“Breaking Bad” – A shattered visage

Be warned: Spoilers for “Ozymandias,” the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad,” await you after the jump.

After nearly five full seasons of misery and death and destruction, “Ozymandias” finally brought the walls tumbling down onto Walter White. The episode saw the show’s central character plummet to unfathomable depths and rise, as much as his withered soul could stand, to make two last-ditch attempts to be a good person. He was, over the course of this hour, pleading, catatonic, vengeful, frantic, psychotic, delusion and, at the very end, broken, with the weight of all of his misdeeds and the sheer tonnage of his sins finally breaking through his veneer of self-denial.

The episode saw the end of Walter White as well as the beginning of the end. Rian Johnson directed a beautiful, astonishing hour of “Breaking Bad” here, one that boiled down many of the show’s characters and its themes to their most basic components while wringing every ounce of tension, suspense and exhilaration from every single scene.

After the heart attack that was the end of last week’s episode, what else is left to do but wallow in devastation and despair? After the shootout in the desert, Hank is wounded and his partner is dead. (Hey, I was right in my prediction that one would be wounded but alive at the start of the episode and not for very long after. Bully for me.) Walt tries to beg for his life, even going so far as to offer Jack and his neo-Nazi pals all of the money he has buried in the desert (some $80 million dollars). We know that the money — the spoils of Walt’s descent — is all that matters to Walt, but we also know that Walt has earned all of that money and done all of this for his family. In the end, he chooses family over his money, briefly deluding himself into thinking that with the money, he can talk his way to Hank’s freedom.

It doesn’t matter, of course. This ill-conceived attempt at a plea for Hank’s safety may make sense in Walt’s mind, but unlike so many of his last-second rabbit-out-of-the-hat ploys that have saved his life so many times, Hank is as good as dead. Hank knows it, too. The character gets the sendoff he has earned through nearly five seasons, getting the chance to show Walt that in this one instance, he knows something Walt doesn’t. He tells Jack to go fuck himself (another bleeped word for AMC!), understanding Walt’s new associates better than Walt does.

And what about what Walt does next? The broken, shocked man who watches Hank’s murder cannot seem to wrap his brain around the fact that his actions led to this moment. Why else would he remind Jack that they are still supposed to kill Jesse and why else would he immediately give up Jesse’s location hiding under the car? Walt, eternally able to convince himself of his own righteousness, went to the desert because Jesse worked with Hank and he called Jack about Jesse because he knew Jesse was after him. He no longer views Jesse (who turned on him) as family; he views him as a man who cost him some of his family. That is how he goes from wanting Jesse’s death to be easy and painless to accepting that the Nazis are going to torture Jesse before killing him. That is why he viciously, cruelly makes sure to dig the knife in just a little bit extra on his way out, finally telling Jesse that he watched his love die and chose not to prevent it, finally dropping any pretense and telling him just how long Walt has been letting Jesse suffer.

That’s what the hour is about, really. It’s about stripping these characters of any pretense, sanding them down to the core of their being and seeing them brought to their knees. (Stripping, sanding and seeing, because alliteration is fun.) Walt is, at his heart, capable of great cruelty, as we see with Jesse. Walt is also utterly determined to protect his family, which is why he tries to save Hank, which is why he tries to get Skyler and the rest to leave and which is why he does what he does at the hour’s end. Jesse is, forever, a pawn in someone else’s game, and here he goes from being a loose end of Walt’s to being a chained dog (no longer the “rabid dog”) working in yet another meth lab. Jesse gets precious little to do here, but the list of bad things that happen to him show just why this episode was exceptionally brutal: he’s hauled out to die, temporarily spared, emotionally tortured (by Walt’s vindictive revelation), physically tortured (by Landry) and then locked up and put to work.

Marie, thinking that Hank has caught Walt, forces Skyler to tell Walt Jr. everything. Walt Jr. reacts as one would expect — thinking his world has caved in — but in the end, when his parents are fighting with a sharp knife between them, he puts himself in front of his mother to protect her. (The image of domestic abuse here is unsubtle, but it works because Walt has emotionally abused Skyler over the years.) Just like his father, his focus is on protecting his family; unlike his father, his next step is to call the police, to eschew the hubris that is his legacy and instead trust others to help him.

The charade that Walt has erected since the very beginning finally fails him during that terrible, staggering sequence. His wife and son see him for who he truly is. Skyler knows that for him to be here, Hank must be dead. And Walt Jr. slowly sees that everything Skyler and Marie told him is true. In a wonderfully-framed shot, Skyler has a choice between calling the police (as Walt Jr. does moments later) or grabbing a knife; she chooses to threaten Walt, to use violence, because she has become more like Walt than she seems to realize. This moment seems to break Walt all over again — his wife swinging a knife at him, his son throwing himself in front of Skyler to protect her before calling the police — yet as he realizes that his life as he knows it is over, some part of him still clings to what he always said was all that mattered. He grabs Holly — he just wants to protect his family — and he flees, leaving a screaming Skyler in his wake.

And what then? I’ll admit, it took me a little bit to understand the Walt-Skyler phone call. As soon as Walt called her a bitch (ugh, looks like someone’s taking on the worst characteristics of any “Breaking Bad” comment thread online), though, it connected. Holly needs her mother. She needs her family. And a drug kingpin responsible for the deaths of two DEA agents (and so, so many others), a man clearly on the run, a man now known to authorities, is not the family for her. Walt Jr. has called the police on him, Marie knows her husband is missing and there’s simply no way for Walt or Skyler to talk their way out of this.

But Walt could help her. Bryan Cranston had to have locked up another Emmy with that phone call tonight, the anguish on his face making clear just what he was doing. By making it seem like she wasn’t involved, by making it look like he and he alone was responsible and she was merely his victim, he did what he could to protect her and preserve her freedom; by doing this, he knew he was saying goodbye to her and to his family forever. It was magnificently done on the parts of Cranston and Anna Gunn, who played out the realization just as many in the audience picked up on what Walt was doing.

Walt had long said he was doing everything for his family, but there was always his pride and his hubris pushing him to keep doing what he was doing. In that call, you could see from all of the agony and frustration and sorrow on his face that he was finally accepting what was happening as he sacrificed his life for them. He tried to do the right thing with Hank and could not stop his violence from consuming Hank. But in that last phone call, finally realizing he was in a corner he could not think his way out of, Walt mustered whatever goodness he still had left to provide something for his family one last time.

What now? We know Walt left, just as we know he will return at some point down the line with a beard and a machine gun. We know that Walter White ceased to exist in the van at the episode’s end, the devastation finally hitting home and infecting the last vestiges of freedom and stability he had left. We know the police are now onto Walt, what with the phone call from Walt Jr. and whatever Marie (and Skyler) told the police. We know that Jesse is out there, a prisoner of the Neo-Nazis, beaten and chained and being forced to cook meth again. (Johnson deserves particular praise for the shot of Jesse — his right eye swollen shut — standing in the meth lab, a shadow over the right half of his face, perfectly resembling Gus after he lost half his face.) We know that Jesse still has something to live for, needing to protect Andrea and Brock from the Neo-Nazis after seeing their photo in the lab. And we know Walt will return to find his home boarded up, the name “HEISENBERG” spray-painted on the wall and no sight of his family.

This is a show that punishes its viewers, not in the sense of being malicious or cruel (it’s not the kind of show to berate you for watching it), but because it is simply a punishing experience. There are no half-measures here. Terrible people do terrible things, and then they get away with it and five additional atrocities are committed. I genuinely wasn’t sure what was going to happen to baby Holly at the end of the episode. I really didn’t know what to expect when Jesse had a gun pulled on him in the desert. And I absolutely didn’t expect Walt to tell Jesse about Jane, let alone for Walt and Skyler to fight over a knife, let alone for Walt Jr. to find out about everything and protect his mother from the monster in their home, let alone to see Walt find himself alone, defeated and finally leaving Albuquerque. It is a taxing, wearying experience to watch this show, to endure it as much as we bask in its beautiful shots and masterful acting and runaway-freight-train storytelling. And I mean all of this as a tremendous compliment. I have no earthly idea what’s coming. I really can’t wait.

Two to go.

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