The poem that gives Sunday’s (Sept. 15) “Breaking Bad” its title is a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley in which a traveler describes seeing a crumbling statue in a barren desert. It closes with these six lines:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It wasn’t hard to guess from the episode title that by this time, things would come crashing down around Walt. Just how it plays out in “Ozymandias,” though, makes for one of the most wrenching hours of television in a long time, and one of the best episodes of a series full of great ones.
It opens not immediately with the aftermath of the shootout from last week, but with a flashback to the pilot: Walt rehearses how to lie to Skyler as he and Jesse are on their first cook at To’hajiilee. Near the end, we see Walt telling another lie over the phone, attempting to sound as evil as he possibly can — and even as he’s breaking down, very possibly saying a few things he’s been keeping inside for a while — so Skyler will make a clean break. First thought: Walt is a much better liar now. Second thought: Given all that’s happened since, that first cook seems quaint by comparison, a bit of harmless fun.
Just how far Walt has come is brought home as first-cook Walt and Jesse, then their RV meth lab, fade from the picture, to be replaced by Hank’s shot-up SUV where the mobile lab had been.
In one light, you could read Walt’s present-day phone call as a noble act — Walt hoping his family will leave him behind entirely. He also had to know that the police would be listening, and he can hope they’ll do a decent job protecting Skyler, Marie and the kids. But as with nearly everything that happens after Jack executes Hank, it’s also the coward’s way out.
More on Walt in a moment, but let’s talk about those first scenes. The shootout ends about the only way it plausibly could, with Gomez dead and Hank wounded. Jack and his crew come around Hank’s shot-up truck to finish the job, and they’re delayed only by Walt — who, in an even dumber move than impulsively calling Jack in the first place, reveals that his money is buried nearby — begging for a way out.
Hank, however, knows what’s coming. “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f*** yourself,” he spits at Jack, before turning to Walt and telling him his pleas won’t do any good: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.”
Walt really is destroyed by Hank’s death, but after he’s roused from his state of shock, he immediately transfers the guilt he’s feeling to Jesse, who hid under Walt’s car during the shootout. “You still owe me Pinkman,” he growls to Jack. He then tells Jesse he watched Jane die(!!), cruelly twisting the knife one last time.
Todd spares Jesse’s life at the site — not because he has any warm feelings toward Jesse, but because Jesse might be able to “tell us what he knows.” Which means that after Todd and the boys get through beating him, Todd brings him in on a cook — with a picture of Andrea and Brock hanging in the lab to get Jesse to comply.
In the time it takes Walt to roll his barrel across the reservation, buy an old man’s truck and return home, Marie tells Skyler about Hank’s phone call, and they both break the news to Junior — who does not take it well, lashing out at both sisters before storming out.
Skyler and Junior return home for an emotionally devastating scene, as Skyler rather quickly infers from Walt’s dissembling that something very bad has happened to Hank. She keeps asking, “Where’s Hank?,” Walt keeps refusing to give a straight answer, and it ends with Skyler slashing a knife across Walt’s hand, a struggle, Junior calling 911 and Walt scooping up Holly* and fleeing with Skyler sobbing in the middle of the street.
(*Of all the despicable things Walter White has done over the course of the series, taking Holly has to be right there at the top.)
The episode closes with Walt sitting in front of the John Roberts Dam, just as Jesse did a couple of episodes earlier, waiting for Saul’s contact with his barrel full of cash to become Mr. Lambert of New Hampshire. His wife and children? Skyler will be lucky to cut a deal to avoid prosecution for laundering Walt’s drug money. Junior has just seen everything he knew about his life go up in smoke. And poor little Holly is sitting in the cab of a fire engine. And, oh yeah, there’s a not-small possibility that a pack of neo-Nazis might be coming after them.
This is how Walt’s empire crumbles. For all his talk about wanting to make money for his family, the last we see of him is running away with that money. It’s looking more and more like that heavy artillery we’ve seen in the flash-forward scenes will be aimed at Jack and his crew. More and more, though, it feels like any vengeance he seeks will be too little, too late.
Right now, though? Maybe it’s good that there’s a week between this episode and the next, which will be the next-to-last one of the series. It’s going to take nearly that long to recover.
What did you think of “Breaking Bad” this week?