“My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f**k yourself.”
We’ve all experienced the adrenaline rush that comes with being scared by something we know isn’t actually going to hurt us—whether we’re ducking ghouls in a haunted house, strapped into a roller coaster, or gasping in a packed theater at the latest slasher flick. It’s fun, right? And that fun comes from having that rush but knowing that, in the end, we’re all going to be safe. Nothing we experience there can actually hurt us. So what do we make—and what do we get—out of a piece of entertainment that produces the actual symptoms of physical trauma?
That’s exactly what “Ozymandias”, last night’s episode of Breaking Bad—the best the series has produced by a long shot—has done. It took me long, quiet hours of reflection to process the events of the episode, and from internet reaction, and talking to friends who watch the show, I can see that I wasn’t alone. One of the things that’s most difficult to process about any traumatic event is the knowledge that you can’t undo it. Those things, whatever they may be, will have always happened. And now, Hank will always have died by a Nazi’s bullet in the desert, Walt will always have broken Jesse’s spirit, Flynn will have always grappled with his father for the knife he’d pulled on his mother, and baby Holly will retain somewhere in her memory the time she was ripped away from her “mama”.
We begin in To’hajiilee, but years before, at Walt and Jesse’s first cook. They engage in some of the old banter, but by now the series is far too heavy for it to ever feel as playful. We’re aware, at all times, of where each of these players are in the present moment, and these scenes of Walt and Jesse bickering or Skyler and Walt lovingly planning their future only serve to underline the gravity of their situations. This is where we started, and as first Walt, then Jesse, then the RV disappear, leaving behind a blank desert landscape, only to be (after credits and commercial) replaced by the staggered trucks of the showdown we left last week, we see that the showdown itself was implied in that earliest moment. Everything we’ve witnessed, from the second that Walt chose to cook, and chose to lie to his family, was leading to a moment that Walt couldn’t negotiate his way out of.
After that haunting beginning, things are revealed quickly. We learn that Gomey is dead, is just dead there in the sand, and that Hank is wounded. Hank crawls toward a shotgun, but it’s no use—Uncle Jack’s right on top of him. Walt begs and pleads and gives up his money to try to stay Jack’s hand, but what else could possibly happen? Jack’s men have just killed one DEA agent and wounded another. Both Hank and Jack know how it plays out, but Walt is so used to talking his way out of danger that he really seems to believe that his $80 million will make this all go away. But Hank knows better. “You’re the smartest guy I know,” he tells Walt, preparing for his end, “and you’re too stupid to see … he made up his mind ten minutes ago.”
And with one shot it’s done. Hank is dead. Murdered. Dragged into an unmarked grave to rot in the sand.
Walt falls to the ground in horror, his mouth open in a state of silent shock (a look we will later see on both Skyler and Marie’s faces). He is here quite literally Ozymandias, from Shelley’s poem, with his “shattered visage” half sunk into the sand, as his empire is dug out of the ground and carted away. Only by Todd’s good graces is he left one barrel—$11 million dollars worth—and allowed to live. When Jack asks if they’re square, Walt asks only one thing. “Pinkman. You still owe me.”
During the firefight Jesse managed to slide underneath the car, and has stayed hidden throughout everything—but Walt spots him. Jack’s men drag Jesse from underneath the car, and Jack put a gun to the back of his head. He looks to Walt for the signal—and he gets it. Jesse watches two vultures soaring high above them all, and this could be the end—why not? It’s a horrible moment, only a few seconds in reality, that plays out as an eternity on a first watch. It’s a testament to the stellar direction of Rian Johnson, who previously directed the episodes “Fly” and “51”. In “Fly” Walt nearly confesses to Jesse about Jane, and in “51” Walt and Skyler face off in their bedroom and Skyler tells him he’s waiting for his cancer to come back. As the episode unfolds, it’s obvious why they brought him back. His flawless direction brings the episode an unbearable tension.
But Jesse doesn’t die. Todd—of all people—stays Jack’s hand. He gives his uncle a BS line about getting Jesse to give them all of the information that he told the DEA, but really Todd just wants to keep him alive and in a cage (trapped like Todd’s spider souvenir of the Drew Sharp murder) to cook with him, so that Todd’s little girlfriend Lydia will be able to send that good blue product overseas. So love (in a way) does save Jesse—but not Walt’s. Not anymore. And how do we know that Walt has lost all pseudo-fatherly concern for Jesse? Because Walt’s last words to Jesse before he is dragged away by Jack’s men are “I watched Jane die… I could have saved her, but I didn’t.” Jesse is broken.
At about twenty minutes in, we’ve already experienced the most heart-wrenching moments for our main characters—but there’s so much time left, and things get so much worse.
Marie strides in to the car wash to tell Skyler that it’s over. Hank has Walt in custody, “dead to rights”, he said. All that’s left to do is to tell Walt Jr.—or Flynn, as this young man will be calling himself for the rest of his life—the truth about his father. And they do, and it’s terrible (and RJ MItte is excellent here). Flynn doesn’t want to believe it, calls his mother a liar, and says that if it’s true than she’s just as bad as he is. They return home expecting to find an empty house, but instead they find Walt in the driveway, loading a truck he’s managed to snag from a reservation native, telling them to pack their stuff and leave. But Skyler puts together Marie’s phone call from Hank, Walt’s panic, and his dust-covered jacket, and realizes what has happened. “You killed him …” she says. Walt, lying, says he was able to negotiate his way out, but that they need to get on the road, and now.
He mentions the money, and again offers someone—first it was Jesse when he was going to disappear, then it was to Jack in the desert—a vision of a new life, of a fresh start, and it becomes clear that the only one who’s ever wanted a fresh start was Walt himself.
He hauls Flynn down the hallway to pack, and we hear their argument, but we see Skyler grab a knife. As Walt runs past her she stand between him and Flynn and holds the knife up. “Get. Out.” She says. The moment is reminiscent of similar scenes in domestic violence dramas of the past, and that’s important, because it places the Walt/Skyler conflict that that category definitively. That is the story we’ve been watching, of a lied to and abused woman and how she tried to keep that abuse as far away from her children as possible. But now it’s here, and that man will not touch her children. He lunges. She swipes. She cuts. He bleeds. And then everything goes to shit.
Walt jumps at Skyler and they grapple for the knife. Flynn begs them to stop. They fall into walls, knocking off plates and portraits, and then they fall to the ground. Flynn jumps on top of his father and stands between the two of them. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Walt screams, “We’re a family!” But even he knows that will never be true again. Flynn calls 911, and Walt leaves—with Holly. Walt gets in the truck and takes off down the road, leaving a screaming, wasted Skyler in his wake.
But daddy/daughter day doesn’t last long. As he changes her she begins to cry “mama”, “mama-ma”, in the plaintive, repetitive way that children do (I don’t know where they got this kid or how they got her to pull the amazing expressions that she does, but kudos to everyone involved). Walt calls Skyler—knowing full well that she will have contacted the police, and berates her for always standing in his way, for never understanding (Walt, interestingly, basically parrots every anti-Skyler internet argument ever). He tells her that he “warned her for a solid year” that if she crossed him there would be “consequences”.
Except—he didn’t. With tears streaming down his face, Walt once again lies to Skyler on the phone, this time to absolve her of any involvement in his empire.
He hangs up on her, explaining that he still has some things left to do, and drops Holly at a fire station. The last we see of him in this episode he has contacted Saul’s magic disappearing man and is heading to a life unknown, having so thoroughly destroyed the one he had.
Season Five, Episode Fourteen