"Breaking Bad" recap: Just wow

With just two episodes left, things go down in an especially intense hour

Published September 16, 2013 11:41AM (EDT)

                   (Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

To borrow a term from Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," this week’s "Breaking Bad" was a barbaric yawp of an episode, one that reached into our chests, yanked our hearts into our throats until they nearly reached our uvulas, let go of those hearts during the commercial breaks, then yanked them back up again as soon as the action resumed.

It was an hour of television that demanded immediate access to an oxygen tank. It was the kind of episode where the death of a major character (Hank) was only No. 3 on the list of things you needed to immediately discuss after it ended, and the death of Gomez -- who was a human being, dammit! -- was, like, No. 17. Naturally, Twitter responded the only way it possibly could: with a lot of tweets that, literally or metaphorically, started with the word “holy” and ended in “shit.”

This episode, “Ozymandias,” was directed by Rian Johnson, the same filmmaker responsible for “Looper,” a mind-bending time-travel thriller in which a bad guy confronts an older version of himself. Fittingly then, this "Breaking Bad" installment began with a flashback of a slightly younger Walt on a cell phone, calling Skyler to tell a lie that seemed hilariously innocent in retrospect: that he was working late at the car wash when, actually, he was de-pantsed, in the desert and cooking meth with Jesse Pinkman.

As Skyler spoke to her husband and boxed up a piece of artwork that featured the image of a sad clown, a block of kitchen knives was clearly visible in the foreground. She told Walt they should name their soon-to-be-born daughter -- a child they clearly both planned to love, fully and together -- Holly, and Walt informally agreed. It was a scene that initially seemed like a wry nod to the man Walt used to be when it actually was an expertly crafted piece of foreshadowing. The insane Walt vs. Skyler knife fight, Walt’s breathtaking decision to abduct Holly, the police-tapped phone call between Skyler and Walt in which Walt himself became a sad clown of sorts, clearly putting up a front and masking his own regret: it was all right there, in the very first scene of the night, if only we knew to look for it. Kind of makes you feel like Hank neglecting the obvious Heisenberg clues, doesn’t it?

Walter White did some of the most malicious and awful things he’s ever done in this episode. He finally admitted to Jesse that he let Jane die, a spiteful confession that allowed Walt to note that he stole someone Jesse loved long before Jesse’s behavior led to the devastating death of Walt’s brother-in-law. Walt took a Native American man’s only source of transportation, although he did pay the guy handsomely for that truck. So that one was more of a mitzvah, really.

Walt almost stabbed his wife. He stole an infant. He drove with that infant in his lap like some Machiavellian, New Mexico-based version of 2006-era Britney Spears. And, in a nod to that aforementioned flashback, he called Skyler, insulted her using every epithet regularly associated with her on "Breaking Bad" message boards, confessed to killing Hank and threatened to do the same to Skyler unless she “toed the line.”

That phone call, by the way? That was probably the most selfless thing Walter White has ever done.

Come on, Walt’s smart enough to realize that the cops were definitely listening in on that call. So he intentionally did what he had previously accidentally done during a pivotal conversation with Jesse Pinkman. He confessed to multiple crimes, made it clear that Skyler had nothing to do with any of those crimes, then hung up and took poor, clearly labeled little Holly to a firehouse so she could be returned home, safe and sound and probably forever emotionally scarred. During that entire phone call, Walt maintained a ruthless edge even though it was clear that his hardened facade was cracking. What are the lines from that Percy Bysse Shelley poem that inspired this episode’s title? “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.” Walt, after Hank’s death, was that shattered visage. He completely broke. He lost everything: his brother-in-law, his wife, his kids and most of that important money he worked to amass.

Really, the only thing Walt had left to give his family was the gift of himself as Heisenberg. So, in that phone call, that’s exactly what he did. Now Skyler can seem at least partially innocent to the authorities. Marie can blame someone for Hank’s death that she already viewed as a villain. And Walt Jr. can see his father as a bad guy, allowing him to finally understand and forgive his mother for her frequent seemingly chilly attitude toward Walt. This doesn’t redeem Walt, by the way. To be clear, according to all applicable standards, he remains the worst. But it was still wrenching to watch him come to terms with the fact that he has to cut ties to his family and permanently sully his image in order to keep them safe.

For the record, I don’t believe that Walt knew what he was doing when he snatched Holly and ran out of the house after Flynn called the cops -- which, by the way, was heartbreaking moment No. 37 in this episode’s non-stop barrage of heartbreaking moments. As usual, Walt realized he needed some kind of card to play with Skyler, so he grabbed the most obvious card -- their defenseless baby -- and then, later, decided how to play it.

The disappearance of Walt and the demise of Hank, who died with dignity as well as the opportunity to utter the catch phrase “My name is ASAC Schrader. And you can go fuck yourself,” which almost rivals “I am the one who knocks,” means that Skyler and Marie now only have each other for support. Presumably a distraught Marie will be humbled enough to stop ordering Skyler around. The way she marched into the car wash with her news of Walt’s arrest and her demands about informing Flynn of his father’s meth deception was presumptuous and annoying. The only reason it didn’t become more irksome was because we, the audience, knew something Marie didn’t: that her husband, Hank, was gone. All of Marie’s gloating would soon be turned inside out and transformed into grief.

Hank’s departure, sad and harsh as it was, still seemed a bit brave and somehow fitting for a cowboy-style hero. On the other hand, what happened to Jesse Pinkman -- who’s being tortured by Todd and forced to cook meth while chained to a ceiling -- was far more disturbing. Here’s what’s going to happen: Todd is going to use Jesse to make the purest, bluest meth possible, then Todd is going to take all the credit himself. But I don’t think he’s going to kill Jesse because, even if he tries, Pinkman will figure out a way to escape. Why? Because that ricin that Walt took from his house in the previous flash-forward seems, most likely, intended for Jesse, the guy who once refused to give the same type of poison to Gus Fring. (Evidence that supports this theory and also may prove to be additional foreshadowing: Jesse’s discovery of a photo of Andrea and Brock, the same child Jesse once believed was suffering from ricin poisoning, in the meth lab where he and Todd are supposed to cook.)

As Walt said to Skyler at the end of his confessional phone call, which presumably was his last conversation before officially transforming from Mr. White into Mr. Lambert, he still has some things to take care of. And one of those things is Jesse Pinkman.

By Jen Chaney

Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.

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