Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, our roundtable of TheAtlantic.com's J.J. Gould, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss the latest happenings on AMC's show.
Kornhaber: There's this phrase I've used to describe Breaking Bad ever since chatting with a friend a while back about the scene where Jesse watched a junkie squash another junkie's head with an ATM. "That," the friend said, "was next-level harrowing."
As of now, we are many levels past next-level harrowing. Last week, I suggested Game of Thrones' "Red Wedding" scene beat anything Breaking Bad had done in terms of stressful TV-watching experiences. Tonight on Twitter, TV Guide's Oriana Schwindt described "Ozymandias" as the Red Wedding stretched out for an hour. That's basically right.
But it's to Breaking Bad's enormous credit that it didn't achieve this feat merely by blood, or surprises, or loss of life. After all, Hank's death, awful as it was, wasn't even the most emotional moment here. Ever since last week's cliffhanger, we've had time to adjust to the fact that, to paraphrase Uncle Jack, there was no feasible way ASAC Schrader was getting out alive. But who could have prepared for the various and profound kinds of agony the rest of the characters went through in this episode? For seeing Skyler and Walt wrestle each other for a carving knife while Walter Jr. watches and Holly wails? For Skyler falling to her knees as Walt drives away with their infant daughter? For Jesse learning the truth about Jane, and then being enslaved? For Marie learning of Hank's fate?
Given how powerfully each development landed, it's extraordinary--and, again, to the show's credit--that nearly everything that happened in this hour we could have seen coming. The hypothetical scenarios spun out in comments sections and in recaps over the past few weeks included most of the big plot points in this episode. Hank and Gomez die. The Nazis hold Jesse hostage to cook for them. Walter Jr. finds out about his father's crimes. Walt calls Saul's vacuum man. These things are shattering in the context of the show, yes, but they also come with an air of inevitability. It's the painful, necessary process of the world being set right.
The one spot of comedy in the episode, when Walt rolls his barrel of cash through the desert to an incongruous soundtrack, reminded me the myth of Sisyphus. That's probably intentional--the entire run of Breaking Bad has, essentially, been Walt rolling that barrel of money up a hill only to have it come thundering back down. Now, he's lost nearly everything and crossed nearly every line. And we know it pains him: His priorities are still such that he offers up the full $80 million for Hank's life, and his aspirations are such that he still insists to Skyler that all would be OK if she and Walter Jr. would just pack up and leave with him.
So once Hank's dead, once Skyler's slashed at him, once Walter Jr. has called the cops, once Jesse's turned out to be a rat, Walter White seems to undergo what may be his final, darkest transformation. He takes his own baby hostage. He threatens to kill Skyler. He tells Jesse about Jane. These seem like the transgressions of a vengeful man who's now, truly, only in it for himself.
But... maybe they aren't. The one moment that rang false tonight was Walter calling Skyler and ranting at her over the phone. That conversation displayed both a level of monstrousness we'd yet to see from Walter, and a stupidity that seemed out of character. Of course the cops would be listening in. Tears fell from his eyes as he snarled at his wife, and only after the episode finished did I realize that Walter had been putting on a show for Skyler's sake--going full-Heisenberg to make it seem like she'd been intimidated into keeping quiet. When he likely ensured Holly's return to Skyler by surrendering the baby at the fire station--god, that "mama" scene!--it was a sign that there's some humanity left in him. So here might be the true shock of the night: Hidden in this draining hour of TV, with two episodes remaining, we saw hints of Walter's redemption.
Or am I delusional?
Heller: We agree about one thing: "Ozymandias" is Breaking Bad's apotheosis of stress and pain. That was the best hour of television I've never wanted to see. But where you see shreds of redemption, I see proof of what the show has suggested all along. Walter White is an evil man, driven by a veiled devotion to his own magnificence.
We've got a lot to consider, obviously. Hank's death. Walt telling Jesse the truth about Jane. Skyler telling Flynn the truth about Walt. Todd forcing Jesse to cook. That dreadful knife fight. Rather than dissect each one of these tragedies--and that is exactly what they are--I can't stop thinking about how this episode works as a condemnation of Walt, even as he sacrificed his money and his family. Remember, Walt defended everything he did with a simple idea: His family needed a nest egg. That idea corrupted the suburban ideal of masculinity--a man provides for his family--into a justification for awful things. At times, Breaking Bad made you sympathize with Walt's motives. What man wouldn't do anything to protect his family? But Walt has protected nothing. When his wife and son are cowering from him in his own home, can he still claim to be a father? A husband? A man? "What the hell is wrong with you?" he says, moments before stealing his infant child from her mother. "We're a family. We're a family."
Think about how Walt "saved" Skyler with that threatening phone call. Yes, he knew that the police were listening in. You're right about that, Spencer. It's how he hopes to absolve her from his crimes. If the police think that Walt coerced Skyler into helping build his meth empire, maybe she'll escape punishment. Yet consider the subtext of that phone call: Did he mean what he said? Even if it was a ruse, did he believe it? Perhaps, in a dark recess of their shared mind, Heisenberg did. And Walt? The only thing he has left to offer to his family is the threat of violence. Maybe he believes what he said, maybe he doesn't. Either way, he's still deluded enough to think that he does what he does to help his family--even after he's lost them.
(A quick aside: Wasn't that phone call a perfect rebuke to the Skyler haters? Those accusations against her sounded very familiar.)
Walt's wrong, of course. He doesn't care about feeding his family; he cares about feeding his ego. The only thing an egomaniac loves more than himself is martyring himself. And where has that led him? To the back seat of an old minivan, forced onto the road toward what he fears most: an ordinary life alone, with neither family nor drug dealers nor any inferiors to marvel at his brilliance. This is his hell.
That's the genius of "Ozymandias," down to its title. It isn't just the downfall of Walter White. In a remarkably direct way, it's Percy Shelley's prose come to life. Read the poem--or even better, listen to Bryan Cranston's reading of it--and you'll see what I mean. "A shattered visage" lying in the desert. "The lone and level sands" stretching far away, a reminder that even mighty works are doomed to the dust. Rian Johnson, the director of this episode, turned Shelley's evocative poem into the canvas for Walt's utter collapse. Nothing beside two episodes remain. Now, despair!
Gould: Chris, I like your reading of "Ozymandias"--or of Ozymandiae, Shelley's and Walley-Beckett's/Johnson's. It's very much in keeping with how I've processed the rapid changes in Walt's character over Breaking Bad's final story arc. (E.g., here: "[Walt] has brought fragments of an older version of himself into the midst of a newer one that all but killed it off over decades. And the result is a very real, increasingly pure monster." Or here: "Walt doesn't seem to know this yet, but his old self has simply not survived in the world Heisenberg has created.")
And yet: I wonder if I might be seeing what Spencer might be seeing. We know Walt comes back. We know he guns up for a fight (presumably a big fight; it's a big gun). And we know he returns to the defaced ruins of his suburban Albuquerque bungalow to retrieve a ricin capsule he long ago hid behind a bedroom electrical outlet. What is he doing?
We don't really know whether any of this will mean redemption. Separately from the almost theological question of whether Walter White could truly redeem himself now, we don't really know whether that will be a purpose of his at all. Yes, at the beginning of this episode Walt attempts to sacrifice everything he has to save Hank; and yes, at the end he does sacrifice himself to save Skyler. But he also condemns Jesse being tortured and killed by the Aryans. It's totally evil.
Or it seemed like that's what Walt did. It seemed evil. There was, still, something oddly hesitant about the way he barely signaled his apparent kill order to Jack. Did Walt figure that Jesse couldn't get away with hiding under the truck? Did Walt conclude that he couldn't directly ask Jack to spare Jesse without getting himself and Jesse killed? Did Walt somehow know he could get Jack's gang to realize they needed information from Jesse before Jack shot him? Yeah, at best, Walt was condemning Jesse to a very rough turn among the Aryans. But if Walt thought they would likely end up doing what they in fact did--getting Jesse to cook for them rather than killing him--is it possible Walt determined this was Jesse's best shot at survival? Okay, that would be some deeply messed-up thinking. But this is Walt. He's deeply messed up. The integrity of his moral logic is a precipitously less and less reliable indicator of his intentions, as he understands them.
Or do this episode's abstruse hints at Walt's redemption, and my despite-myself residual empathy with Walt's remaining humanity, have me seeing things, when what really happened is exactly what it appeared to be: Walt just sent Jesse to a physically and emotionally agonizing death, straight up--this time not with any tormented ambivalence but with sadistic wrath.
Everything that's driven Walt to break worse and worse over time has depended on the tenacity of his belief that he can come out of the empire-business era of his life on top. With that belief now surely gone, and with the lives of his remaining family (including Jesse?) now at stake, what will Walter White's motives look like? The prospect of death liberated something in him when he was first diagnosed with cancer. Maybe it will liberate something else in him now--whether redeeming or yet more monstrous. To me, it's a testament to Breaking Bad's dramatic achievement that this feels as much an authentic question about Walt's character as it does one about the show's twisting plot.