gives Jack the go ahead to finish the job, only to be dragged off to perhaps a worse fate after Todd suggests that they torture him for information to find out what he may have told the DEA. It’s at this point Walt, fueled by the rage that brought Heisenberg to life in the first place, tells Jesse that he watched Jane die, and could have saved her but didn’t, for no other reason than to hurt Jesse as completely as possible, and to have that information in his dying thoughts. In all, it’s as cold and brutal a sequence as I’ve witnessed in any kind of drama, and it was ONE SEGMENT. And it got worse from there.
I’ll be honest with you, I expected the majority of this episode to take place out in the desert and to deal with the firefight and it’s immediate aftermath, with a large portion of the time taken up by the hunt for Jesse and his eventual capture and/or possible execution. Instead, we came back from the commercial break with the closest thing to comic relief as we got, with Walt rolling his barrel of cash through the desert and eventually buying a beat up pickup that wasn’t originally for sale (money does indeed talk). What happened next was quite frankly a blur, so forgive me if I miss a few things along the way here, but like I said I’m not going back to watch this a second time to verify. In fact, I don’t even feel much like writing coherently about this so here’s the bulleted list:
- Marie (clad in all black and not her signature purple) goes to the car wash to confront Skylar and tell her that Hank has arrested Walt and is booking him as they speak. We know differently of course, but she is still basking in Hank’s triumph and is playing the role of concerned sister for Skylar.
- Skylar tells Walt, Jr. (tellingly back to being Flynn) everything about his dad, as the price for Marie’s help and possible forgiveness.
- Flynn does not take this news well and insists on seeing Walt.
- Skylar and Flynn head back to the house only to find Walt and his vintage truck there packing like a madman, and, holy hell.
- Skylar finally gets Walt to admit that Hank is dead, and when he insists that they trust him, pack their things and leave the house with him because “they are a family,” she grabs a kitchen knife and orders him to leave.
- Hank and Skylar struggle for the knife, rolling around on the floor, and then Flynn jumps in to save his mom, and the sense of dread that one of them would end up with only the handle of the knife visible in their chest was just overwhelming.
- Walt emerges with the knife, and Flynn does the first sensible thing anyone in he White household has ever done: he jumps in front of his mom to protect her, pulls out his cell, dials 911 and reports Walt to the police.
- Walt realizes he’s beaten, grabs his things, and leaves, but not before grabbing baby Holly.
- Skylar realizes Hank has taken Holly, chases after him, and sinks to the ground in agony when she’s unable to stop him. A knife in the chest would have been a kinder fate by far. I’ve lost track at this point how many stomach punches this episode has delivered by now.
- Walt is shown changing Holly in a restroom, only to have Holly utter the words “Momma” several times. Stomach punch, groin kick, knee to the face.
- Walt calls Skylar, who is now surrounded by the ABQ PD and as well as Marie, who doesn’t yet know that Hank is dead. He unleashes a stream of vitriol at her that seems a new low even for Heisenberg, and you fear that Holly has chosen a very inopportune time to ask for mom instead of dad. In the process, Marie finds out about Hank, adding another terrible layer of anguish to one of the most excruciating phone conversations ever.
Well, it turns out to be another bravura performance from Heisenberg, who has utterly mastered the skill that he so clumsily practiced out in the desert on that first cook. His invective is meant to give her protection and deniability before the police (though one wonders how much Marie will be willing to play along with the notion of Skylar as Walt’s innocent victim after learning of Hank’s death), who he knows are listening in on the call. He is in tears after destroying his cell phone after hanging up, and, after an agonizing shot of the front seat of the truck which leads you to believe that his tears are for his dead daughter, the camera pulls back to reveal Walt’s location, in front of a fire station, where he leaves Holly to be found and returned to her mother. It’s one small, tiny glimpse of the humanity that Walt seemingly abandoned long ago (or, maybe it’s just a very practical, calculating move by a man with terminal cancer who is about to go on the run as fugitive courtesy of Saul’s vacuum repair specialist and his magic minivan – which, incidentally, can carry a 51 year old man, his suitcases, and his 50 gallon drum of money.)
I’m as spent writing that as I was after watching this masterfully told, beautifully shot, unholy mess of an hour of television. I don’t even want to speculate about where the last two episodes might lead. Think for a moment about all that you watched happened, or all that you just read about. Most TV dramas would have had one or two moments like those described above in an entire SEASON. Think about LOST, for example. Imagine if Kate’s history reveal, the Hatch discovery, the first flash forward, Charlie’s death, and Desmond and Penny’s phone call in The Constant had taken place in one episode instead of four seasons. That’s basically the plot equivalent of what Breaking Bad delivered last night, except with way more talented actors and coherent storytelling. And yet somehow it all fit, all felt completely natural, and all within the context of the established narrative (i.e., it didn’t require time travel or some other gimmick to make the plot plausible).
Now about those last two episodes. As of right this moment, as I’m sitting at my kitchen table at 5:00 AM in the predawn gloaming, drinking coffee and writing this, I’m not 100% sure that I really want to watch them – but of course that won’t happen. (thank god they didn’t release this season on the Netflix model, otherwise I would have been back in the cardiac ward by now). I will watch, if only because there’s really no way that either of the last two episodes could be the gut wrenching, soul destroying train wreck of a thrill ride that Ozymandias was. They can’t, can they? Right?
Cheers. And good luck getting through the next two weeks.
PS, want to play a fun game? Imagine classic movies or stories retold if they were written and created by Vince Gilligan. Here’s two:
Hawkeye’s emotional farewell at the end of MASH is cut short as the Chinese armed North Koreans overrun the camp as he watches from he sky, and then his chopper is shot down and he is captured and dies years later in a secret prisoner of war camp, after having his spirit completely broken.
And who could forget Vince Gilligan’s Pride of the Yankees, where Lou Gehrig’s triumphant speech is interrupted by Babe Ruth (“Imma let you finish, Lou”), who promptly informs the world that he gave Gehrig ALS before striking him with a bat repeatedly and kicking dirt onto Gehrig’s motionless body.
Give me your best “Vince Gilligan presents…” in the comments section.