The opening credits—actors, designers, producers, writer, director—that usually run immediately after the first commercial break didn’t show up in this week’s episode of Breaking Bad until nearly halfway into the show. It was a smart move; this week in particular, resolving as it did the cliffhanger of last week’s desert shoot-out, no one would be looking at them. Not that writer Moira Walley-Beckett was all about instant delivery; the episode cruelly opens far from where we want to be, chronologically if not geographically, with Walt and Jesse back in the RV during season one (episode one, to be precise). It’s a prologue full of little in-jokes: Walt rehearsing his the first of a long series of lies to Skylar, her suggestion that he pick up a pizza on the way home (keep it off the roof!), her proposal of the name “Holly” for their unborn daughter. But this prologue isn’t just a delaying tactic or a sop to nostalgia; as the figures and vehicles of the past fade and reappear in the present on either side of the title card, it’s yet another opportunity to reflect on exactly how far these characters have fallen.
You’ve got to give Hank Schrader this: he goes out like a champ. As much as it must have smarted to have been saved, even for a few extra minutes, by his brother-in-law, he won’t play ball with scum like Uncle Jack, responding to him (and Walt’s proposal) with a stern “And you can go (blank) yourself.” (Boy do I wish they could say “fuck” on AMC.) Walt raising the spectre of that buried money is, in retrospect, a spectacular fuck-up; it wasn’t going to save Hank (he’s right—Jack’s mind was made up), and Walt ends up not only losing Hank but losing most of his war chest.
There’s an awful feeling throughout this scene of everything unraveling, and it also provides one of those increasingly rare but undeniably potent flashes of Walt’s scant remaining humanity. There’s real grief on Walt’s face when Jack pulls the trigger, and real pain and anguish in that fall to the desert ground. It has to kill him to lose all of that money to a subhuman dirtbag like Jack, so all of his coldness and fury ends up directed at poor Jesse, dragged from under that car, and when Walt doesn’t get the immediate satisfaction of having that killing fulfilled, he takes the opportunity to finally, at long last, tell Jesse the truth about Jane. It’s not just kicking a man when he’s down; he wants to make someone else hurt, to make up for his own helplessness, loss of control, and guilt.
If last week’s episode was a slow and steady build to a furious climax, this week’s confounded that expectation by coming to its emotional and visceral head before the penultimate act break. As they ride home from the car wash, Flynn’s point-blank accusation sums up much of the complexity and difficulty of his mother: “If all this is true, and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.” That’s the key question when it comes to Skylar—and the one still rattling around in her head, moments later, when she finally draws a line. In the living room, as the dirty, panicked Walt insists “I need both of you to trust me” (brass fucking balls on this guy), a choice is put to her, a bare, stark choice: take the money and go, or stay and finally break away.
Director Rian Johnson (who helmed Looper, Brick, and two other episodes) carefully frames the scene’s key shot, a close-up of the counter, where Skylar surprisingly doesn’t go for their handy cordless phone, but for a giant goddamn knife. The eruption of violence that follows is real, and messy, and scary—and Walt is nearly as surprised as we are. “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” he explodes. “WE’RE A FAMILY.” But they’re not, not anymore. And that’s the last indignity for him, the ultimate loss—because the preservation of his precious family was what this was all for, once upon a time, back in that RV. And that’s probably why he’s willing to add “kidnapper” to his CV. It’s one more desperate stab at control, and in this moment of abandonment, she’s the one member of that all-important family who cannot reject him.
The episode’s final dialogue scene finds Walt at his most blatantly monstrous yet, roaring cruelties over the phone at Skylar, warning her to “toe the line or you will wind up just like Hank,” calling her a “stupid bitch” who was “never grateful for anything I did for this family.” The whole thing may be an act for the eavesdropping police, but his voice never falters—and Cranston chooses, remarkably, to play the scene in tears. Even Walt, it seems, can’t believe what he’s become, and as we survey the wreckage of this man, barking threats at his wife, it’s worth noting that the episode’s title, “Ozymandias,” is shared by this sonnet by Percy Blysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller 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.