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.
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