“Breaking Bad” never ceases to amaze me. “Ozymandias” is a shining example of a production team and cast at the very top of their game, and even Executive Producer Vince Gilligan stated himself that he considers this to be the best episode of the entire series.
The emotional tour de force begins with a flashback to one of Walter and Jesse’s first times cooking together, their bickering gently pulling on the nostalgic heartstrings of the audience. As Walt calls Skyler to feed her one of his very first lies, we catch a glimpse of the long-lost innocence as he struggles to find the words. With smiles on their faces they plan a vacation, and Jesse pretends to sword-fight in the background. No matter what happens in the coming conclusion, I’d always like to remember the characters like this.
The moment fades into the opening theme, and the reminiscence is bittersweet. As viewers of the previous episode know, Walt and Jesse’s first cook site shares a place with the far more grisly events of the present day, and as the gunshots subside we get our first glimpse of the aftermath. Within the first minute we see Hank wounded and Gomez dead, and as Jack and the rest of his gang move in to kill Hank, Walt desperately pleads that they let him go. We see one outstanding final performance from Dean Norris before he is executed mid-sentence. The audio cuts to silent as Walt falls to the ground, and despite the cloud of desert sand kicked up, the scene leaves the audience feeling ice cold.
It is important to note the excellence in the writers’ use of symbolism in coordination with the episode’s title and theme. “Ozymandias,” a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, speaks to the foolish hubris of a once-mighty ruler who, despite his arrogant pride, leaves nothing in his wake but a vast, dead desert. In many ways, Walt is this proverbial king who is witnessing the decay of his empire, loss of the riches he’d gained, and death and alienation of those around him.
As the events in the desert unfold, we are presented with one of the most difficult scenes to watch; Marie forces Skyler to tell Walt Jr. about his father’s arrest and the meth business that led him there. Ordinarily, I am not the biggest fan of RJ Mitte or the character he portrays; I always feel Walt Jr. is an unnecessary distraction from the true story. Seeing the bewildered and hurt expression of a son who idolized his father confirmed the character’s importance to the story. Walt has always lied to and manipulated everybody except his son, and to see Walt Jr. turn against his father was devastating for Walt.
This is particularly evident in one of the most stressful scenes in the series. Skyler and Walt Jr. come home to a frantic Walt, who insists they must pack everything they have and get ready to leave. At this point, Skyler must know something happened to Hank, because he would never let Walt walk free after chasing him for so long. When she realizes that he is dead, she draws a knife and defends herself and her son against Walt, slashing him across the hand as he approaches her. They wrestle with the knife, knocking frames off the wall and furniture aside, all while Walt Jr. desperately begs them to stop. The audience watches in horror, wondering who will accidentally catch the blade. The tension subsides as much as it possibly can in this episode, when Junior calls the police and Walt flees the house, taking Holly with him.
Jesse always gets the short end of the stick. We see him for the first time since Jack’s gang kidnapped him, the slices and bruises of torture marring his face. Jesse is one of my favorite characters, and I think Aaron Paul has been doing a superb job portraying a man who has literally nothing left to live for. Todd takes Jesse to a warehouse where I thought he would kill him, but instead he chains him to an overhead track and forces him to cook meth for Jack, his uncle.
The crowning achievement of this episode is the phone call from Walt to Skyler. Having taken Holly, Walt knew the police would be listening in to the call, which is exactly what he wanted. Speaking like a heartless murderer and stereotypical abusive husband, he makes it known that he cooked meth and killed Hank, all while choking back tears because he knows the end is nearing. It is a truly heartbreaking display of acting by Bryan Cranston that serves as a goodbye to his family while simultaneously absolving Skyler of any involvement in his business. The police are solely after him now, and he breaks down as he destroys his phone.
As the episode ends, Walt leaves Holly in a firehouse, his home address pinned to her shirt, and enters a van with his belongings and the remainder of his money. This was the van that Jesse turned away from, the van that would take him to a new home and a new identity. We know from the flash-forwards that Walt has a New Hampshire driver’s license, and since the next episode is called “Granite State,” we can be assured that’s where he’s heading.
With only two episodes left, Gilligan and his incredible team of writers have little time left to toy with our emotions, but I for one know that I will love every second of it.