Monday, September 16, 2013

Things Fall Apart: Breaking Bad Episode 514, "Ozymandias"

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity.

                                      Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats 

 The Centre Cannot Hold

Yo, so what's next?
We wait.
We don't have like eight more anal things we gotta do first?
The reaction has begun.

We have arrived where we started, only to know the place for the first time. Chaos is nonlinear and infinitely complex, impossible to predict or control. And yet its genesis might be understood retrospectively. Like the butterfly that flaps its wings in one corner of the world and creates an eventual hurricane across the globe, disaster irrevocably began to metastisize for Walter White when he made the life altering decision to manufacture methampthetamine. This chain of causality is directly underscored by one of the more radical shifts in sequencing thus far in the series, as "Ozymandias" opens with Walt and Jesse cooking their first batch of meth together in the To'hajiilee desert. The opening frame tells us everything that we need to know about where this is headed: a flask containing liquid is being heated and has just reached its boiling point. This was the exact point in space and time at which the butterfly's wings shifted the winds and the inevitable path toward annihilation was set in motion. Things boiled over with their very first cook-everything between then and now has merely been prelude. 

The opening sequence ends with Walt, Jesse, and the old RV dissolving amidst the backdrop of To'hajiilee, only to be replaced by the end of the shootout. The temporal circularity corresponds neatly with cause and effect, as we see Gomez dead and Hank wounded, the victims of the unmitigated carnage that Walt has wrought. Walter, in a flailing, desperate attempt to retain a shred of humanity, offers Jack his entire fortune of $80 million in exchange for Hank's life. Blinded by his own arrogance and stubborn refusal to give up the illusion of control, Walt still thinks that he has some type of handle over the situation. But the reality is that he lost any form of agency when he cooked his first batch of meth, foraying into an unimaginably savage world of violence and depravity. Hank, for his part, understands that control gave way to chaos quite some time ago, telling Walter,"You're the smartest person that I ever met and you're still too stupid to see that he made up his mind 10 minutes ago." He admits his situation, choosing to die with dignity rather than make a futile plea toward fate or some loathsome Nazi in the desert. He provides an example for how Walt could have responded to his own mortality, and reminds us that there is indeed an alternate, more noble path available even when confronted by unavoidable horror. Had Walter chosen to accept the harshness of his circumstances with similar valor, Hank and the entire White family would have been spared from overwhelming tragedy. How we greet fate often has enormous consequences, even in the most deterministic of frameworks.

The Blood Dimmed Tide

Cause and effect is still the rule, even amidst chaos. There are no vacuums within the Breaking Bad universe; everything is interconnected. Walt's decisions have given birth to a storm, a force of nature  'as pitiless as the sun.' The events that transpired in"Ozymandias" represent a karmic apotheosis for  Walter White; the cumulative debt of his past sins have come to claim their pound of flesh, resulting in the complete evisceration of all that he holds dear. Hank and Gomez's bodies are dumped in the very spot where his money had been buried, and the shallow grave they share is a far more appropriate testament to the reign of Heisenberg than the fortune that once laid there. The vast majority of Walt's money has been appropriated by the Aryans, although Uncle Jack generously leaves $10 million to his nephew's favorite teacher. That sum, ironically, is not appreciably larger than the $5 million that had been offered to Walter by Declan in "Buyout", a sum he dismissively spurned at the time as "pennies on the dollar."  

But of course ego has dictated a different course for Walter, one unhinged from reason and uninformed by reality. Like Mike told him, "everything falling apart like this, this is ON YOU Walter...You, and your EGO..." And it was all for naught-countless lives and immeasurable suffering for money that would ultimately end up  being seized by a third party. But even this isn't enough to make Walter admit defeat; as long as he has something that he can point to as testament of his achievement, of victory, then he believes he can still pack up his family and walk away unscathed. Involuntary, creepy smiles flash over his face as he pleads with his wife to pack their things and leave, imploring her to recognize their chance at a new life: "Skyler, I have eleven million dollars in cash, right outside...We can have a fresh start, whole new lives; all we have to do is go, go right now...That's all we have to do..."

But he's not getting off that easy. He doesn't bother to consider the possibility that his family might not be willing to conveniently disregard Hank's murder as they move forward with their 'new lives'. The death of her brother in law has fully awakened Skyler to the reality that her children will never be safe as long as they continue to be near Walt, and, in a climactic confrontation that has been over a year in the making, she decides to draw a line in the sand. She pulls a steak knife from the kitchen and commits to defending her children with deadly force: either Walter leaves, or she will kill him, or she will die trying. Junior is there to witness it all-Walt's tacit admission that Hank has been killed, Skyler's slashing of his father, his parents violently wrestling one another to the floor-and the ugliness of the episode is guaranteed to leave him with the deepest of psychological wounds. A civil war has erupted within the family, and, forced to choose sides, Junior intuitively understands which side is right (or least wrong) and calls the police on his father. 

This is the blood dimmed tide that Walt has unleashed-the complete dissolution of his family, the disintegration of his son's trust, the ruining of his life and theirs. How many times have we heard Walter try to rationalize to himself and others that every reprehensible deed that he has committed-including manufacturing meth, mass murder, child poisoning, and innumerable acts of betrayal- has been for his family? And yet in a perfect form of karmic retribution, it is his family that he ultimately destroys and then abandons, leaving them with nothing but anguish. All that is left for him is a barrel of money and a spot alone by the side of the highway, waiting for a fresh start, a whole new life...One to be lived alone, a dead man accompanied only by ghosts.

The Widening Gyre

The cataclysmic destruction of his entire existence is perfectly paralleled by his internal state. Even in his wildest moments in the past, there has always been some type of purposefulness to his actions. At this point, however, all structure seems to have been abandoned, and he has become completely unhinged. And so we see the desperate attempt to kidnap Holly, a completely irrational, untenable decision made without deliberation or consideration of consequence. Even more so than his murder of Mike, the abduction of Holly represents an explosive, emotionally guided devolution of his character that constitutes a wholly uncharted realm of depravity. It is only after Holly cries for her mother that he realizes that taking her to whatever dark place he plans on disappearing represents another line that he cannot cross. Whether informed by pragmatism (hard to hide from law enforcement with an infant), a moral/emotional barrier, or a combination of the two, Walt recognizes that he has gone too far and cleverly returns his infant daughter by surreptitiously leaving her in a firetruck and turning its lights on. The flashing red light might as well signal the wildfire that is burning uncontrollably within Walter White. Heisenberg's edifice of coldly calculated pragmatism has been pealed away, and what remains is a dying, desperate animal. Never before has Walter lurched back and forth so wildly between emotional extremes. In one moment, we see him altruistically attempt to trade his entire fortune for Hank's life, and in the next, he not only gives up Jesse to the Aryans, but sadistically tortures him with the truth about how he watched Jane die. This wild meandering between emotional polarities is a new development for Walter, one that must be watched closely in the final two episodes. Never have we seen him able to switch so completely and rapidly between selflessness and sadism. Moving forward, Walter's emotional center is going to be as unpredictable and chaotic as the eye of a storm.

His threatening phone call to Skyler in the final act gives us a preview of the type of volatility that we can expect this storm to produce. In an ambiguous scene reminiscent of both the reckless panic of his conversation with Jesse on the way to To'hajiilee and the emotional ambivalence of his "tread lightly" admonition to Hank, Walter's final call home exhibits a manic discontinuity of emotional tone. Is he merely displaying carelessness, emotionally blinded to the obvious fact that the police are almost certainly recording the call? Or were his numerous admissions of crimes and multiple threats against his wife merely an attempt to provide her with cover for the legal disaster that is sure to ensue? My initial belief is that the answer lies somewhere in between the two scenarios. Walt destroyed his cell phone immediately after calling his wife, indicating that he most likely was aware that law enforcement had traced the call. I also believe, however, that he meant every word that he said. He wants to retain power and agency, even if it can only be wielded psychologically. Additionally, going to the man is the one unforgivable sin in Walter White's universe. Both his biological and surrogate sons have now surrendered him to law enforcement, and his wife has done the same. Skyler seems to be a logical target for emotional scapegoating, and while Walt may not want her to end up in jail, I can certainly imagine a scenario in which he would be happy to see her killed. And yet, in one of Bryan Craston's most brilliant moments of the entire series, Walter exhibits unmistakeable sadness while he unequivocally threatens Skyler's life. His face twitches while tears stream down his face, and even he doesn't seem to fully understand his intentions. Walt has become, at this point, fully unrecognizable to himself.

Indignant Desert Birds

What bones will be left to pick?  The carnage that has been left in the wake of Walter's retreat is nothing short of apocalyptic. His family, already emotionally devastated by revelations about Walt's criminality and Hank's death, have only begun to suffer. Skyler is likely going to face criminal charges (the preview for "Granite State" seemed to indicate this pretty clearly), and it seems like a safe bet that federal asset seizure is just beyond the horizon. In addition to leaving his family with emotional trauma, he's also left them penniless. Additionally, Marie could be facing an existential threat from Uncle Jack and the Aryans. Todd was able to learn through torturing Jesse that the copy of his confession to the DEA is at Hank's house. I would imagine he and his uncle's friends will deem it a priority to destroy that and any other incriminating evidence that may be at Hank's residence, potentially including ASAC Schrader's wife. 

Jesse, however, has suffered the most unimaginably horrific fate. He is now Todd's indentured servant, the tortured captive of a sociopath, kept in a cage as a meth gimp for the Aryan brotherhood. Just in case torture and death aren't enough to get him to cook Mr. White's formula, Todd has provided him with an additional source of motivation: a picture of Andrea and Brock posted in their lab. The message is clear-if Jesse doesn't cook, they're going to die. He's been conscripted into slavery and a special kind of hell, one of indeterminate length that only ends in death. 

The only comparable situation is Walter's. He is as much a slave as Jesse at this point, however the hell in which he resides is entirely in his own mind. He is alone now with nothing to distract him from himself. He has been breathlessly sprinting from one immediate threat to another for over a year, and as a result has never had to confront his greatest enemy: himself. Krazy-8, Tuco, the Cousins, Gus, Mike, Jesse, Hank, the Aryans-the threats posed by these individuals have merely been symptomatic of the greater cancer that has infected Walter White's soul. As he pulls away in the vacuum repair man's minivan, a feral dog quickly scurries across the road behind them. The dog is isolated, forced to pursue survival in a solemn, meaningless existence, devoid of social cohesion or the security of the group. Walter, too, has become a lone feral dog, isolated and unpredictable, pitiful yet dangerous. His exile is the rough equivalent of being buried alive, a tortured conscience left alone to consume itself in self-loathing and regret. His return in a year may be less a final act of redemption and more an escape from himself. "I've still got things left to do," he tells Skyler. I think you've done enough, Walter. Take a break.

Random Insights

  • This was Anna Gunn's best performance to date. She ranged emotionally from being calmly pragmatic to hysterically panicked in a way that felt visceral but also directly within the center of her character. She put everything that she had into this episode, and it really showed. 

  •  Hank, like Gus, was given a good death, one deserving of a great character. I'm glad that the writers didn't try to force Hank and/or Gomez out of this situation alive, it just wouldn't have felt even remotely believable. 
  • Director Rian Johnson is a killer. The fade out from the opening flashback and ensuing fade in to the end of the gunfight was one of the smoother pieces of visual storytelling that I've seen on the show. What an incredibly graceful way to respond to the enormous challenge of picking up after last week's cliffhanger. 

  • I think that it's safe to say that Johnson is a huge fan of the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona. The shot that zooms in on Jesse hiding under Walt's car as well as him being pulled out from underneath the vehicle by a 'warthog from hell' were direct visual allusions to scenes in from the film. 
  •   "Hank being killed is a direct result of Walt's choices."-Vince Gilligan 
  • Todd wears uncharacteristic emotion on his face when Hank is killed, directly offering condolences to Mr. White:"Sorry for your loss." He seems to have a genuine respect and admiration for Walt. He also hasn't forgotten about that sucker punch from Jesse, whom he most certainly does not respect...
  • "I could have saved her, but I didn't...I watched her die." Walt, I think, is most angry with Jesse because he blames him for Hank's death. He would never be able to accept responsibility in his own mind for Hank's murder, leaving Jesse as the only available scapegoat. This was the primary motivation behind his Jane provocation. 
  • Just as Jesse was the only thing keeping Gus from killing Walter, Todd is the only barrier that keeps Jack from leaving him with Hank and Gomez in the desert. "My nephew here he respect you, he would never forgive me if things...went another way." I'll be interested to see if Todd comes to regret his defense of Walter in the same way that Jesse undoubtedly has.
  • Another visual allusion to the Godfather when Walt collapses after Hank's death, completely overcome by grief. Very similar to Michael's reaction at the end of Godfather III when his daughter is killed.
  • Loved the shot of Jesse looking up at vultures just before he thinks he is about to die. 
  • It ain't just classic rock and diner breakfasts with these Nazis. I love how Gilligan humanizes his villains (like he did with Gus) before showing us just how vicious they truly are. It makes the experience of seeing them cut a person's jugular or coldly gloat over a dying man that much more jarring. 
  • Bring out the gimp. Yikes. Aaron Paul describes what happens to Jesse as a fate worse than death, and I have to agree. 
  • Fuck you, imdb! I genuinely feel a desire for revenge against the people at imdb for putting up an inaccurate cast list in advance of last night's episode (one that included Mike Ehrmantraut and Tuco Salamanca). If Vince Gilligan engineered this, I've forgiven him already (you've given me so much!). I should have known better, but I really got my hopes up.
  • Regarding a character that I have expressed a deep desire to see brought back, I think it is safe to say that Gus will not be reappearing in any of the final episodes. Vince Gilligan hinted during a New Yorker panel discussion that Gus' incomplete bio would be somewhat analogous to the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, essentially a tantalizing mystery that will remain forever unexplained. I think that we can expect the same for Mike. Oh well.
  • No Saul quotes this week. Uncle Jack the Nazi provided us with the closest thing to levity in the episode:"Jesus, what's with all the greed here? It's unattractive."
  • I saw another Coen brothers reference in the cold open, this one a tip of the cap to Fargo when Skyler gloats to Walter about having sold her crying clown piece on ebay. It reminded me of the end of the film, when Norm Gunderson tells Marge that he's been commissioned to make the three cent stamp. Walt, like the killers in Fargo, would never be satisfied with a three cent stamp or a crying clown. Someone should repeat Marge Gunderson's words from the end of the film to Walter:"And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
  • Both of Walt's sons have now dimed him out to the man.
  • Walt is now the dead man walking. We see him waiting for Saul's fixer along the highway in front of concrete slabs that resemble graves. This turned out to be a foreboding symbol for Jesse, and I imagine that it will be for Walt, too.
  •  Did Vince Gilligan gain inspiration for Walt's final call to Skyler by listening to Mel Gibson's voicemails to his ex-wife? What a fucking psycho...
    • "Hank crossed me, you think about that, you let that sink in..."
    • "You never believed in me."
    • "Tow the line or you will wind up just like Hank."
    • "Because you need to learn..."
  • I get a kick out of how Dean Norris has no sympathy for Walter White's character. He clearly demonstrated on Talking Bad that he hates Walt. I love how hard these actors bring it, the emotions of their characters seem to bleed over into real life even months after the show has wrapped....
  • The central mystery of the episode is what Walter's intentions were with his final call to Skyler. I hate to sound like I'm hedging, but I really believe that his motives are multifaceted and complex-he wants to give her legal cover and threaten her and he's deeply conflicted over everything that he's saying. He really has no better control over himself than he does his external circumstances anymore, and I also think that it's becoming harder and harder for him to slip into the role of Heisenberg. In any event, the ambiguity of the scene is a testament to Bryan Cranston's incredible ability as an actor. He really is one of the greatest talents of our generation.
  • I'm really glad that Gilligan and Co. decided not to let any harm come to baby Holly. Killing/harming a child (particularly an infant) is a particularly cheap, mean-spirited dramatic device that I think is far beneath this show. Hinting that something might happen to her and then pulling back was far more intelligent and probably even more provocative. Nice show of restraint not killing the baby.
  • Eddy Arnold's "Time's a Gettin' Hard" was the ballad that played while Walt rolled his barrel of money through the desert. It's lyrics refer directly to where Walter White really lives: "Take my true love by her hand/lead her through the town/say goodbye to everyone/goodbye to everyone"
  • Vince Gilligan has stated that this was his favorite episode of the series and, despite insanely high expectations, it did not disappoint. It's too soon to objectively try to rate this episode amongst the pantheon of great Breaking Bad installments, but it's certainly up there. What an amazing show.