Breaking Bad has shown itself to be nothing if not enamored of symbolism, so naming an episode “Ozymandias” — after the sonnet by Percy Shelley — is on one level par for the course. It’s a brief but haunting poem about the transient nature of power and the way that hubris lays low even the mightiest of rulers. But it’s also about the way we create legends in our own image and time, and how stories take on a life of their own. The poem’s narrator isn’t talking directly about the wrecked statue of Ozymandias, or the now-ironic inscription “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”; he’s relaying the fact that he once met a traveler who’d seen these things and who told him about the ruin in the middle of the desert. The legend of Ozymandias outlasted his dominion, and though he ceased being a ruler, he became something far harder to kill: a story, a ghost, an idea to haunt everyone else who would eventually take the throne. When Breaking Bad teased this final half-season with an ad composed of eerie desert shots set to a reading of the poem by Bryan Cranston, the verse’s lamentation became even clearer. It’s a 14-line epic about the endless life of legends, and all the good and bad that entails.
So: the self-destruction of the powerful, and the way their legends outstrip their dynasties. Two things that are very much a part of Walter White’s world.
What’s stunning is how, even at this stage, Walt remains able to bifurcate himself and access what appears to be genuine love or sorrow or regret, albeit for mere seconds at a time before those emotions are perverted into something more reckless. For all his threats and posturing, he seemed to really ache for Hank (as did we all), and his breakdown was a reminder that his half-assed plan, whatever it was, was based more on getting Hank to back down than in causing him harm. He even repeatedly told Saul that killing Hank wasn’t an option to be considered. But the king, eager to bolster his kingdom, enlisted the help of men whose commitment and ruthlessness he greatly miscalculated. And when the worst happened, Walt focused his self-loathing and anger on an external target, pinning Jesse to the cross for Walt’s own deeds. The grimly casual way he set Todd’s crew on Jesse — and then, in Jesse’s moment of desperation, admitted his complicity in the death of Jesse’s former lover — was as terrifying as anything he’s ever done.
Similarly, Walt’s insane rage at his family, when he lost the last bit of control over his world, was shocking, but the act he put on when he called home — stating again and again that it was his drug empire, that Hank had crossed him and suffered the consequences — seemed a canny way to both take responsibility in the eyes of the cops he had to know were listening in while also shielding his family from any potential guilt by association. He excoriated Skyler for her actions, but his version of her was merely a nag, not the money-laundering assistant he’d helped her become. I could be way off (see again my comments last week about the sheer lunacy of trying to read tea leaves 44 minutes at a time), but it felt like a way to buy his family an out, even as he committed himself to the lonely life of a murderer in hiding. The father and the killer, the hater and the hated, all in one man tearing himself apart one pound of flesh at a time.
And oh, Hank Schrader. The man who started out a cowboy and walked through fire to become natural police. His death was the highest price Walt’s yet paid for his crimes, and there was nothing Walt could do to stop the bullet from being fired. Hank’s killing was sad and brutal, and worst of all, done at the hand of some hired thug who didn’t know or care a thing about the situation other than that he wanted to get his dollar and go home. Walt was left with a pile of money the likes of which most of us will never see, but it was a fraction of everything he’d earned, and all his wealth still couldn’t buy his brother-in-law safe passage. After a certain point, Walt’s power became so great he stopped understanding how to control it. That was the real beginning of the end. There’s always someone else coming along. The man who worked to take out Gus Fring couldn’t see he was just as vulnerable to downfall. Hank did the work, hunted his man, and caught the one and only Heisenberg, and for his efforts he was dumped in a hole in the ground in the New Mexico desert. That’s the kind of ache the best stories create in you: the pain of watching someone fight so hard and still come to a bad end. Watching Hank fall, and watching Jesse be beaten and caged, is the kind of piercing heartbreak only the best series achieve. These have become real people for us.
Yet maybe the best and truest moment of the episode — or at least the one that summed up Walt’s entire journey so far — was when Walt had to wheel his barrel of cash through the desert after his car broke down. Set against the easy bounce of “Take My True Love By the Hand,” an old folk song covered by The Limeliters, Walt pushed his last and most precious possession — his true love — over the horizon, bent and sweating but with no other choice than to keep going. The lyrics were as pointed as the lines from “Ozymandias,” but no less haunting for their obviousness: “Times are getting hard, boys / money’s getting scarce. / If things don’t get no better, boys / Gonna leave this place.”