“Once this thing gets going, and it gets going very quickly ... it just rolls along like gangbusters.”
That’s how Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan described the final half season of his show one month ago, when we spoke right after the premiere aired on AMC.
He wasn’t exaggerating. Sunday night’s episode‚ the third to last, was easily the most eventful in Breaking Bad history.
But it was also one of the most heartbreaking.
In “Ozymandias,” directed by Rian Johnson (Looper), the true moral consequences of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) descent are finally realized, and the full scope of the tragedy that a cancer-stricken Walt set in motion five seasons back when he decided to cook meth to secure his family’s financial future finally becomes clear. I’ve written before about how Breaking Bad’s plot twists can be too clever by half. But “Ozymandias” wasn’t clever. It was inevitable.
The entire episode was encapsulated in that devastating opening flashback to the early days of the series. On a break from cooking and bickering with Jesse (Aaron Paul) in the RV, Walt wanders off. He’ll be stuck at To’hajiilee for awhile, but he has to tell Skyler (Anna Gunn) something. He rehearses to himself—his boss has “a stick up his butt,” he has to do receipts, he “can’t get out of it”—then tentatively dials his wife. On the phone, Walt is flustered—he says “bug up his butt” instead of “stick”—but Skyler buys it. She asks him to pick up a pizza; they talk about taking “some family time this weekend” and driving the Turquoise Trail. Walt lies. It works.
Holly hasn’t been born yet. But Heisenberg has. And with that, Walter White vanishes into the desert—briefs, bare legs, mustache, and all.
“Ozymandias” is about the incalculable ramifications of that first tiny betrayal. Throughout the series, Walt has always insisted that family was the point. Without family, every terrible thing he had done—the meth, the murders, that Nazi henchman—would be for naught. But “Ozymandias” makes plain, in scene after brutal scene, what we suspected all along. Walt hasn’t been saving his family. He has been destroying it.
The carnage in “Ozymandias,” both physical and emotional, is staggering. Moments into the episode, Walt finally loses his first family member: brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). Walt’s muffled cries couldn’t halt the bullets last week; now that the showdown is over and Hank is wounded, Walt, ever the man of science, tries to save Hank’s life by reasoning with Uncle Jack. But it’s no good. “You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see,” Hank tells Walt. “He made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” Hank turns to Jack. “Do what you’re gonna d—” Hank says, and he’s dead before he can finish his sentence. Even Walt’s persuasive chatter—his fine logic, his clockwork mind—is powerless now to reverse the forces he has unleashed.
And so, over the course of the episode, every single thing Walt has spent the last five seasons working for is summarily devastated and dismantled. The meth money he stockpiled for his children? The Nazis take the vast majority of it. Jesse Pinkman’s partnership—the bond that made him “like family”? Walt doesn’t blink when Todd suggests torture before the execution. The love and admiration of Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte)? It is imperiled when Skyler tells Junior who his father really is, and then it is erased a few scenes later when Skyler confronts Walt about Hank, slashes his hand with a kitchen knife, and wrestles him to the living-room floor after he tries to convince her that they can have “a fresh start—whole new lives” if they just run away now.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Walt shouts after Junior intervenes.
“I need the police,” Walt Jr. tells the 911 dispatcher. “My dad is dangerous. I think he might have killed somebody.”
“We’re a family,” Walt says. “We’re a family.” The first time he looks like he believes it. The second time he realizes he no longer does.
One of Gilligan’s canniest dramatic decisions for the final half season of Breaking Bad was to have Walter White’s ultimate unraveling take place at the same time he was becoming Walter White again. In earlier seasons, you sensed that Walt wasn’t really cooking meth for his family—that he was cooking it, rather, because it made him feel like the man he always imagined he was: Innovative. Intelligent. Superior. Powerful. It made him feel like Heisenberg.
But during the second half of Season 5, Heisenberg receded. Walt returned. Dressed entirely in beige, working the A-1 cash register, it was clear that Walt no longer wanted to be Heisenberg. He just wanted to be normal.
Which is what made the final moments of “Ozymandias” so wrenching. In a sudden flash of Heisenbergian villainy, Walt kidnaps Holly after his fight with Skyler and Junior; he seems to imagine that some family is better than no family, and that his best shot is to start over, somewhere, with his daughter, a tabula rasa. But when Holly cries for her mama, Walt realizes that his new family is no family at all—for neither him nor Holly. Because she still has a real family, he leaves her to be discovered in the front seat of a fire truck. And because he doesn’t, he calls Skyler again—and he lies just like he lied in To’hajiilee.
Walt knows the cops are on the line. He knows that Skyler could be on the hook for his crimes. So he turns on the Heisenberg, growling that she’s “a stupid bitch” who “disrespect[ed]” him and tried to “drag” him down.
“‘Walt, Walt, you have to stop this,’” he says, mimicking his long-suffering wife. “Always whining and complaining about how I make my money ... I built it. Me alone. Nobody else.”
In one sense, Walt is providing Skyler with plausible deniability here. But he is also providing her with the version of himself she will need to believe in if she, Walt Jr., and Holly can ever hope to move on. Walt knows that he can save his family now only by leaving it—by erasing Walter White and installing Heisenberg in his place. And so he plays a part he no longer wants to play, and he weeps in silence the entire time.
At the very end of “Ozymandias,” Walter White vanishes again—this time in the rearview mirror of the van belonging to Saul Goodman’s vacuum-cleaner guy, whose specialty is inventing new identities for people like Walt. People who need to be someone else. People who can no longer be who they were.
As the Limeliters sang in “Times Are Getting Hard Boys,” the traditional folk song that played Sunday night as Walt rolled his one remaining barrel of meth money out of the desert,
Times are getting hard, boys Money's getting scarce Times don't get no better, boys Gonna leave this place ... Saying goodbye to everyone Goodbye to everyone
In “Ozymandias,” Walter White finally said goodbye. We’ll find out soon enough where he's going—and who he’s about to become.