This was one of the most difficult hours of television — or any motion picture, for that matter — that I’ve ever watched. In immediate retrospect, I realize that most of what happens this week is table-setting: this episode is meant to get us from last week’s harrowing final act to whatever paradigm shift we’ll experience next week, and the episode’s place in Breaking Bad canon will probably be more transitional than anything.
All the same, I was overwhelmed with dread throughout the entire runtime — director Rian Johnson somehow manages to extend that sense of foreboding we felt at the end of last week all the way through this hour, and while I’ll probably have a few more gray hairs for it, I’m thrilled to be so thoroughly at this show’s mercy.
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Death in the Family
The emotional stage is set tonight by a cold open flashback to Walt and Jesse’s odd couple origins, with Walt delivering chemistry lectures in his briefs while Jesse slacks off like a bored middle-schooler. This is the point at which, after last week’s cliffhanger, the viewing public collectively groans at the protracted suspense, but I wouldn’t have it any other way: as the narrative hits its absolute breaking point, we’re reminded of everything Cranston and Paul have accomplished here.
They’re playing entirely different characters now, replete with different mannerisms and affectations, and seeing them in their unbroken state feels like catching up with old friends that we haven’t seen in years. Their performances will be the show’s legacy at least as much as the brilliant writing and cinematography, as they make perhaps one of the most compelling cases ever for the unique character-building opportunities afforded by the novelistic sprawl of television over the more concentrated runtime of film. Emmys aren’t enough; people will be talking about these performances in college courses.
But enough about the future and the past, we want to know how that shoot-out ended: as the episode properly begins, Gomez is dead, Hank is wounded and Jesse has somehow managed to disappear. Despite Walt’s pleading — and his bone-headed revelation that he has $80 million buried under their feet — Todd’s Uncle Jack can’t think of any good reason to let Hank live. I suspected that Hank’s fate was sealed at the conclusion of last week’s episode, but while it’s hard to watch, I’m glad that he gets a good death: if you have to go, you might as well go out telling neo-Nazis to go f*** themselves. It’s the most badass final exchange this side of Mike Ehrmantraut.
Jesse’s fate, however, isn’t so enviably cut and dry. When Walt discovers him hiding under the car, he immediately hands him over to Jack’s crew for torture and death. Walt leaves him with the parting words “I watched Jane die,” and Jesse is sent off with Todd to be interrogated about his involvement with the DEA. Todd’s ambitions, however, stretch beyond physical pain: once Jesse has told them everything, Todd plucks him bruised and cut from his cell, locks him to a cable in a brand new superlab and suits up for more cooking. If I were Jesse, I’d drink every chemical in sight.
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A Broken Home
Marie, heartbreakingly enough, is still living in Hank’s brief moment of triumph. She meets with Skyler and convinces her to come clean, which involves telling Walter Jr. everything. It’s nice that RJ Mitte finally has some big acting to do; so far, Walter Jr.’s only real role on the show has been to accentuate Walt’s emotional absence as a father — to whatever extent he had any paternal feelings, he exhausted them on Jesse, who for all their tension could appreciate what he was accomplishing as Heisenberg, and was in some way following in his footsteps. Walter Jr. is appropriately shocked and incredulous, blaming his mother as much as his father.
When the family gets home, they’re shocked to discover that Walt is not in custody, but instead packing his bags at the house. Though Uncle Jack made off with the majority of Walt’s money, he was kind enough to leave him with one barrel, totaling somewhere around $11 million. Walt commands his family to pack their things for a new life, but as it becomes clear that Hank was killed, they take sides against him: first, Skyler draws a kitchen knife and cuts his hand, then Junior calls the police when Walt manages to subdue her. Desperate and alone, Walt grabs Holly and hits the road.
While the police file an Amber Alert for Holly, Walter calls Skyler one more time: growling menacingly through inaudible tears, he unloads all of his anger at her, warning her never to cross him again and confirming that Hank is dead — more importantly, however, he consciously takes sole responsibility for everything that’s happened and lets Skyler off the hook while the police are listening in. He then drops off Holly in a firetruck and climbs into the red car that would have given Jesse a new life if he’d taken it. He told Skyler that he “still had things to do.”
The title of this episode, incidentally, is “Ozymandias,” a reference to the Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet of the same name. The short poem, which Brian Cranston read for an ominous promotional spot, details the ruin of an ancient king who once thought his works immortal: the inscription on a ruined statue implores the viewer to look on his works and despair, and yet nothing remains of his kingdom. We have, in this relentlessly brutal episode, the collapse of Heisenberg’s empire. His money is gone, his family is gone, his meth isn’t even blue anymore. His inscription, as we know from the flash-forward, will be Heisenberg written in spray paint. Nothing beside remains.
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(Image courtesy of AMC)