“What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family!”
I hope you watched “Ozymandias” with someone you loved. First of all, because I watched it alone — Mrs. Tuned In is not a Breaking Bad watcher — and holy bejeezus in a fire truck, that was a rough ride to take solo. If the end of last week’s episode was a thousand-bullet fusillade, this one was like feeling every one of those bullets hit. It was relentless, intense, excruciating — and amazing. If each remaining episode intensifies this much more than the last, I am going to burst into flames.
But I also say that because, while Breaking Bad may be about drugs and crime and morality and all that good, tragic-downfall stuff, at heart it’s about family: what you do for them, what they do to you and how you fail them. The beginning of “Ozymandias” (read the Shelley poem if you want to know why a hubristic ruin in the desert is relevant) takes us back to simpler times, when Skyler was just an aspiring writer packing up a crying clown for a $9 eBay profit and Walt was just a struggling teacher/car-wash worker with cancer, cooking up his first batch of methamphetamine in an RV. Back then, Walt still had to prep himself to lie on the telephone. Back then, Skyler was asking him to bring home a pizza, not preparing to carve him into slices. Walt was still doing this for his wife and kids. He believed he was going to die, but there were still possibilities.
It’s a little over a year ago. It feels like another time, another planet. Vince Gilligan has famously said that Breaking Bad is the story of how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. And it’s true, and that’s the exciting, attention-getting way of putting it. But it is equally, and heartbreakingly, the story of the journey from “Will do. Love you” to “You stupid bitch! How dare you.”
But before we get to that, a little unfinished family business: Hank, who — despite Walt’s desperate protest that “he’s family” — does die (along with Gomez). It seems at first that he might not; Jack readies to pull the trigger time after time only to be forestalled, and in past episodes this is where Walt might have pulled one more trick, made one more deal. But not this time; as Hank says, there is no deal to be made, and the difference between him and Walt is that he won’t go down bargaining and begging. That is, he is going to be who he is — “My name is ASAC Hank Schrader, and you can go f— yourself” — and unlike his brother-in-law, he will own the consequences.
Walt crumples to the desert floor, broken. When he gets up, it’s not to receive the dignity of death, or even of being robbed outright; Jack leaves him $11 million, one barrel of cash, as a gesture of Todd’s respect — but it’s truly blood money now, as if Jack were not stealing from Walt but just taking a heavy commission for killing Hank. It seems as if Walt’s last scruple died on the desert floor with Hank: he demands an end to Jesse — whom he taunts with Jane’s last moments — and to roll his barrel of cash home.
It is to Breaking Bad‘s credit that this hellish scene in the desert is not nearly the toughest thing in the episode to watch. For starters, there’s the scene I’ve dreaded since the first season: Walt Jr., sensitive and worshipful of his dad, learns the truth. (We see only the aftermath, not the actual revelation, and I’m more grateful for that than for not directly seeing Hank take a bullet to the head.) Walt still carries the crazy, desperate hope that he and his family can survive this — that they can disappear with a money barrel, forget everything and love each other. But that hope dies in Skyler’s office with Jr., just as surely as it did in the desert with Hank.
It’s always been about family for Walt: that was his original impulse, his justification through his own criminal career, and the line he told himself he would not cross with Hank. Back at the White house, we saw that he had well and truly killed all that. He has killed the love that was the one genuine good thing left in him, he has ruined the happiness of the family he told himself he was saving. Wrestling the love of his life on the floor with a butcher’s knife, seeing his firstborn and namesake throw himself over Skyler ready to take a stabbing for her, Walt must see that his family — at least, a version with him in it — is over at last.
But there’s Holly. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? — at least it does to Heisenberg, who is about rationalizing situations and finding an escape. Maybe he can’t have his family, but he can have a family: $11 million and the tabula rasa of Holly, who will remember only the best of him, who will not turn on him or resent him, who will always appreciate her Daddy. As he horrifyingly peels out of the driveway, deafening himself to Skyler’s screams, you can see Heisenberg take control; to him, this is another unpleasantness to get past, one final loss to jettison like the barrels of cash he surrendered to Jack in the desert. He won’t have all his money, but he’ll have a new start. He won’t have his wife and son, but he’ll have a family. Entirely on his terms. Clean slate. Nice and neat, the way Heisenberg likes it.
Instead, however, Skyler and Walt each hear something from their children that makes them find something better in themselves. For Skyler, it’s Walt Jr. telling her that she is just as bad as Walt for not resisting him. And for Walt: “Mama.” He may have engineered a perfect escape, but he seems to realize, far gone and monstrous as he is, that a family born of money and amnesia will never be his real family, or Holly’s.
This culminates in a brutal and heartbreaking phone call to bookend the episode’s beginning, one that makes clear why Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn should be adding Emmys to their families a year and a week hence. Knowing, presumably, that Skyler will be on the hook for his crimes, he gives her an alibi by excoriating and threatening her in the worst terms.
It’s an incredible performance of an incredible performance; where the Walt of the flashback was nervous and awkward in his lying, here Walt unleashes his crime-lord fury, allowing himself only tiny, silent sobs when he pauses. I want to say that his resentment and fury at Skyler is for show — but it’s not entirely fake, is it? It’s clearly not what he wants to say to Skyler in the moment. It’s not, ultimately, what he thinks of her or wants for her. But we’ve seen enough of him to know that it comes from a real place — that there is at least part of Walt that does rage at being misunderstood and held back and unappreciated. He draws on it now self-sacrificingly, though it kills him, but it is still there in him to be drawn on. He’s a method actor, that Walt is.
In the end — or rather, two episodes from the end — it does indeed come down to family for Walter White. And he finally realizes here that he can save his family only by leaving it. That bitter, furious, threatening monster on the phone just now may not be all of him. But it’s the part of him that’s put him where he is now: being disappeared by Mr. Vacuum Guy, with a barrel of money to keep him company, looking at everything he loves in the rearview mirror.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Very unfortunate product placement there for KoalaKare changing tables.
* Just as Walt turns up the malice in his call to Skyler for show, he also tells Jesse about Jane in the most diabolical taunting way possible. (Here, I’m guessing, out of anger rather than from a plan, but tell me if you disagree.) Walt saw himself as letting Jane die to save Jesse — because he cared about him or because he needed his partner — but he offers no mitigating argument here, making the deed sound as ugly as possible to twist the knife. Your guesses welcome as to whether this will come back to haunt him.
* “We could get it out of him back home. I could do it. We’ve got a history [cheerfully]. And we could take care of the job after that!” Is there a sweeter, more terrifying sociopath than Todd?
* Breaking Bad loves the desert, and “Ozymandias'” opening minutes were a distillation of how the series has used the landscape visually: all those sky shots and impassive mountains, a sunbaked Walt rolling his money across what looks like the yellow floor of hell.
* I’m not sure I have ever before, while watching TV, literally done the thing where you clap your hands over your mouth while your eyes pop open. But that was me watching Walt drive off with Baby Holly.
* I had no advance screeners this week and wrote this live, and fast, in the interest of getting the discussion going quickly. So apologies for any egregious errors. Next week, because I can’t review Breaking Bad and the Emmys at once, there’s a good chance there will be a substitute reviewer in this space. I’ll be back for the finale. But I’m scared.