Breaking Bad Review: "Ozymandias" (Episode 5.14)
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Breaking Bad each week in a series of letters. Want to join the conversation and see your name on the digital pages of Paste? We publish a Breaking Bad Mailbag every Friday to whet our appetites for the new episodes. Mailbags require actual mail, so send your Breaking Bad questions, theories, and rants to BreakingPaste@gmail.com before Friday, and Josh or Shane—possibly both!—will answer the best ones.)
Just finished watching “Ozymandias,” and I have to be honest with you: It wasn’t that funny.
My apologies. I’m Irish, and my reaction to extreme emotional distress is to joke. This was the most affecting Breaking Bad episode yet—messy, jarring, flawed, and wonderful—and I feel a little like Walt, struggling to figure out how I should react to each wrench in the works. I have only my feeble humor to defend me!
But I’ll drop the shield, because this deserves a serious treatment. First off, the list of things that just plain happened is unbelievable. Hank died, Gomez died, Jesse got kidnapped and tortured, the sisters had their confrontation, Skyler confessed everything to Flynn, Skyler tried to kill Walt, Walt kidnapped Holly, returned her at a fire station, and then escaped to God knows where. For a season that has included its share of slow-burn episodes, that is an incredible amount to digest. One thing’s clear—the mountains and valleys of the race are behind us, and we have arrived at the frantic closing sprint.
In some ways, it was like the writers paced themselves so well at the beginning of this season that they arrived at the final stretch and went, “oh, shit. We still have 15 HUGE beats to hit, and I don’t know if we left ourselves enough time.” It’s hard to take that critical step backward and analyze everything that went down, but then again, I’m not complaining. Because it wasn’t just the action that scored a direct hit; the whole 43-minute experience was an emotional bullseye, and the argument between Walt, Skyler, and Flynn at the house was, to me, the most riveting scene in the entire series.
But let’s start with the episode title, “Ozymandias.” It’s the Greek name for an great Egyptian pharaoh, but is best known as a poem by Percy Blythe Shelley with the famous line, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Out of context, it’s a declaration of greatness, but within the poem the words are written on a broken statue of the pharaoh that lies in the desert in disrepair, surrounded by great swaths of nothingness. The idea is a simple one: All empires
collapse, all great men will be brought low by time and history. The last five lines of the sonnet:
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.
It’s not difficult to guess that Walt is Ozymandias, but it so happens that history moves a bit quicker in New Mexico than ancient Egypt. Everything that Walt valued in a former life is gone. We saw his last vestige of humanity in the opening minutes, when he begged and pleaded and cajoled and connived to save Hank’s life. To no avail, of course—Uncle Jack, king of the Peckerwoods, had no incentive to leave a DEA agent alive, especially when Hank committed fully to dying with honor.
After Hank’s death, there’s nothing. One of the most chilling moments in a chilling episode came immediately after, when Walt spotted Jesse, outed him, and gave Uncle Jack the nod to end his earthly suffering. Only some thinly veiled sadism on Todd’s part kept him alive, for now, but there was no mercy to be found in Walt’s cold eyes. Unlike Hank, who was just doing his job, Jesse had betrayed him. Ditto for Skyler and now Flynn, who invoked his wrath and sparked an impromptu abduction and a somehow-even-more-disturbing roadside rant denigrating Skyler for her meddlesome, hindering ways. (He sounded a lot like the Skyler-haters of the Internet, didn’t he? Classy haters like myself not included.)
Oddly enough, amid all the chaotic plot movement, the line that just killed me was when Skyler finally accused Walt of killing Hank.
Walt: No..no…NO! I tried to save him!
But he breaks down on the last words, with two realities creeping. First, Hank is dead. Second, even if Walt tried to save his life in the final moments, he killed him just the same. The way Bryan Cranston managed to convey the last remnants of Walt’s vulnerability, at a time when the viewer had every right to consider him a remorseless psychopath, killed me. He recovered just enough to insist that they all pack up and escape, but by then he’d lost them for good, and instead of following his lead, Skyler drew a knife and Flynn dialed 9-1-1.
For Walt, everything is gone but the money. And the reason he doesn’t just kill himself is because Jesse was right; he loves the money at least enough to sustain him. And with Hank dead, he loves it beyond anything that remains, up to and including the family that was the sole justification for starting his odyssey in the first place. It was no accident that the cold open flashed us back to Walt’s first lie. Maybe he sold his soul that early; maybe the original sin put meth and money and power above family right away. We argue about when Walt crossed the line, but maybe in Vince Gilligan’s universe, you cross the line the first time you knowingly deceive, and the rest is just a long downhill stumble in a punishing universe.
So, yeah, what I mean to say is: Holy f***ing shit, that episode.
Josh, you’ve always been an Ozymandias-like figure to me (powerful pharaoh era, not broken statue era), so before I start making panic jokes again, I’ll kick it your way.
Every TV-show review should include at least a few lines of Shelley. But I had a very different take from Walt’s roadside rant. He clearly knows Skyler isn’t alone, knows she wouldn’t be alone after the abduction of Holly. This is the best acting of Walt’s life, all for the sake of the cops listening in. He’s a bad actor when trying to cover his own ass, but he’s brilliant here, trying to protect his family, even after he’s turned on them.
And that was the most curious thing to me tonight. Walt has now been betrayed by Jesse and by his family. He can’t forgive Jesse. Even after he begs for Hank’s life, showing some shred of care for someone outside his wife and kids, he has no mercy for Jesse who turned informant. But Skyler and Flynn—all it takes is Holly crying “mamama” in that restroom for Walt to realize that Skyler is all she’ll soon have and he needs to keep her out of jail. “I warned you for a solid year, you cross me, there will be consequences. … ‘You have to stop, Walt.’ … You have no right to discuss anything that I do—what the hell do you know about it anyway? Nothing. I build this, me, me alone. Nobody else.”
It’s worth noting that Rian Johnson directed this breathtaking episode. In addition to the imaginative movies Brick and Looper, he was also at the helm of a couple earlier episodes, including “Fly,” which our readers probably don’t need me to describe for them. Other than perhaps a little heavy-handedness as Walt, Jesse and the RV disappear from the landscape in the flashback to be replaced by the end of the shootout, it was a near-perfect hour of television. And maybe something that heavy was called for as we pick back up from the shoot-out to learn that at least one of the peckerwoods can aim a gun. Hank’s death hit me hard, and I probably audibly gasped when Walt gave Uncle Jack the remorseless nod to execute Jesse. Thank God Todd still feels the need for a meth professor even after getting his share of the $69 million windfall. I guess he doesn’t want to let down Lydia.
But almost as much as I’ve dreaded Jesse’s death, I’ve dreaded Flynn’s discovery of what Walt has been doing. “Just breathe,” Marie tries to tell him, sounding as out of her depth with him as her therapist was with her. R.J. Mitte, who’s been so great as the only convincing bit of innocence anywhere in this broken environment, conveyed all the anger, denial, confusion and utter betrayal that’s been the timebomb we’ve been watching tick away. As he throws aside his crutches and dives in front of his mother to protect her, as he calls the cops, unafraid of what his father might do, he proves incorruptible—no longer Walt Jr., but Flynn, his own man. And Betsy Brandt, having her fears confirmed by Walt on speakerphone—the silent anguish as her world comes crashing down—was equally great.
If the final two episodes are anything like this, I feel like all our questions will be answered. Walt has 69,000,001 reasons to go after the Peckerwoods now—his money and his brother-in-law. And if Jesse is left alive, he’s got a reason to go after him too. His hatred runs deep enough to tell Jesse he let Jane die. There aren’t really any secrets between them left. He’s still got a family to protect and cancer eating away at his body. And you know that he’ll soon have a plan.
Man, I’m feeling pretty dim right now. There was a small part of me that thought Walt took a strange tone with Skyler, that he was minimizing her role in his business, but I chalked up to his ever-expanding ego and megalomania. I really wish I’d picked up what you did, and which is now so obvious that I can’t even mount a token self-defense—with that phone call, Walt is protecting Skyler. I have no excuse, really, but if I weregoing to make an excuse, it would be that my mind was reeling from all the other developments, and I’m used to Walt as a bad actor and so wasn’t prepared for him to go all Sir Laurence on me knowing the cops were listening. Still, this doesn’t exonerate me. I wish my ignorance wasn’t on such prominent display, but at least this ensures I won’t get a big head like Walt. To quote Seinfeld lawyer Jackie Chiles, this is the most public yet of my many humiliations.
You talked about weaknesses in an otherwise great episode, and I was back and forth on the disappearing Walt and Jesse shot at the start. It did feel heavy-handed, like a trick you learn in the first month of film schools, but at the same time I had to admit to myself that it looked pretty cool. Knowing it was Rian Johnson directing makes me want to give him the benefit of the doubt, because Brick was one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen, and a rare case where a film centered around young people (and made by a young director) takes a stylistic risk that doesn’t come off as a pretentious failure.
The one part of “Ozymandias” that felt a bit corny to me came when Walt was begging for Hank’s life, and delivered his, “It’s Hank. His name is Hank” routine. But that was possibly because it bore a striking resemblance to a similar line from the greatest movie of our time, The Matrix. I can imagine Hank being sort of bitter, wherever he is now, that one of the last dramatic lines of his life was delivered by his enemy, and was essentially a cliche. “Wait, you’re not seriously going to make me go out on that, are you? No, don’t shoot, come on…let me think of something cool real quick, just give me a second and I’ll NO, DO NOT PULL THAT TRIGGER RIGHT NOW WHEN THE LAST THING I HEARD WAS FROM THE F***ING MATRIX YOU PECKERWOOD SON OF A—” [Gunshot]
But that’s nitpicking. Now that I know Walt (sort of) has a heart again, I’ll move on to the others. I have to agree that Betsy Brandt killed this episode. She was big enough to forgive Skyler when she thought Walt’s run had come to an end, which just made the ultimate reality so heartbreaking; watching her give her sister another chance while we knew Hank was dead was the hardest moment this show has had until her reaction when Walt confirmed that Hank was gone. Brandt didn’t get a ton of screen time, but she made hay while the sun shone.
I also want to talk about that son of a bitch Todd. I don’t know about you, but seeing Jesse’s face transformed him from a semi-amusing sociopath into someone that turned my stomach. I know what you’re thinking; shouldn’t that have happened that one time when he MURDERED A KID, SHANE. Well, okay, you’ve got me there. But something about the psychological creepiness of keeping Jesse in a pit and then tying him by the waist to that weird hoist made me feel like I was watching a nightmare play out. He now seems a whole lot sinister, and I want to see some real emotion on his face before Walt or Jesse sends him to hell.
Also, that kid shouldn’t have been snooping around.
One thing I’m sad about is that we didn’t get to see Saul, and it sort of feels like now that he sent Walt to safety, his role in what remains is close to finished. I’m hoping the writers shoehorn him in somehow, because I want an epic Saul send-off to close out the season. And no, the fact that the Saul spin-off show got approved by AMC is no consolation, because you never really know how those things will go.
One last thing before I send it back—did Holly just pull off the greatest acting job by a child under two years old in television history? And in the category of characters in a major show who only say one word, are you on Team Holly or Team Hodor?
Does this mean you’ve given up your dream of Todd and Lydia’s happily ever after? Because I’m not even sure I like Landry anymore, and I’ve got mixed feelings about whoever did Jesse’s makeup because holy hell. Add in Aaron Paul’s utter terror when Todd comes climbing down that ladder and the photo of Andrea and Brock to motivate him, and Walt suddenly seems like a pretty decent fellow by comparison.
But then, Walt is the man who sent Jesse to this particular nightmare with smug satisfaction in his heart in the first place. Any remorse or mercy he extends to Hank and to his family who’ve all betrayed him, he can’t offer to Jesse, even though he’d given Jesse more reason to turn against him than even his own son. I’d written earlier that I’d love to see the show end with Walt saving Jesse, but he’d need to find a reason to first. Still, I do think that M60 has both Todd and Jack’s name on it, so I’m holding out hope like an idiot.
So two more episodes to wrap all this up. I do think we’ll get to see (or at least hear) more of Saul—it’s his voice narrating the entire preview for next week. To keep his wife out of jail, Walt is going to have to return to tie up all the loose ends (please don’t die, Huell!). Plus, Peter Gould, who’s co-creating the Just Call Saul spin-off is credited as the writer and director of the episode.
There are still questions to be answered: Who wrote “Heisenberg” on that wall? I’d thought it might be Marie trying to avenge Hank, but it looks like she’ll be busy trying to keep the rest of her family together. It still could be Jesse if he escapes from the pit of despair. Flynn seems like a bit of a stretch.
I imagine next week will be something of a calm before the final storm, a chance for us to catch our collective breathes. But then, when has this show done anything that was expected.
PS – I totally missed this, caught by commenter on Vulture’s review. (C’mon, step it up, Paste commenters. What else did we miss?)
Great pick-up by Vulture on the pants front, especially with the tie-in to the “two vast and trunkless legs” line from the poem. I didn’t catch this while watching the episode, but I want it on the record that if it had been tighty-whiteys instead of khakis, I would have been all over that. (Wait…do I really want that on the record?)
Anyway, I’m glad you think we’re getting more Saul. I don’t know about you, but if I were the Southwest’s foremost scummy lawyer, I wouldn’t mind if Walt died right about now. It would tie up some loose ends quite nicely and make sure the heat never came down on me. At the same time, I’d be pretty damn terrified to do anything about it myself, lest I fail and ingest poison smoke from the vents when coming into work the next day. But my incentive to go above and beyond would be significantly diminished. His return on investment has been maxed out, and at this point whatever extra money he makes won’t be worth the risks. You have to wonder if he’ll quietly play into whatever demise Walt meets.
Also, Josh, you cravenly avoided the question so as not to anger the partisans on either side of this divisive issue, SO I ASK YOU AGAIN, SIR: Team Holly, or Team Hodor?
So, we’re not at that stage where I’m simultaneously looking forward to next week, but also dreading it because the thrill ride is almost over. The timing is right, but it’s still bittersweet. Do you have any sort of sad memorial thing planned for the end? I’m thinking of throwing some kind of Heisenberg wake here in North Carolina. Anyway, I’ll throw it back to you with one more Game of Thrones reference, and a slight variation on my normal sign-off:
Please don’t die, Jesse Pinkman…unless Todd goes all Ramsay Bolton on you and makes your life such a tortured living hell that it’s actually better to die.
PS – Still want to see Todd and Lydia hook up.
Remember, send your Breaking Bad questions to BreakingPaste@gmail.com and check back on Friday for more Breaking Bad goodness. Also, follow Shane Ryan at @ShaneRyanHere and Josh Jackson at @JoshJackson on Twitter.