By Todd VanDerWerff
8:30 AM CDT, September 16, 2013
In one of her periodic posts on fantasy and science fiction novels at Tor.com, award-winning novelist Jo Walton says there are two ways to plot out a fantasy series after the big bad has been destroyed. The first way is easier but also less satisfying and involves simply saying that the evil wizard (or whoever) had a second in command or left a way to resurrect himself, that he needs to be defeated again. (For a non-fantasy context, think of how “Return of the Jedi” brings back the Death Star the Rebel forces destroyed in “Star Wars.”) The harder but much more satisfying version of a continuation involves revealing all of the evil forces the big bad was keeping in check, descending into the chaos that comes when an orderly system is replaced by disorder. It is about crumbling ruin and what was once at least stable turning to dust. An evil regime has been removed, but at what cost?
To its credit, “Breaking Bad’s” fifth season has been firmly in the “consequences” camp. What has happened this season has almost all followed logically from the death of Gus Fring, whose orderly system to keep drugs rolling around the American Southwest became too much of a threat (and too much like a day job) for Walter White. Walt wasn’t wrong. There was no way for both him and Gus to exist side by side in the series’ version of Albuquerque. Gus despised instability, and Walter has always been the ultimate instability, a man who fancies himself a king but never understands that being king requires a certain fastidiousness, right alongside a certain ruthlessness. Walter loves power, and he loves feeling like the top dog. But he’s not comfortable with imagining himself as a bad man or monster, even though he very much is.
Last night’s episode, “Ozymandias,” is perhaps the pinnacle of this final season of episodes, one that could very easily stand in as a series finale if the show needed it to. Where the prior episodes have sometimes been mechanical to a fault, making sure that all of the pieces were in place for the fallout to come. Now that we’re actually in the fallout, though, it’s so rich that any minor missteps along the way don’t matter. This is the story of a man who lost his soul and carried on like it hadn’t happened at all. “Ozymandias” is what happens when he realizes just who he’s become. It restores some of the awful vulnerability to Walter White and some of the poetry to the show’s depiction of its universe. At episode’s end, when Walter heads off to his new life with the guy Saul knows, it’s possible to imagine this as his last moment in New Mexico, except the flash-forwards let us know that’s not true.
Throughout, “Ozymandias” wants to let us know just how far Walter has fallen. The teaser shows us Walter and Jesse on their first cook, in a moment of downtime, when Walter wanders up a bluff to call Skyler and tell her what may very well be his first lie designed to cover up his meth cooking. In this sequence, Walter is humane and warm and a little bit dorky. “Breaking Bad” has made very clear that the things that turned Walter into such a monster were always present within him, but they didn’t need to be unleashed. It wasn’t an inevitability. It was about tiny little steps along the path to ruin, like telling his wife he needs to stay late at work when he has to do nothing of the sort.
From there, it’s a relentless onslaught of everything Walt has hoped to keep from happening actually playing out, sometimes right in front of his face. Uncle Jack kills Hank, even after Walt makes the argument he’s family and tries to buy Hank’s life with his fortune. The Nazis take all but one barrel of Walt’s money. And back in Albuquerque, Skyler and Marie are filling Walter Jr., in on what his father’s been up to all these years. Still, Walter Jr., doesn’t want to believe until his father gives him reason to.
I complained earlier this season about how I didn’t entirely buy Skyler’s transition from someone trapped by Walt to someone who became his willing accomplice, a bit of a Lady Macbeth. Even though I’d still quibble with how compressed that storyline’s emotional arc became, however, it was worth it for the turn in this episode, for the payoff that comes when Walter tells Skyler that the whole family is leaving town and she realizes something terrible must have happened to her brother-in-law. It’s a bridge too far, and it culminates in a scene where the two of them wrestle over a knife she’s used to try to kill her husband. When Walt gets the upper hand, Walter Jr., pulls his father off his mother, then calls the police, the truth finally known to him. Walter’s son now knows what kind of man he’s become, and it’s devastating for all involved.
That scene in the house – which culminates in Walter kidnapping baby Holly! – is one of the best scenes in the show’s history, the kind of small, two- or three-character play that “Breaking Bad” has always done so well. It turns on so many little dramatic and emotional beats, and it’s both beautifully scripted by Moira Walley Beckett and exquisitely directed by Rian Johnson. (The shot where Johnson holds on the knife block right next to the phone for what feels like several hours allows the audience to wonder if Skyler will finally attack her husband or call him in.) The bitter irony underlying all of this – that Walter didn’t directly kill Hank but, instead, indirectly led to his death by getting involved with evil neo-Nazis – just makes things that much more harrowing. The thing that finally pushes Skyler to take action is something Walter didn’t even do.
The episode is framed by a second phone call between Walt and Skyler. Where the first was the first of many lies he would tell to her over the course of their marriage, the second is perhaps the last time he will ever deceive her. The beauty of this moment – and of Bryan Cranston’s performance – is that you can tell he believes every seething, misogynistic word he spits at his wife, that Walt really does think Skyler’s not worth the dirt on his shoe (to put it in ways we can quote in a family newspaper), but it’s also deliberately a ploy to save her, to leave his children in her care. It will minimize her criminal actions as those of a woman acting under duress (which they were, at least some of the time), and it will buy her her freedom. To do that, he has to burn down his marriage with the awful truths he could never tell her in the first place.
We have a belief in our society that the truth will set you free, that the second you tell everyone what’s really going on with you, you will feel an intense sense of relief. And that’s usually the case, even if the truth you’re hiding is one as dark as Walter White is. Yet the truth can also be a weapon. There’s no need for Walter to tell Jesse – who improbably survives the episode to suffer a fate worse than death as an enslaved meth cook to the neo-Nazis (and how many other quality dramas allow you to type that?) – about the true reasons for Jane’s death, but he does anyway, because he’s simply stopped caring. He tried to shove Heisenberg into a box and become the old, friendly Walter White, but it didn’t work. He is dominated by his own worst self. He destroyed the man he saw as a great evil but was unable to deal with the chaos he unleashed, until he had to slink out of town, like the lone dog creeping across the street in the episode's final shot. Walter White is gone, but the point of “Ozymandias” is that he’s always been gone, maybe in the moment he told that first lie.
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