Watching episode 14 of season 5 of Breaking Bad, one could not help but think that everything expected almost came to fruition. Still, when the feces literally hits the fan, you just never know how far it will fly. This is in essence all of Walter White’s (an increasingly excellent Bryan Cranston) chickens finally coming home – into the bosom of the family that he professes to do everything for – to not only roost but to ultimately rot.
“Ozymandias,” the title for this episode, comes from great poet Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem of the same name. Series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan paired this title with this episode because of the almost perfect fusion of poetry and visual prose. What is Walter White but a now dethroned king, rolling his last barrel of money across a landscape as bleak as hell itself, hoping for one last shot at significance. It is a pathetic moment proving that, as the poem calls the long forgotten Egyptian king, White is a colossal wreck. His plans have all come undone, and his legacy is torn to shreds.
If you have not seen this episode stop reading, for the rest contains spoilers, even though for many of us none of this is ultimately a shock. Seeing Gomez and Hank (Dean Norris in his best performance in the series) get gunned down was expected, but it is the way it happens that has meaning. Hank is defiant, even as Walt is willing to give away his entire fortune to save Hank’s life. It is Walt’s last chance really at any kind of hope – he tells Nazi nutcase Uncle Jack that there are $80 million waiting for him if he just spares Hank’s life. Hank, ever noble to the end, robs Walt of this attempt at redemption, goading Jack into shooting him in the head. Walt falls to the ground, shattered not just by seeing Hank’s brains on the desert floor, but also in knowing that there is no turning back, everything has changed, and what was remaining of his humanity and decency is irreparably damaged.
When Jack asks nephew Todd (Jesse Plemons) to release Walt from the handcuffs, Todd says, “Sorry for your loss” almost like a robotic choirboy. Todd is referencing the loss of “family” in Hank’s demise, but it is a microcosm of the greater losses to come. Todd is like a homicidal Richie Cunningham, and that is what makes him even more eerie. When he offers to take Jesse (Aaron Paul) back to home base for questioning because they have “a history,” you get to thinking of Richie tying Potsie Webber to a bed of nails and torturing him. Happy Days are here again and then some.
Of course, the worst is yet to come. Jack and his minions take almost all of Walt’s money, leaving him one barrel containing $11 million. This is the barrel that Walt, after running out of gas because of a bullet hole in the gas tank, rolls across the bleak landscape until he reaches a poor Native American’s hut. He “buys” the old man’s pick-up truck for a pile of cash, and then steamrolls home where he begins throwing all the clothes into luggage.
While all this is happening, Walt’s wife Skyler (a simply amazing Anna Gunn), her sister Marie (equally amazing Betsy Brandt), and Walt Junior (RJ Mitte’s most powerful performance to date) sit down to have “the talk” that we all have been dreading. I have always wondered how Junior would find out, and I felt it would have been more by default – like finding Walt doing something wrong. But in this way, with Walt offstage, Skyler and Marie break the infinitely bad news to him. Junior cannot fathom – even remotely – that his father could be this way. It proves the web of lies had been so successful for so long, and Junior really knows nothing about his father.
When they go home and find Walt packing for a Disney cruise to infinity and beyond, the line is finally drawn in the sand. Walt tells them to “trust” him and pack quickly, but Skyler knows what this means. She has just left Marie who thinks Walt is in Hank’s custody, but we all know Hank is now six feet under the desert sand. Skyler demands to know what happened to Hank, and Walt claims that he tried to save him, but even in this moment Cranston’s expression is like that shattered statue in Shelley’s poem – allowing Skyler to know the utterly despicable truth about Walt.
Skyler then goes Jamie Lee Curtis against Michael Meyers in Halloween, grabbing a kitchen knife and having a knockdown fight with Walt. I started shivering as I watched this, remembering the bacon in the shape of 52 in the flash-forward, and I thought, “This is it!” Miraculously, Junior intervenes, saving his mother from Walt and calling 911. It is an astounding moment – Walt has lost one “adopted” son (Jesse) that day and now the biological one has turned on him. Walt sees that the “family” he has supposedly done everything for is irrevocably fractured, so as a last resort he grabs baby Holly and her things, jumps in the pick-up, and drives off with her. As Skyler runs down the street after him there is such an angst, such a total sense of loss and betrayal, and Gunn nails the moment as the most heartbreaking one in the series.
Later on Walt calls Skyler from a roadside on is cell phone. We have just seen him like any other Dad, changing Holy’s diaper, talking to her like a loving father, and the scene is plausible because Walt still thinks he is not that truly bad guy even though he is. All his machinations to distance what he did as “Heisenberg” from what he did as Walt are for naught. As he holds baby Holly up and talks about buying her a car seat, the child speaks the most profound word in the entire episode – “Mommy.” Cranston allows facial ticks at the register of the word, has Walt hug her lovingly, and we get the realization is there that the daddy-daughter road trip is not to be.
So he makes that call to Skyler, knowing fully well that police and FBI are there. In his most scathing verbal assault yet on the woman he professed to have loved so much that he had done it all for her and the kids, Walt proceeds to destroy her and call her a “bitch” and warn her that she will get the same as Hank. Marie, who is also listening, breaks here because she knows Hank is gone. As Walt goes on he indicts himself in everything and, in one shrewd manipulation, exonerates Skyler of everything. She knew nothing of the business, etc, making her the Sergeant Schultz of Breaking Bad.
In the last scene Walt sits roadside, where we had last seen Jesse sitting waiting for the guy who erases identities. Behind him is some sort of aqueduct that looks like rows of tombstones. The “Ozymandias” factor is reinforced one last time – Walter White is as good as dead. He throws his things and barrel of money in the van, and takes one last look at his reflection in the passenger window. There is no more Walter White after this. The van drives off into the glow of a sunset and the screen fades to black.
In some ways this could have been the very last scene of the series. If we were taking the Hemingway Iceberg Theory way out, an ideal ending is one such as this. Hemingway’s concept was the story is the exposed part of the iceberg, and the rest of it is what the reader puts together and believes what will happen or what he/she has seen happen. Gilligan could have ended it right there, and we would have everyone screaming about a last scene worse than The Sopranos fade to black. One thing that Gilligan has always said is that he wants to give the fans the ending they are not just expecting but are wanting, so we have two more episodes to get to the dénouement that the series (and the fans) deserve.
What will happen now to Jesse (chained like an animal in the meth lab by Todd). Jesse is badly beaten and motivated to “cook” because Todd has pinned a picture of Andrea and Brock to the wall. Jesse also has had to absorb the realities of what Walt (Mr. White always and forever to him) has actually done, including Walt’s revelation that he allowed Jane to die. At the time it seemed less evil and more like Walt trying to save Jesse from her drug oblivion, but now it seems more methodical, more dastardly, and he tells Jesse this as the young man goes to what seems certain death as to put just so much more salt in the wounds.
Will Skyler, Marie, Junior, and Holly (presumably returned to her mother by the Albuquerque Fire Department after Walt left her on their doorstep) form some kind of new family unit? Are they in danger because Uncle Jack and Todd will come looking for the video that Jesse blabbed about being in Marie’s house?
How will Walt feel after becoming someone else? Will the $11 million ever be enough? Or will he go back with his M60 machine gun to settle the score with Jack and Todd, get his money back, and still keep some delusion that he can have a “family” again?
We know from the flash-forward in episode 9 that Walt comes back to his house in ruins, the word “Heisenberg” spray painted across the wall. Who does this? My bet is it is Todd as he scours the house for evidence, but it could also be Skyler herself, broken but still not defeated, defiantly marking the house that Walt mistakenly thought could be a home even after all his terrible deeds and lies.
With two episodes left there are more than enough balls in the air, but if anyone can keep them going it is Gilligan. Episode 14 may be the one we were all waiting for, but I have a feeling the next two will be the ones we wished never would have come. We must wonder whether Walt’s “last stand” will make him like Al Pacino in Scarface, or if he will eventually just fade away from the cancer in a hospital? Perhaps the worst thing of all is for him to be penniless, without a family, and sentenced to live with what he has done – a dethroned king forced to stare at the devastation of his kingdom for the rest of his life. In the end death may just be too good for Walter White.
Photo credits – AMC