First, some (mild) vindication. I mentioned last week that there was absolutely no way this week’s outing would open with Hank dead, just like that. True enough, once we got back to the scene of the shootout, Hank’s taken a bullet to the leg, but he’s not quite down for the count just yet. What follows is an exit worthy of the character, though of course very far from “just.” In his final moments, Hank cuts right to the bone of Walt’s character: he’s a brilliant moron, possessed with remarkable skills for manipulation and brutality, but with a bizarre lack of situational awareness. He doesn’t realize that the ground has shifted, irrevocably, right under his feet, and he’s the last to figure it out. Typical. Also fantastic is Hank’s insistence on undercutting Walt’s attempts at compassion at every turn; though it’s futile in terms of changing the outcome, it’s vitally important for the character that he not let Walt escape the situation with anyone genuinely believing that Walt possesses a scrap of decency in any meaningful sense.
On the subject of Walter Hartwell White. The trickiest thing for Vince Gilligan and company to pull off in the two episodes that remain will be to convince us that it’s even worth tracking Walter to the end of his journey, because “Ozymandias” features Walt at his most bastardly – ever. And not just once. Let’s catalog, shall we? After Hank dies, he not only sells Jesse out, and signs off on his execution, he twists the knife one more time by telling him about how he watched Jane die. He attempts to manipulate his family one last time, only to be thwarted by Flynn, who gets to make up for being lied to and kept in the margins for almost the entire series through sheer badassery. Finally, he abducts Holly (who is a remarkable little actor, by the way – every “no mama” is a blow to the gut), and makes a phone call that serves to burn every single last one of his bridges.
Surely one of the very best sequences in the series’ history, the phone call contains and produces a dozen or so indelible moments. The most loaded: “You stupid bitch.” In a perfect world, that line (and line reading) would serve to underline just how wrongheaded the levels of vitriol have been towards Skyler White (and, by bizarre extension, Anna Gunn) for some time now, though this episode repeatedly makes clear that she’s far from blameless. (The best moment of Flynn’s awakening comes when he balks openly at Skyler’s demand that he mind ) The cold open, which takes place well before Skyler learned of Walt’s doings, is heartbreaking in the way it underlines just how much the revelation has altered the course of her life. Unlike Walt, Skyler’s admittedly poor decisions really did come from a place of wanting to keep her family safe, even at the cost of her sanity. Blame her all you like – it’s fair to – but don’t lump her in with Walt. Also, her righteous fury allows for the very best single shot of the episode: the relatively long, still take of the phone and the knife rack on the kitchen counter, offering the “rational” response (call the authorities) and the correct one – her best decision in a very long time, and one that further underlines just how poisonous Walt’s influence is.
The other key image during that fateful call is that of Betsy Brandt as Marie, hearing the explicit news of Hank’s demise. After a few weeks’ worth of seeing Brandt strut her stuff, with Marie at her most commanding, it’s incredibly gutting to see her so hopelessly trampled under the weight of the worst possible news. It’s up in the air as to how much more of her we’ll see in the last two episodes (it’s really down to whether or not she’ll be able to forge some kind of bond with Skyler, or whether her grief will lead her to reject her anew), but in any case, she’s put in some truly stunning work of late.
Looking for the imprint of big-deal movie director Rian Johnson? It’s hard to find, but it’s there, particularly in the atypical pans and zooms that litter the episode at key moments. Thankfully, Johnson keeps the stylistic flourishes minimal; he knows well enough to stay out of the way of this truly explosive material. Remarkably, for such a dark and loaded episode, we still find time for one more colorful music cue, this time in the form of a tragic love ballad that scores Walt’s waltz with his last remaining companion, his beloved barrel of money. Isn’t that sweet?
With Jesse as a meth-cook slave (the picture of Brock and Andrea is a particularly macabre touch) and Walt about to forge a new identity in (presumably) New Hampshire, it’s possible to make the argument that the series is, in a sense, effectively over, with the rest as epilogue. Walt’s activities are about to be public record thanks to that phone call and Hank and Gomie’s demise, Walt’s in the wind, and Jesse is trapped in hell. If the remaining story time is spent with Walt trying to rescue Jesse and earn some modicum of redemption, that’s going to be an incredibly tough sell, given what we’ve just witnessed. Better to focus on Jesse, whose scarred visage now stands as the series’ most potent visual metaphor yet for Walt’s ravages. Yet this impasse feels like just another seemingly impossible situation for Breaking Bad to somehow worm its way out of, just as Walt has – and for my meager misgivings, I’m eager to see what remains to be told, especially if it’s going to be told this damned compellingly.