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Review: “Ozymandias,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 14

September 15th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in review | television

Ozymandias, Breaking Bad

Years ago, around the time the Watchmen movie came out, I was speaking with a friend of mine. He said he didn’t like how obviously the film framed Ozymandias as a villain; in my friend’s opinion, the graphic novel left that much open for interpretation.

Yes, the character was indeed responsible for the loss of many lives. But ultimately, my friend argued, it was worth it. He did it for the right reasons, and there was a substantial net benefit to the carnage. There was, at least arguably, a justifiable ends to the means.

And throughout season five of Breaking Bad — both halves — I’ve seen people defending Walter for the same reason. Of course we can criticize his methods…but isn’t he doing these things for the right reason?

After “Ozymandias,” I think somebody would have to work pretty hard to defend any aspect of Walter White’s character. This was comic book Ozymandias sliding into silver screen Ozymandias*, right before our eyes.

We might have been able to make those arguments before. It was ultimately for his family. He was loyal to Jesse. If there was any way to minimize the violence, he would.

…but not anymore. Walter is a villain. There is no debating it. And perhaps you’ll be disappointed for the same reason my friend was disappointed. I can sympathize, if that’s the case; it’s always more satisfying to be able to explore shades of grey for ourselves than it is to have the world broken into blacks and whites.

Oh well. These aren’t our rules. We’re not entitled to anything. We crave things that we can’t have.

“To’hajiilee” ended where it did because if it had continued even one second further, we would have known. We would have known there was no hope. Like Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory deciding not to tell Charlie that the final golden ticket has been found, the show needed to let us have just one more dream.

The cold open of “Ozymandias” makes the distinction as clear, cold, and inarguable as it needs to be. We get a flashback to the afternoon of Walt and Jesse’s very first cook. Back to when we could sympathize with Breaking Bad‘s main character. Back to when Jesse was not broken and could still function as comic relief. Back to when there was a future to look forward to…whether that was financial stability for the Whites, or something as simple as a pizza with the family after a long day.

But it fades. As it must. And it’s replaced by the direct and fatal result of those seeds planted with the best of intentions: Steve Gomez dead on the ground. Hank about to be shot through the head. And Walt brainlessly bargaining his money away for nothing.

All of the bodies. All of the blood. All of the carnage and the treachery and the deceit. The innocent and not so innocent lives caught in the crossfire. Gale. Mike. Gus. Drew Sharp. Jane. They were all inside of those barrels. And Walt traded them away. For nothing. Hank is dead. As it had to be.

And just as I was able to feel sorry for Walter toward the end of the last episode, for the first time in what feels like ages, I was able to feel for him again here…bargaining with the only thing he has left, and losing it all. When Walter fell to the ground my heart fell with him. Hank could not be spared. Of course he couldn’t. We hoped anyway. And then he was gone.

And as solid as the contrast between the cold open and the action of the episode, we saw how Walter handled his next problem: he turned in Jesse Pinkman, consented to his torture, and then plunged and twisted an unnecessary blade into the boy’s heart.

No more excuses, folks.

This isn’t Heisenberg. This is Walter White.

I think everybody has their own idea of when Walt finally became irredeemable. Fittingly enough, a very common one is the moment he let Jane die. Bryan Cranston himself seems to think it happened in the very first episode, simply because he allowed himself to become something he wasn’t. For me, I’d say it’s when he killed Mike. Not because Mike was a saint or a hero, but simply because of the context of the killing: Mike was no kind of threat. Mike was on his way to a new life, to ride out the rest of his days as a quiet old man in a place where nobody could hurt him. Any other time Walt killed, there was some justification…sturdy or not…that it was that, or be killed himself. But in the case of Mike, he was just being a dick.

And, of course, there are those who continued to feel that Walt was redeemable. That there was no moment that permanently shifted him into the realm of being hopelessly lost.

I wonder if any of those remain after seeing what he did to Jesse. I wonder how any of those could remain after seeing what he did to Jesse.

He knew — exactly as we knew — what would happen when he nodded to Uncle Jack. He knew — exactly as we knew — where Jesse was going, and what was going to happen. He knew — exactly as we knew — what finally confessing about Jane would do to the boy. And he doesn’t just let it happen…he makes it happen. The scarred and disfigured Jesse Pinkman, manacled and terrified in an underground cell…Walt did that. And he did it deliberately.

“Ozymandias” was difficult to watch. I started working my way back through Breaking Bad when this half season began, and it’s amazing how much the show changes as it goes on, without ever actually losing (or even substantially altering) its identity. The worst of Walt was present from the start…it was just easier to overlook in the face of his more realistic goals, his identifiable concern for his family, and the basic comedy inherent in his situation. After all, he’s a chemistry teacher who teams up with a former student to cook meth. That’s a can’t-miss premise…and sure enough, it didn’t miss. Hank’s body, buried in To’hajiilee, will attest to that. This is where it all had to go.

And that’s okay. “Ozymandias” was supposed to be difficult to watch. That’s the point. There was something there to make everybody wince. The death of Gomez. The death of Hank. Walt turning Jesse in. Jesse’s face. The photograph of Andrea. Marie’s assurance that Walt had been captured. Marie learning that Hank was dead. Skyler learning that Hank was dead. Walt Jr. learning that his father was a drug dealer. The abduction of Holly. The knife.

And all of this — all of it — follows on directly from the previous episode. Marie visiting the carwash? Yep, that’s the same shift that just featured the Saul and Junior double act. Hank’s brains being blown all over the desert sand? Yep, that’s the same plan that followed on from the comical interrogation of Huell. That’s why “To’hajiilee” broke where it did. This is another chapter…tightly related to what came before, but completely, totally, brutally distinct.

As my uncle used to say…it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

I’m also genuinely in awe of just how callously the episode handled the death of a major character like Hank. That is to say…it just kept going.

No beautiful shot of the violence, no slow motion collapse…no gentle pop song to give us pause. Just a bullet, and then it’s time to dig up the money. It was made more painful simply because we didn’t have time to dwell. We wanted to go back…

…but there is no going back.

Just further into the future.

I hope you got your laughs in last week. I hope you enjoyed that brief flash of happier times that opened the episode. And I hope Jesse Pinkman got a good, long last look at those birds.

Horsefellow, Breaking Bad

—–
* Yes, I’m aware that the Watchmen Ozymandias isn’t what’s being referenced here. I just thought it was an interesting parallel. And I’m still kinda reeling SO SUE ME

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21 Responses

  • E[X] says:

    > Yes, the character was indeed responsible for the loss of many lives. But ultimately, my friend argued, it was worth it.

    Tell your friend he’s wrong, that’s what Tales of the Black Freighter is for: the end doesn’t justify the means (because, as Dr. Manhattan points out, there is no end).

  • Jeff says:

    Steve Gomez lying dead on the ground, like an afterthought, with no attention given to how it happened… Dead like the Star Trek crew member in the red shirt. But Steve wasn’t just some expendable scrub; he was an integral part of Hank’s operation. He was a substantial character on the show. And he deserved better.

    p.s. Congrats to Phil on calling it, by the way! Although predicting someone’s death on this show is something like predicting that a major sports star will soon be busted for PEDs…

    • Philip J Reed says:

      I went into this more or less knowing Gomez wasn’t going to get out of the episode alive. Then I saw what happened to Jesse, Jeff, and started thinking YOU wouldn’t make it out of the episode alive.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Also I think the Gomez death was about right. Unsatisfying…but unsatisfying by design. For a major character like Hank, who served as a second lead in many episodes, we got nothing. He didn’t have a chance, and wasn’t even allowed to finish his sentence. The plot keeps moving. With that in mind, a shot of Gomez’s dead body seems about right.

      The thing is that we want there to be more, because those characters, as you said, deserve more. And that’s right. But the empire Walt has built doesn’t allow for them to get what they deserve. They’re slain by Nazis in the desert and buried without their wives even seeing the bodies.

      The same thing happened with Mike. One minute he’s a major character, the next he’s a corpse being stuffed into a barrel. It’s no coincidence that the Drew Sharp killing was handled in precisely the same way, with a similar lack of mourning by those responsible. This IS how death is handled in the world that Walt created. There is no mourning. There’s the killing, the cover up, and the moving on.

      Believe me…I wanted more from both of those deaths. And I can’t express how strange it felt for the episode to just keep moving after Hank was shot…it felt disrespectful. But artistically speaking? It was exactly right. We’re in a bad place, and we’re not even given time to grieve the dead.

      • Tara says:

        I’m just a tiny bit thankful that at least they didn’t show Hank’s body. I don’t think I could have handled that, even if it was Monty Python-level fake.

        …and now I feel like an ass because I just make myself laugh. Through tears of misery, but, you know, still laughing.

        • Philip J Reed says:

          I got about a third of the way through rewriting the Black Knight scene in my head so that it stars Uncle Jack and Hank, thanks to you. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

  • Halibut says:

    Vince Gilligan has gone on record saying that he hates Walt and truly feels he is a villain at this point.

    And then he goes onto write scenes like the one that closed the episode. Walt’s ‘villainous’ phone call that portrays Skylar as a hostage to all of Heisenberg’s nefarious deeds was another one of those moments that show how much Walt really does care about his family. He has always tried to save them and always will. Jesse aside, of course.

    What a great episode.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Yeah, he’s absolutely a villain at this point. He’s a villain who still has some sort of ethical compass (however warped it clearly is), but that doesn’t diminish his villainous standing…it just gives him a direction to fire in, and a direction to fire away from. I like that even though Gilligan sees him very concretely as a villain, he still allows this temporary haziness to creep in. So well done.

      And regarding that phone call…that was pretty incredible. I remember seething at Walt through the entire thing…then seeing him cry and wondering why and then OH GOD IT DAWNED ON ME.

      Even at his worst, there’s still humanity in there. Again, it doesn’t make him less of a villain or even more of a figure to root for…but it sure does give us some masterfully conflicted moments along the way.

      • Halibut says:

        Well said.

        I really appreciate the fact that even though Walt IS a full-blown villain at this point, he isn’t necessarily written as a FULL-BLOWN VILLAIN (all caps). I’m just going to parrot what you said because I really enjoyed how you worded it; the writers allow for a temporary haziness to creep in.

        Walt didn’t change who he was deep down for the sake of the plot to develop him into the series’ Big Bad. He’s still the same character as he was in the beginning. The same flaws, the same cares, the same morality. It’s just that his flaws have progressed to obsessions which have ultimately engulfed his good qualities.

  • Pete says:

    There was a slither of hope when I saw him catch sight of Jesse under the car. Would they team up, ride away, call an unlikely truce and plot their revenge on the Nazi bastards?

    Nope.

    These are Walt’s people now. He would prefer to enact revenge on Jesse. And do it in the most sadistic way possible; confess to watching Jane die so that thought can haunt Jesse for the rest of his, supposedly, short life.

    And again, during the horrific scenes at the house, I just wanted Skyler and Walter JR to GET IN THE DAMNED CAR. And how dare they call the police after Walt had managed to evade Hank and Gomez?

    I clearly have psychological issues.

    Looking back to that moments, I realise how utterly misguided I am. This man will not see sense. He will not repent and give us *that* kind of ending. He’s no longer even particularly smart. He’s running on anger and bullshit. This man is the devil.

    My only hope now is that Jesse somehow gets out of this alive.

    PS. Incredible TV. The show that keeps on topping itself…topped itself.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Man I almost forgot the bit with Jesse under the car. No, not forgot…suppressed.

      When we got our first glimpse of him down there I remember feeling relieved. He’s okay! Hooray! I wasn’t even worried that it was Walter that spotted him, because I forgot completely the reason the Nazis were there at all: BECAUSE WALT WANTED THEM TO KILL JESSE AND THAT HASN’T CHANGED.

      The moment Walt said “Found him,” that’s when it hit me. That’s when I actually remembered. The danger of the gunfight was over, but there was still a job to do. It hit me like a cold brick. That scene of them pulling him from under the car while he screams is one of the most heartbreaking and harrowing things this show has ever done.

      For the first time ever I was wishing that Jesse WOULD be killed. Because that would have been far preferable to what was fated from that point on.

      Having said that, of course, I look forward to Badger and Skinny Pete’s successful rescue operation next week. Because if that doesn’t happen I’m pretty sure I’m going to die of despair.

      • Tara says:

        OMG had not even contemplated a Badger and Skinny Pete rescue! That would be awesome! I so hope you’re right. Although it will be all the sadder when not-Matt Damon shoots them down to impress that uptight lady crush of his. I don’t know why I’m so bad at names right now.

        When he pointed out Jesse under the car, I thought maybe Jesse had snagged a gun and would come out blasting or something, saving Walt and making them “friends” again. I thought maybe the gun that was in the trunk of that car in the beginning of Season 5 would come out of their survival of the scene, maybe stolen from the cop car or something.

  • tom says:

    Todd to Walter :
    “I’m sorry for your loss”
    Nobody seems to noticed this incredible comment.

    • Jeff says:

      Ha, Tom, I did notice it… I think I woke half my neighborhood with my shrieking, uncomfortable laugh. That was great TV writing.

      And Phil, I realize that I actually believe Jesse is going to live. If that makes me crazy, it’s certainly no crazier than watching this nightmarish show as obsessively as I do.

    • Pete says:

      “I’m sorry for your loss”

      That was the excuse to laugh that i needed. And then I hated myself immediately afterwards.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Hahaha, the fact that I didn’t talk about such a perfect moment says a lot about how much else there was to cover. See also: the way a ticking clock was high in the audio mix during the scenes at the White residence. So much to talk about…so little (ahem) time.

      Regarding the “sorry for your loss” comment though, I love that it’s not totally clear what Todd’s motivations are for saying it. He could just be a dick, he could say it because he IS actually sorry for the man he respects to have to have seen that, and he could just be saying it because he’s not all “there” just knows it’s something that somebody might say after a person dies.

      And I think any of those readings work. And probably a few more. For such late-game entries, Todd and Lydia have a hell of a lot of character behind them, even if we don’t get it explicitly spelled out. Moments like the one you mentioned speak to that very clearly. This might be the home stretch, but the writers aren’t taking it easy.

  • Justin says:

    This show just keeps getting better and better, inexplicably. Luckily for it there’s not much left so I can maintain my expectation that it will hold this trajectory.

    Not much else to say except that I like the symmetry of burying Steve Gomez and Hank in the same hole where Walt hid his money, from one secret buried in the desert to another.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Yeah at this point I think we can count safely on a grand slam. Next week is (probably) Walter’s new life in New Hampshire and the destruction of the White home, and the week after that is whatever Gilligan and his crew of psychological tormentors decided to save for last.

      At this point I can’t even begin to imagine what that might be.

  • William Hamberlin says:

    For what its worth, Hanks death reminded me of Rorschach’s death. Though Rorschach pretty much chose his death while Hank was more just accepting his death, they both come down to the fact that they refuse to be silent.

    They were both had an opportunity to stay quiet and avoid death (though lets be honest, Hank was going to die regardless of the money or wether or not he was going to talk.) But they both refused. And not only did they both accept their deaths, they pretty much told their respective killers to get it over with. And neither killer delays or expresses any remorse for their actions. They simply walk away and accept what had to happen.

    “Never compromise. Even in the face of armageddon.” Still my favorite quote in all of fiction.

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