/ K.M. McFarland / 11 pm Sun, Sep 15 2013
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  • 'Breaking Bad,' Season 5, Episode 14, 'Ozymandias': review

    'Breaking Bad,' Season 5, Episode 14, 'Ozymandias': review

    Spoilers. Kevin McFarland reviews the sixth of Breaking Bad's final eight episodes, in which we look upon Walter White's works, and despair. Catch up on previous episodes in our Boing Boing "Breaking Bad" archives.

    By now it's a familiar narrative jump for Breaking Bad: cutting away from the hail of gunfire during the Shootout At To'Hajiilee in the cold open, and starting the next episode with a prologue out of sequence.

    “Box Cutter” began the exact same way, taking the final act of the third season--Jesse shooting Gale--and flashing back to Gale unveiling all of his shiny new lab equipment with Gus Fring underneath the laundromat. That scene kicked off the fourth season with an explication of how Gale's humility and respect for greatness--Walt's superior chemistry--set off a chain reaction that led to his own murder.

    The opening of “Ozymandias” emphasizes that same sentiment, in a scene from Walt and Jesse's first cook, where Walt would bury his unfathomable cache of cash. Walt rehearses his first lie to Skyler, about his hardass boss at the car wash keeping him late as a cover for dipping his toes into the meth trade. (And when director Rian Johnson cuts away to Skyler answering that phone, there's Chekhov's knife block sitting prominently in the foreground, but more on that later.) These final eight episodes of Breaking Bad have been as much about visually and structurally echoing back to earlier points of the series, slowly tying a neat bow, as it has been about hurtling toward the conclusion of why Walt needs the ricin pill and what he'll use an M60 for. And when the episode opened with a flashback, it raised the level of difficulty significantly, because Breaking Bad so rarely goes to this well that to break it out now requires something strong to back it up.

    But now, a few hours later, still in a state of shellshock, I can say “Ozymandias” is one of the most emotionally destructive yet dramatically satisfying hours of television I've ever seen. Not just a standout scene, or a few peaks of excruciating tension. This is an all-around best-of from everyone involved, moving from unforgettable moment to unforgettable moment. Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn turn in some of their greatest scenes as Walt and Skyler White. Betsy Brandt and RJ Mitte step up to the challenge as well, the plot screws continue to tighten, and oh yes, in case you forgot, we lost Hank Schrader, the would-be hero who only minutes before victoriously phoned his wife and told her he loved her.

    An episode like this rests on the opposite end of the spectrum from “Fly,” another hour directed by Johnson, character-driven and almost entirely removed from the overarching plot movements of a season. “Ozymandias” takes all of the plot threads inching along over the past few weeks, and shoots them forward at an unbelievable pace to convergence. In an opening that lasts 20 minutes, Walt loses all control as he watches, spineless, helplessly in over his head in a scenario that leaves my pick for the most-improved character in Breaking Bad's entire run in a shallow grave next to his best friend.

    Even though Hank's fate got teased out over a week between episodes, he's still dispatched in tragically simple fashion. Gomez lays splayed out in the dirt, and Hank has a bullet in his leg, looking at the shotgun as his last line of defense. In one of the subtlest nods to earlier events I've ever picked up on, Hank lurches onto his belly to crawl towards the gun, giving himself up in search of his goal--just like the cousins in the opening scene of season three. Hank's last chance at life echoes the same dangers he faced in “One Minute” from other characters that Walt indirectly sent into his orbit. The forces Walt put in motion--the white supremacist biker gang--now strips Walt of everything he was trying to protect: his money and his family. He's left with a barrel of cash (10 or 11 million dollars), stranded in the desert.

    As for Jesse, there's no doubt: he's in hell. Spotted by Walt, taken captive by Uncle Jack, he's in for a swift death to amplify the outpouring when Hank died moments before. But then Todd intervenes, partially as a matter of business security, but more as a means of torture. And to twist the knife of blame, Walt indulges in his spiteful hate, unleashing the truth about Jane's death. In an episode full of monologues, fights, death, and destruction, it's the speech crafted to inflict maximum pain. “I watched Jane die. I was there. And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could've saved her. But I didn't.” It's just a savage, emotional mic-drop that only punishes an already empty, beaten man. Cranston's short walk, and the cut to the other side of his face, makes the speech all the more brutal. Now Jesse is a dog on a leash, kept in a pit, dragged out only to be forced to cook meth, a photo of Andrea and Brock taunting him should he refuse or attempt escape--with Todd as his master to exact cruel vengeance.

    There is so much heartbreak contained in this single episode that it threatens to overpower everything else. Nothing encapsulates the feeling of despair more than Marie strutting into the car wash to confront Skyler, triumphantly trumpeting Walt's arrest, Hank's victory, without any idea of the carnage that just ended. It's classic dramatic irony, and damn if that isn't the perfect way to use it, falling into a bottomless pit of despair as Marie forces Skyler to tell Walter Jr. about everything, which sets up the catastrophic domestic confrontation.

    Walt makes it back to the family's home in a rusted pickup truck, and hurriedly packs the family's belongings, with the intention of hiding everyone somewhere safe. He's still under the misguided impression that he has even a modicum of control over the situation. But after an epic dressing-down by Marie, and another verbal assault from her son, Skyler has finally had enough. The shot of the knife block appears, signaling the violence to come. Skyler, trampled by a deceitful husband, pushed into a corner, a guilty accomplice--Junior asks, “Why, why, would you go along?” Skyler's response: “I'll be asking myself that for the rest of my life.”--finally stands up to Walt, who obviously does not have the family's interests at heart over his own.

    Because this episode was directed by Rian Johnson, my mind immediately went to the basement fight between rival gangs in Brick, such an elegantly staged and concisely dramatic sequence, condensed here to the most unsettling domestic strife ever on Breaking Bad.

    Walt and Skyler fighting over a knife; Junior defending his mother and calling the police (GREAT JOB, FLYNN!); Holly screaming in the background; Walt insisting “We're a family!” And one final, selfish act, meant to hurt Skyler and defend him for another move: fleeing with Holly. Anna Gunn has never been more empathetic in her performance than she has while running down the street covered in blood, screaming as the truck rounds the corner.

    Series creator Vince Gilligan has been as clear as possible about how he views Walt, with no sympathy or reverence, despite how a vocal section of Breaking Bad's audience has championed Walt as a cult hero, a meth cook MacGyver. “Ozymandias” puts the final nail in rooting for Walt as a constructive endeavor. But just as the episode turns on Walt, casting him out of his own home after exclaiming “We're a family!” over and over, he makes another phone call to Skyler--again, structurally echoing that opening lie of a call from To'Hajiilee--to unfurl a rant that contains all of his pent-up rage toward Skyler for what he views as his own wasted existence. But credit to Breaking Bad--we don't see another “Walt figures out his plan” scene where Bryan Cranston acts out the mental steps to get to his next move. And though on Skyler's end of the phone--recorded by the police--he comes off as a megalomaniacal, unforgiving villain who takes credit for Hank's death, the shots of Walt crying on the other end tell a more complicated story. Walt screams, “This is me alone, nobody else!” He takes all of the heat, packs all of the blame into a performance meant as one more move before severing all contact with his family, damning himself but setting Skyler free. It's the darkest moment for the White family, but it's not all true, and if Cranston doesn't submit this episode for Emmy consideration, then the whole process needs to be re-examined.

    Walt ends up at the same intersection as Jesse, in front of the same flood-prevention structure that strongly connotes a graveyard, waiting for that red minivan to take him away to another life. But he can't run forever, he can't escape the terror that he set in motion when he first drove into To'Hajiilee with Jesse. Everything he's touched since that decision has festered to rot. His family has been irrevocably destroyed by the very action that was to ensure their future. There's a lot of guesswork involved in predicting what Walt will do, who will die, how Breaking Bad will ultimately end. I'm through with theories and predictions. There are two episodes left of this tragedy, and all I can do is sit in stunned silence as the pieces move solemnly around the board.

    Song: "Take My True Love By The Hand," by the Limeliters.

    Extra Crystals:

    • I was worried that I had spoiled myself for this week by looking at the IMDB page for this episode, which listed Krysten Ritter, Jonathan Banks, and the actors who played Tuco and Crazy-8 (Raymond Cruz and Max Arciniega, respectively.).

    • I would like to think that Rian Johnson got to throw in Noah Segan as the firefighter who discovers Holly as a bonus for the amazing work he's done directing three episodes of this series.

    • Over the course of the series, Breaking Bad has doled out a number of magnificent F-bombs. “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself” doesn't top I.F.T, but it'll sound damn fine on an uncensored blu-ray.

    • The other incredibly devastating episode of television so far this year, the Red Wedding episode of Game Of Thrones (“The Rainse Of Castamere”), probably hits a higher peak in that bloody final sequence. But for sustained quality, I tip my hand to “Ozymandias” right now, especially because Breaking Bad doesn't need to juggle as many characters and had more episodes to make us care about the characters that suffered tonight.

    • Just think of how many people will now go back and re-memorize Shelley's poem “Ozymandias” after this episode.

    • Allow me one minor nitpick: Saul clearly explained that you don't get a second chance with his new identity guy. Do we presume that Walt missed his first chance in “Crawl Space” when Skyler gave away all his money to Ted? Or is a healthy cut of that $11 million enough to get him a second chance at New Hampshire? Either way, next week is “Granite State,” which you know will function both as a location and a commentary on narrative progression in the penultimate episode.

    • Times are getting hard, boys. The barrel-rolling song: "Take My True Love By The Hand," by the Limeliters.


    Catch up on previous episode recaps in our Boing Boing "Breaking Bad" archives.


    Easter egg in this shot, foreground: Walt's flying khakis from the first desert trailer cook.

    From Breaking Bad GIFs:

    11. Aaron & Moira (mild spoilers) pic.twitter.com/Avb2MOl5JL

    — Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) September 16, 2013

    @MichaelSlovis Sharp eyes will notice the original flying pants from the BB pilot lying moldering in the desert as Walt rolls the barrel by

    — Moira Walley-Beckett (@YoWalleyB) September 16, 2013

    / / 143 COMMENTS

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    Notable Replies

    1. Well, so much for my theories.

      That's what I get for trying to predict the most unpredictable show on television – of course that's also what makes it so god damn good!

      Jesse does end up as a long term hostage, though, and Gomey got it pretty fast as predicted. But man, so dark. Ain't nobody having an A-1 day on this show any more.

      Some things I wonder about for the next episode, which will presumably be "many months later.."

      • the fate of the recording Hank made with Jesse.

      • what Marie will do, since she has confirmation that Hank isn't coming back and thus nothing to lose.

      I feel like the last episode is going to be Walt doing whatever he got the ricin and M60 to do, but the next one, the one before that, has to be fallout exposition and buildup to the final mystery confrontation.

      My money is still on saving Jesse.

    2. Nazis using slave labor? Inconceivable!

    3. This is it. This is the episode that Breaking Bad is about. I'm certain of it.

      All other episodes were what people think Breaking Bad is about. The trickster meth cookerie, the clever escapes, the convenient alignments. Even though we all pretend that Breaking Bad is surprising in a completely revolutionary, radical way - it really is not. It is totally conservative in how surprising it is, it just happens to be more brilliant at it than most other shows of the same genre. No matter how much we tried to paint it as cruel, gritty and real, it seldom really is. It just shows hints of it to keep us in line for what the show is really about. We were doubly mislead by the amazing writers into thinking ourselves artsy in our appreciation for the brilliance and extravagance of the plot.

      The show is about us and how warped our understanding of buying into the evil path is. How it is so destructive, we all rather put it away in our minds instead of accepting it.

      It is about how every tiny piece of evil we accept builds up and eventually leads to a cascade that dissolves into mayhem absent of any redemption. We have a kind of arrogance about denying precisely how bleak that evil path can be, but like the saying goes - it destroys everything except itself. This episode was the inevitable triumph of evil over the people who think they can control it, consuming everything it can get its hands on, abusing the people it still has use for, disposing of the people it does not.

      That same arrogance surfaced in last weeks comments, about how cheesy this western shootout was and I guess there is some truth to that. But no matter how many cheesy westerns have worked us to the point where "guns in the desert" seem like theater - it's what happens. People with guns meet and some of them die. In that regard, it's another double subversion - a trope teased and then played straight.

      It's always hard to successfully play a trope straight. Joe Wright once said (or quoted somebody else, I can't remember) that Happy Endings are harder to do than Sad Endings because they are much harder to do in a way that satisfies. You can think up a million cheesy ways to end a love story, but one that satisfies? That's tough. (Then again, it is arguable whether it isn't just as hard to make a truly satisfactory Sad Ending.)

      Similarly, the drugs-and-gangsters genre thrives on extravagance and we have seens lots of it. Crystals produced awesome chemical explosions, people were walking around and adjusting their tie with half their heads blown off, the whole nine yards.

      But after all that, here is what is real: You end up with a bunch of sociopaths in a desert and they take precisely everything they can from you. Meth Damons persuasion that Walt be allowed to leave is the only exception to the rule and as we saw from the fallout, it's not like Walt can make much use of his freedom, at least for now.

      What really tied everything together into a singularly brilliant expression was Hank explaining what is happening to Walt: You're the smartest guy we all know, yet you are a dumb idiot in the face of evil. It had made its mind up ten minutes ago and you're still running your mouth trying to game it.

      There are no compromises to be made, no persuasion tactics, no tricks. Walt tries to offer morals - evil has no morals. Walt tries to offer money - evil already has its money. His money. When Hank spoke his last words, I almost thought they would straight up kill Walt as well afterwards, since they have no need for him anymore. But this is, I guess, why so much emphasis was put on the colorful train heist story time before. Evil at least respects evil. This is the tiny bit of leeway Walt has bought himself. A shallow prize to win when you think about how different this scene could have played out.

      The episode even shortly mislead us into believing that Walt volunteered the location of the money for a return that would never come. Nope, evil uncle here had already put 2 and 2 together.

      Heck, they could have waited on the side, let the cops leave and then start digging. But nope again, that was not the maximum amount of cruelty and benefit to evil that was possible. (They were also still hoping to get Walt cooking again.)

      Hank is the only person who really knows this because he has seen it all the time in his career. We were quick to discard it as heroic or idealistic. But it simply is realistic. He played a tough guy because that's all you can do.

      This brings us back to Jesse - Once again an indentured servant. He had many brushes with it before, but now it's the full story. Don't comply and we will destroy the tiny bit of humanity that you have left, the last people you care about.

      For the longest time, Walt was the fantasy of drug dealer extravagance - you're brilliant and resourceful, you get all the bells and whistles, all the money, all the cool guy, badass attitude and only when things get a little rough do you need to show up and play tough until the problem mostly deals with itself by one kind of magic or another. When "push came to shove" he was a bumbling idiot. An amateur, wannabe tough guy who at least got away with it somehow.

      But Jesse is what actually happens: You end up as a literal slave to that thin sliver of ambition that you have erected against your drug fueled self loathing. You were hopeful, resilient, you tried to outsmart it. Instead, you end up drenched in self loathing from start to finish, long after your ambition has left you. It has destroyed everything except itself minus two innocent people that are only alive so that Jesse produces for the benefit of evil.

      And for how long? How long until Meth Damon can produce the shade of blue that Lydia requested? The only silver lining on that horizon is that he might prove himself a useful peon, living a little longer in the service of an evil that he is now physically scared of. That he crawls away from in his pit, beaten, bloody and bruised, that he no longer even begs mercy from (except for begging to be believed that he told the truth) because he knows there is none to be expected.

      As for Meth Damon - By now it is kind of hard to fathom just how uncompromisingly straight evil this character is played. Hiding behind that thick forhead is a clockwork that maximises evil in every situation it is applied. Make no mistake about it - he was the one responsible for torturing Jesse, who pulled together the strings about what cute picture they have to put on the wall to keep him in line. He said the first directly to his uncle, the second was probably a direct result of it. Even more than that, he now put Jesse on a literal leash.

      Think about that for a second - Jesse was pulled out of a hole in the ground after being beaten for what seems like days. He has no idea what is happening to him and he gets brought up into a lab.

      And then he is chained to an iron bar on the ceiling, put up there for the express purpose of abusing him for money.

      (Him and Meth Damon in one room is also interesting because they're such a stark contrast. Jesse went out of his way to protect a child while his opposite shot one in cold blood for profit. Jesse slipped into a world of evil he doesn't understand while the other was brought up in a culture of evil.)

      Still, his fate is the hardest to predict. I guess mostly because it's so bloody hard to read either his actions or his face.

      As for my predictions for this episode, only one came true: People were already shot. it just wasn't shown yet. Gomey was made a red shirt (kind of literally) (I mean come on - a shotgun at that distance? Really?) and Hank is incapacitated. No keeping them alive for whatever purpose, no pre meditated scheme to trick them into emptying their magazines. Just death.

      Predicting what will follow is tough, of course, but I don't see much room for salvation.

      Walt has already extracted the maximum from his dilemma for his family by absolving Skyler from the status of an accomplice and he had to add "kidnapper" to his downward spiral to purchase it. He cut the tiny thread that their marriage was left dangling on by first assaulting and then insulting his wife. He has made himself a monster in the eyes of his son and all he got from his daughter was a diaper change, a hug and the certainty that, really, she'd rather be with her mom. (Cranston deserves all the Emmies for that scene alone, although he can share a couple with Gunn for the scene on the streets. Goddamnit, the onions. Both of them. All of them! Jeez!)

      The only open threads now left are Jesse and the power that he has transferred to the Aryans in the form of 70 millions and a soon to be thriving meth production. I think just as the phone conversation with Skyler, telling Jesse about how he watched his girlfriend die was about coming to terms with the extent of his own downfall and displaying it to others (the Aryans in this case) so that he can purchase a sliver of leeway. Not sure how he will use it for Jesse, but making it brutally clear to the nazis that he cut his ties with Jesse would make a good cover for any further action.

      But in the long run, I don't have much hope for either Jesse or Walt.

      It is obvious to me now that Jesse has to die to finally prove the point that his role of a self loathing addict has precisely one outcome - death. It's the writers way of saying: No seriously, no bullshit or funny high school educational videos. Seriously, this is what will happen to you. You will have a bad time and then you will die and even that won't be so great.

      Similarly, Walt has only his own life to offer now. Maybe we will see a little play on how he would soon die of cancer anyways, but the only tool he has left is a suicide mission. Hence the BFG and Poison Pill. Only then will he finally, literally, have swallowed his pride.

      The last remaining hope I have is that he will force himself into a corner, almost kill himself with the Ricin (so as to not also become a servant) and then find a last option out. Pretty sure if they go this far, he won't survive that either, though. If he does, it will probably be about Lydia - she showed before that she can be manipulated with certain pressure points.

      This series, man, I tell you. Phew.

    4. Even better - at precisely that time, the credit for the DoP runs: http://i.imgur.com/bCfMpRL.jpg

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