The sweaty palms, the stomach knots, the heart palpitations you get when the world is turning to shit and it’s all your fault: that’s “Ozymandias.”
Written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson (“Fly,” Looper), this was an agonizing episode of TV. Watching it was like being on an old wooden roller coaster that thrilled and terrified you but made your back hurt so bad you worried that maybe you ruptured something. The title refers, of course, to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, alluded to in a memorable Breaking Bad promo a few weeks back, and referenced again, obliquely, in that the flashback prologue of Walt lying to Skyler on the phone while cooking meth with Jesse, then bantering about the name of the as-yet-unborn daughter that he’d kidnap by episode’s end and spirit away in the night like some horrible goblin. The prologue ends with a startling series of dissolves that erases Walt, then Jesse, then their mobile meth lab from the frame, leaving only the desert, which has no opinion on their early meth production, or on loot Walt would hide there in “Buried,” or on the shootout and other shenanigans that would happen there in the last couple of episodes.
A sense of indifference looms over this chapter’s panorama of death, betrayal and madness. The indifference is Nature’s, or God’s, or the universe’s. But there’s also a sense of futility, and this is entirely Walt’s. The “empire business” he arrogantly told Jesse he was in? Ruins. The looters are fighting over what’s left. His brother-in-law is dead, after turning on him, along with his wife Marie. His surrogate son Jesse turned on him, too, and in time so did his blood son, and his wife, who pulled a knife on him rather than allow him to bamboozle them into fleeing with the remains of Walt’s loot. (Seeing that shot of Walt frame right and Skyler’s butcher knife frame left reminded me of her season four line, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”) Everybody has turned on him except Saul, and I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if that shoe dropped in the next couple of weeks. “On the pedestal these words appear,” Shelley wrote. “‘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.”
“The reaction has begun,” Walt tells Jesse near the start of the flashback prologue. He’s talking about a chemical reaction, but “Ozymandias,” like most of the back half of season five, is about a dramatic reaction, a kind of moral/ethical recoil, or gag reflex — as if the cosmos finally had enough of Walter White and decided to puke him up, one leathery piece at a time. What’s Walter doing as he walks away from the Winnebago, cell phone in hand? Rehearsing a lie. It’s as if we’re seeing Walter White, aspiring actor, auditioning for the role of Heisenberg. The lie is convincing. Skyler buys it.
This flashback sets up the episode’s dramatic spine — the same one that has united the whole series and been especially prominent during this tense final stretch — the battle between Walter White and Heisenberg for possession of Walter’s soul. The fight was more violent this week than at any point prior: a sci-fi/horror spectacle on par with the transformations of The Wolfman, The Hulk and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All the other characters served as both chorus and splintered reflection of Walter/Heisenberg. One one side you had Jack, the sensible murderous Nazi with a “code” or somesuch nonsense, and Todd, who told a man who’d just watched his brother-in-law die “Sorry for your loss” with the heartfelt emotion of a drive-through cashier asking if you want fries with that. On the other side you had Marie, obliviously celebrating her husband’s presumed victory over the evil Walter White, yet somehow managing to show her sister a bit of empathy, even mercy; Skyler, who’d been veering toward Lady Macbeth territory recently but finally decided she’d had enough and sliced Walt’s hand with a butcher knife; and Walt, Jr., who greeted the revelations about his father with suitable horror and disgust, then dropped a dime on him to protect his mom.
You could almost divide the episode’s scenes or moments into two neatly labeled columns: “Property of Walter” and “Property of Heisenberg.” That’s how pronounced the character’s schizoid breakdown was — or appeared to be.
Walter White pleaded for Hank’s life (“He’s family — he’s my brother-in-law”) and even gave up his precious eighty million bucks to save him. Walter White insisted on his brother-in-law’s humanity by demanding Jack call him by name. Walter White wept when Hank died, his mouth twisting into a tipped-over boldfaced bracket as he lay on the parched earth, his contorted body evoking the kitsch figurine Skyler cheerfully told him she’d sold in that opening flashback: “A hideous crying clown.” It was Walter White running out of gas in the desert — a scene that ranked with the great modern spoofs of Western iconography: a Monument Valley-like panorama served as backdrop not for a stoic, macho cowboy, but for a bald man in glasses pushing a plastic barrel while “Say Goodbye to Everyone” mocked him on the soundtrack (foreshadowing more death in the future, or Walter’s disappearance/relocation at the end of “Ozymandias” — probably both). It was, I believe, Walter White who tried to escape with Skyler and Walt, Jr., and Holly, and who confessed to killing Hank when pressed, even though on some level he must have known the admission would destroy his last hope of keeping his family intact.
It was Heisenberg who gave Jesse up to Jack, and worse, to Todd, who beat Jesse’s face to a pulp and imprisoned him in a pit and trussed him up in the meth lab like a bad dog chained in a backyard run. (Or like Old Yeller.) Heisenberg even twisted a knife in Jesse’s gut by admitting he could have saved Jesse’s girlfriend Jane’s life back in season two when she started choking on her own vomit.
And it was Heisenberg who took Holly and stormed out.
Or was it?
These recaps (and their commenters) have talked a lot about the notion of people being (as per Walt Whitman) large, and containing multitudes, as well as the psychological concept of the human personality being able to sustain multiple “self states” at the same time, with no single “identity” necessarily eclipsing the others. That’s a long way of saying that even when Heisenberg is running the show, Walter’s still in there somewhere, and vice-verse, and that — despite the my sister/my daughter/my sister/my daughter psychological violence of Walter and Heisenberg in this episode, the character is still not either/or. He’s both/and. And after watching the episode a second time, I think that terrifying monologue he delivers to Skyler on the phone after he’s kidnapped Holly suggest that series creator Vince Gilligan and company have gone in a surprising and altogether perfect direction with the character, one that integrates Walter and Heisenberg in response to the Ozymandias-like crumbling of the man’s “empire.”
The gist: I do not believe, as some are already speculating, that when Walter spews all that venom at Skyler while the feds and Marie and Walt, Jr. listen in, that it’s “really” Walt pretending to be Heisenberg — i.e. that it’s all some big fake-out. I think that’s Heisenberg speaking. But I think it’s Heisenberg speaking on Walt’s behalf. I think this might be one of those rare moments on Breaking Bad — the rescue of Jesse at the end of “Full Measures” being another — where Walter wants to do something that Walter is just not capable of doing, something chaotic and frightening but ultimately good, and Heisenberg steps up to make it happen.
I transcribed that phone rant and Skyler’s reaction because it’s a pivotal moment in the episode, and because it’s just a flat-out great bit of dialogue writing, for many reasons. Here it is:
Walter: What the hell is wrong with you? Why can't you do one thing I say? This is your fault! This is what comes with your disrespect! I told you Skyler, I warned you for a solid year, you crossed me there will be consequences. What part of that didn't you understand?
Skyler: You took my child.
Walt: ‘Cuz you need to learn!
Skyler: You bring her back!
Walter: Maybe now you'll listen. Maybe now you'll use your damn head. You know, you never believed in me. You were never grateful for anything I did for this family. [Mocking her] 'Oh no! Walt! Walt! You have to stop! You have to stop this! It's immoral! It's illegal! Someone might get hurt!' You're always whining and complaining about how I make my money, dragging me down while I do everything. And now, now you tell my son what I do? After I've told you and told you to keep your damn mouth shut? You stupid bitch. How dare you.
I love how this scene is comprised mainly of the sorts of things that Skyler haters have been saying on message boards and in the comments sections of recaps since Breaking Bad debuted in 2008. It’s as if the show is using these same sentiments to rebut them: Walter’s voice is deeper and more monstrous, his tone more venomously cruel, than in any other exchange between him and Skyler. It takes the vicarious pleasure that some viewers take in the sight of milquetoast Walter White becoming The One Who Knocks and curdles it, makes it ugly, poisonous — as if the show is saying, “This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Here you go. Choke on it.” The shot of Walter and Skyler grappling against those sunny family portraits in the hallway, the shot of the knives next to the phone that Walter used to transmit so many lies and into which he spoke so many b.s. cover stories, the shot of Skyler’s sensible car pulling into the driveway behind the pickup truck Walter bought with drug money after escaping a shootout that killed Hank and Gomez, are all of a piece. The old social order seems to be crumbling here, along with Ozymandias’ empire, and Walter’s. This episode could have been called “Father Knows Beast.”
But there’s also a tactical element at play here, maybe — and it think it becomes more clear when you juxtapose the uncontrolled fear and rage that spiral into domestic violence against the tenderness and obvious guilt and shame that Walter shows in that bathroom with Holly — and the punchline of that rant, a pan left to reveal that Walter was parked near a fire station, perhaps the ultimate unambiguously positive signifier of old-fashioned, chivalrous impulses. I won’t go so far as to say Walter had a plan here — I think he was acting on impulse when he took Holly, and I suspect that his venomous monologue to Skyler on the phone was instinctive as well. But I also think he was acting in tandem with Heisenberg, if that makes sense. We’re long past the point where Walter has anything to gain from Heisenberg’s empire-building impulses, but the alter ego’s ruthlessness can still be of some use here, as it represents a certainly steeliness and sense of purpose that’ll come in handy as the last remaining shards of empire crumble.
Also worth noting: Skyler’s voice and expression in the tail-end of the monologue scene. She seems to be, not responding in disgust or fear, but realizing something, playing along with something, maybe not intentionally, but instinctively. What’s happening in this scene? What’s happening in the fire station sequence? What’s happening in that last scene, with Walt waiting by the road (backed by that field of stone monoliths that looks like a sci-fi cemetery) for Saul’s unofficial Witness Protection people to show up in a van and take him away? I think we’re seeing Walter cut his losses and get out, but maybe salvage a tiny, maybe ultimately meaningless bit of dignity and goodness as he makes his exit. That monologue is evidence. It’s testimony. It makes it seem as though Walt was as Hank and Marie described him: a terrifying, dominating, diabolical monster who demands fealty and deals death when he doesn’t get it. Though there’s plenty of evidence to complicate this cover story, Walt’s rant says, “My wife and my family were victims, I was the bad guy.” And his abduction of Holly says, “I’ve snapped. I’m crazy. There’s no telling what I’m capable of.” If this is indeed a strategy, which isn’t quite the same thing as a fully imagined plan, it’s not a bad one. It can’t heal all the wounds that Walter/Heisenberg inflicted on his family and community, but it can cauterize them, and stop the bleeding, if not now, then over time. And justice? Shelley had something to say about that, too: “Only nature knows how to justly proportion to the fault the punishment it deserves.” Walter White will get what’s coming to him eventually. I suspect the desert hasn’t seen the last of him.