Nothing Beside Remains: “Ozymandias” and the Downfall of Walter White
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
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.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
Admit it. After this promo for the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad aired, you scrambled to your old English lit textbooks and scrutinized the hell out of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” just waiting for the episode of the same name to air. The poem’s major themes coupled with the image of the weathered, beaten-down porkpie hat in the trailer did not bode well for Walt. Vince Gilligan saying this in an interview with TV Fanatic added an extra sense of ominousness to the episode (emphasis mine):
I think these last three episodes, not to overstate it, and you could say this about the last eight, but with these last three in particular you need to install a seat belt on your sofa, you need to wear a crash helmet and a diaper. [laughs] I tell ya, this next episode (entitled “Ozymandias”), I think for my money, is the best episode we ever had had or ever will have. It was written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson.
I think people are going to have trouble breathing after this thing airs. It’s tremendous and it’s a great, great hour of television and I’m as proud as I can be of the two episodes that air after that one and both of them are a hell of a wild ride, too. I couldn’t be more proud of these final eight episodes or these last three episodes. I think they’re going to leave us with some sleepless nights.”
Needless to say, there was a lot of hype going into this episode, maybe a little too much. To say “Ozymandias” lived up to it, though, would be a severe understatement. If by “trouble breathing” Gilligan meant “holding your breath for an hour and biting off all of your fingernails and turning your Twitter feed into a constant flow of ‘OH MY GOD HOLY SHIT’ tweets and STARING OPEN-MOUTHED AT THE TELEVISION FOR 30 MINUTES AFTER THE EPISODE ENDED,” then yes, he was right.
The episode opened with season one-era Walt and Jesse out on an early cook at To’hajiilee. They’re poking fun at each other, of course. These were simpler times, people! Walt leaves the RV, tighty whities and all, and retrieves his clothes that he left hanging outside to keep the chemical smell off of his person. He walks off to call Skyler, but before he dials the number, he rehearses exactly what he’s going to say: a small (by current standards) lie about Bogdon keeping him late at the car wash. Skyler buys it – she has no reason not to – and after a brief conversation about baby names and a family weekend, they hang up. Walt fades from the scene, then Jesse, and the theme music kicks in.
The scene picks up after the break in the same spot with Hank, Walt, and Jack’s cars in place of the RV. Gomie, as expected, didn’t make it. Ugh. Hank looked a little better, but not much. He took a shot to the thigh, and the blood was flowing. As Jack approaches, gun in hand, Walt is frantic in his attempt to call him off. Jack can’t understand why Walt would want to protect a cop, and it’s here we remember that Jack doesn’t know about their connection: “Didn’t it cross your mind to maybe tell us you have a DEA agent as a brother-in-law?” Walt is crazed, trying desperately to preserve the one thing he has some semblance of control over. His empire is gone. His cancer is back. He can’t save anything but his family. He tries to bargain with Hank, trying to get him to promise that he’ll let Walt walk, but it seems likely that Hank would rather die than let this slip through his fingers again. If he survives under Walt’s terms, he’ll have to go the rest of his life knowing that his most lucrative, most elusive target escaped him again and, this time, for good. It’s a lose-lose for Hank, and he’s certainly not going to beg for his life.
We finally find out the sum of Walt’s earnings: a cool $80 million. Jack can escape with that money if he just agrees to let Hank go. Walt is willing to give up all of his money, the money that was supposed to go to Skyler and the kids after his death, in order to save Hank’s life. Hank, though, knows that Jack made his decision before Walt even started talking. Just as he asks Jack to “do what he’s going to do,” Jack pulls the trigger mid-sentence. Walt can do nothing but fall over and let this sink in while listening to Jack’s crew dig up the barrels. Once all the cash is unearthed, they dump the bodies in the same hole. Why dig new graves? This seems fitting. The only thing Walt had to show for his work was his money. With that going to Jack, all that’s left now is a pair of dead bodies.
Jack decides to leave Walt with one barrel, and before they part ways, Walt has one more request: Pinkman. They owe him, he says, and Jack is more than happy to up the body count. Maybe Walt even blames Jesse a little bit for Hank’s death, even though none of them would be in this situation if it weren’t for Walt. They drag Jesse out from underneath the car he started out in during the shootout. Jack pulls out his gun, but Todd, ever the businessman, has another plan. He thinks they can squeeze some information out of Jesse before they fulfill Walt’s request, so they take him with them with plans to kill him later, but not before Walt confesses one last thing. “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.” Earlier in the series, I couldn’t wait for Jesse to find this out. I looked forward to it. I think I felt that this was one of two admissions that could make him hate Walt as much as I did. He’s already at that point and this was just like adding salt to an already bloody, festering wound. It hurt. It absolutely destroyed Jesse.
They all leave and Walt gets in his car. He sits there for a minute and lets the gravity of what just went down sink in. After driving for a small amount of time, the car starts to give out. Like any rational person, he gets out and walks, rolling the barrel to the first house he sees as a song including the lyrics “Say goodbye to everyone, goodbye to everyone” plays. He purchases the homeowner’s truck and drives off.
The next scene picks up with Skyler leaving a voicemail for Walt. Her concern grows once Marie walks in. The sisters head into Skyler’s office where Marie fills her in on what Hank told her. She also threatens to tell Walt Jr. everything, if Skyler doesn’t call him in and tell him herself. It’s immediately clear that Skyler regrets ever getting involved.
Jesse, meanwhile, is being held in some sort of underground cell, beaten and bruised. Todd comes to retrieve him. Jesse thinks this is the end. Todd has other plans. He brings Jesse to their meth lab and attaches him to a line running from one end of the room to the other. He’s going to be their meth slave. They even included a surveillance-style photo of Andrea and Brock as a little bit of extra motivation: “We know where they live and we know that you love them.”
Back at the car wash, Walt Jr. knows everything and he is not happy. Marie tries to comfort him, and she kind of steps on Skyler’s toes in terms of the mother role here, but Walt Jr. doesn’t want to hear it from either of them. Skyler, Holly, and Walt. Jr. head home. In the car, Walt Jr. neglects to put his seat belt on. Skyler asks him to fix this; “It’s not safe,” she says, to which Walt Jr. can only reply with, “You’re shitting me, right?” He then vocalizes what Skyler herself seems to be thinking: “If all this stuff is true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.”
The pull up to the house and see the unfamiliar truck in the driveway. They walk in to see Walt packing a suitcase after suitcase of clothing. Walt Jr., understandably, has a lot of questions for his dad, none of which Walt has the time to answer. Skyler has just one query: where’s Hank? She knows something happened, but all Walt can do is assure her that everything is going to be fine (lol). “I need you to trust me,” he begs. “Work with me here, and I promise everything will be explained later.” This feels like it could be the tagline for the entire show.
Skyler won’t give in. She’s sure that Walt killed Hank. Even though he isn’t, he’s directly responsible for his death no matter which way you look at it. Walt moves toward the back of the house, and Skyler approaches the kitchen counter. There are two things in focus: a knife block and the house phone. Which will she choose? Will she call the cops, or will she enact her own justice?
She goes for the weapon. She motions to protect Walt Jr., but for a split second, I could have sworn she was going to stab him in some bizarre effort to put him out of his misery. She slashes at Walt, though, and soon they’re grappling on the floor. Walt Jr. throws down his crutches, knocks Walt off of Skyler, and shields her. Walt Jr. calls the police, and while they’re still taking in the situation, Walt uses their confusion to his advantage and snatches Holly and her diaper bag out of her play area. Skyler notices a few seconds too late, and by the time she leaves the house, Walt and the baby are already in the car.
The police and Marie arrive at the White residence and Walt decides to get in touch. The officers trace the call and tap the line. He threatens Skyler, telling her that she’ll end up like Hank if she gets involved. He stresses, “I built this. Me. Me alone. Nobody else,” which, at first, sounds like good ol’ over-confident Walt, but there’s another layer to this. He’s protecting Skyler. He knows the police are listening and he wants them to believe she’s not involved in any of this. He drops the baby off at a fire house. The episode ends with Saul’s relocation expert picking him up in the same van that was once meant for Jesse.
The “Ozymandias” poem is so fitting for Walt. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” was something that he once claimed in so many words, but now he’s been reduced to essentially rubble, just like those “trunkless legs” and the debris that surrounds them. Everything is gone – his family, the majority of his money, his life – and the once mighty Heisenberg is a fragment of his old self, a shadow looming over the “colossal wreck” he got himself caught up in. He built his empire, an ode to his own brilliance, but his arrogance forced it all to come crashing down.
Posted on September 16, 2013, in AMC, Cable, Drama, Primetime and tagged breaking bad, Hank Schrader, Jesse Pinkman, Marie Schrader, Ozymandias, Skyler White, Vince Gilligan, Walter White. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.