6.4 million viewers tuned in to watch “Ozymandias,” episode 14 of season five of the amazing AMC series Breaking Bad. Even those who do not watch the series may know that the basic story line is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher named Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Devastated as he is, White decides that he will provide for his wife and children’s future by using his knowledge of chemistry to make meth. He hopes he will make enough money to leave them something substantial for when he is gone.
That seemingly simple premise has spawned a TV hydra known as Breaking Bad, with White doing the breaking and becoming something else, an “other” that I suspect even he doesn’t recognize anymore. White tells his high school students that chemistry “is the study of change.” How apropos that Walt becomes Heisenberg in a chemical reaction that is as nefarious as anything Dr. Jekyll could have conjured in Mr. Hyde.
As the days pass between the last episode and the penultimate one, “Granite State,” that will air on Sunday, to say the “buzz” about the series is viral is an understatement. People are talking about the show, writers are writing about it, and the dissection of good and evil and all parts in between will no doubt go on long after the series ends.
Today I went to the local toy store to get something for my son. As I walked down the aisle in the action figure section, I saw two very striking items – both featuring images of Cranston. One depicts Walter White in a hazmat suit as seen in the show when he is “cooking” the meth. The other is White’s alter ego Heisenberg, so I immediately thought Jekyll-Hyde as I inspected the boxes. Both items are manufactured by Mezco Toyz. The figure in the hazmat suit is a bobble-head; the other is a posable figure featuring White in dark hat, sunglasses, and carrying a gun. An accessory – a satchel full of cash – is included in the package.
As I was looking at these items an older gentlemen came alongside me and noted, “I’ve got both of those on my desk.”
I looked at him and nodded. “Big fan of the show I guess, huh?”
He was holding a two boxes with action figures from the AMC series The Walking Dead. He looked down at them and said, “Oh, these are for my grandson. I am really going to miss old Walter White.”
We both went our separate ways after that, but I sensed that anyone who would have both of these figures on his desk doesn’t view Walt as scum of the earth or spawn of Satan. In fact, this fellow is not alone. I have heard from many people since my last article – I like to call them “Team Walt” – who swear that White is the victim and everyone else is worse than he is.
I tried to rethink my position on this, because of the combustible reactions that are occurring since I wrote my last review of “Ozymandias.” Basically the thought process is that Hank and Jesse are getting everything they deserve. I have been told that the best thing Walt could have ever done for Jesse was to let drug addict Jane die. I am reminded that Walt told Hank to “tread lightly,” but Hank was having none of it. As for Marie, I have heard some people say that she had some nerve to go to the car wash and tell Skyler what to do with her son. Who the hell did she think she was? Telling Junior should have been Skyler’s choice when she was ready.
While I have some trouble with these points of view, I can understand the Walt apologists and where they are coming from. They have invested a great deal in these five seasons, and they also rationalize that Walt is a victim – of circumstance, of fate, of greed, avarice, and whatever else – and all that he has ever done is try to provide for his family. I recall being at wakes years ago, and my old Italian female relatives would stand around the casket saying, “He was a good provider.” Perhaps this is the mentality, the feeling that a man’s duty is to “provide,” and no one could argue that Walt didn’t do just that – until Uncle Jack and Todd and company stole most of his nest egg. But along the way people forget that all Walt’s wealth came at a terrible cost for him and everyone with whom he was connected.
Can anyone not feel that Hank was slightly infected with the same ego problem that plagues Walt? When he said he was ASAC Hank Schrader to his killer, I was almost convinced that Gilligan meant to connect “Ozymandias” as much to him as to Walt. No one “trembled” at those words; in fact, they only caused Jack to kill Hank faster. And where is Hank now but lying under the desert sands similar to the ones in the poem. Hank’s biggest mistake was wanting it all, to bring in the fatted calf on his own. His desire for triumph prevented him to call for the “cavalry,” which he tells Jack is coming. Had Hank been half as smart as Walt, DEA helicopters would have met them at the meeting place in the desert and Jack and company would have turned around and been arrested.
What of Jesse? He has been the heart and soul of the series for many of us, the one watching the chemical reactions and knowing the formula just isn’t right. However, I have heard from a number of people who felt Jesse made many mistakes – his biggest not getting into the van and disappearing. Had Jesse done that, we could argue that Hank would be alive, Walt would have his money, and there’d be nothing for us to grumble about.
The final person to receive maybe the most wrath is Skyler herself. Many of us – including this writer – were painting her as Lady Macbeth. After all, didn’t she say of Jesse’s impending death, “What’s one more?” Yet Skyler is a mother and sister before she is a wife and an accomplice, and knowing Hank was dead certainly set off some kind of maternal instinct, causing her to grab the knife instead of the phone. Team Walt says she should have called 911, but the threat was then and there and how many women with orders of protection are dead because they called 911 instead of defending themselves?
Bottom line is that this TV series has caused people to react emotionally. It is a credit to series executive producer and creator Vince Gilligan, the writers, directors, and most especially the cast for getting people to care so passionately. Bryan Cranston, of course, has gained the following he has deserved for portraying White/Heisenberg as living in a gray area concerning his health, his motivation, and his professed love of family. One could argue that Walter is no better or worse than corporate executives, politicians, and extremely wealthy people who sometimes leave nefarious footprints on the road to success.
The show has definitely brought good and evil into focus, and for one to say Walt is entirely evil is like saying Hank is entirely good. Hank allowed the worst parts of his personality to get the better of him. Had he thought more rationally, rather than on the emotional level of “I got him” now, Hank would be having dinner with Marie and Walt would be languishing in prison. We could even say that if Jesse was so good why was he ever involved with Walt in the first place? Good and evil discussions are like red state and blue state ones – you can only end up losing if you engage in them.
There are enduring images from “Ozymandias,” but the one that I keep thinking about is the dog running across the road at the very end. Many people have mentioned what they think it means, but I have heard no one say what I am thinking – I believe it is the dog that guards the gates of hell. As Walt drives off to the “Granite State,” we know tombstones are made from that kind of stone and that Walter White is now officially dead.
I mentioned that this scene when Walt looks at his reflection and leaves Albuquerque behind could have been the last one of the series, but like his creator Mr. Gilligan, Walt says that he has things he has to do. We can imagine that disappearing is not going to sit well with the one who knocks. Whatever he does – and the flash-forwards seem to indicate that an M60 is going to figure prominently in the picture – Walt is going to make sure that his last chemical reaction is going to be the biggest bang of all.
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