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Duly Noted

Monday, Sep 16, 2013, 3:52 pm

Breaking Bad Recap, Season 5, Episode 14: Ozymandias

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) begs Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) not to kill Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). (Ursula Coyote/AMC)  

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.

“Ozymandias,” the poem about a long-forgotten ruler of Egypt, a cruel tyrant whose colossus lies in ruins, is a metaphor for the transience of worldly power. The monarch taunted posterity with the inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” It so happens that “Remember My Name,” is the tagline for the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad. By the end of the episode, the last vestiges of Walt’s empire lie in ruins, but Walt will keep trying to control how people remember him. 

“Ozymandias” the episode opens in flashback: Walt is standing in the clearing at To’hajiilee, “the very first place [they] cooked, like, ever,” haltingly rehearsing a cover story aloud before calling Skyler to explain why he’ll be home late. By the end of the episode, Walt’s delivering the performance of a lifetime in another phone call to Skyler, having evolved into an adept liar. This episode is about cycles. Walt and Jesse saw this place on the way up, and they’re seeing it again on the way down. Empires rise and empires fall.

In a signature Breaking Bad editing move, the flashback ends with Walt, Jesse, and the camper dematerializing one by one. Then, we’re slammed back into the present as the same shot is repopulated with the gunfight. Gomie is dead and Hank is bleeding profusely from a leg wound, but the message of the edit is that we don’t even need a full dissolve to bring us to the present because so little has changed in the grand scheme of things. Shots of the towering red cliffs and endless desert remind us that the land is still the same, vast and indifferent, like the “lone and leveled sands” that surround the ruins of the statue of Ozymandias. We’re riveted by the minutiae of Walter White’s rise and fall, but the Southwest doesn’t give a shit who the meth king of the Southwest is.

Walt begs Jack to spare Hank’s life. In desperation, he offers Jack his $80 million stash. But Jack has already announced his verdict, “There’s no scenario in which this guy lives,” which sounds like the “Kill Hank” contingent in the writer’s room taunting the “Save Hank” contingent and those of us in the audience who were willing to jettison every rule of plausibility and narrative if Hank could just please, please live. We’re willing to beg, but Hank isn’t. 

"You're the smartest guy I ever met and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago," Hank says before turning to Jack and commanding him to do the inevitable.

Walt, having stormed out of the house with baby Holly after a violent confrontation with Skyler, calls from the road to deliver a blistering tirade, which seems to have been cobbled together from anti-Skyler slurs on the internet. Between Anna Gunn’s op/ed and Walt’s phone call, Breaking Bad has broken new ground in trolling the anti-social elements of its fanbase. The haters always talk about Skyler like she’s their ex-wife: She’s a stupid bitch, she’s keeping Walt down, she’s ungrateful, she’s disobedient, she’s to blame for everything. Walt throws it all back in the hater’s faces. It feels good to watch, even knowing that three quarters of them will miss the joke.

Walt has every reason to assume that the police are listening in on his final call to Skyler before he hands himself over to the felon identity reassignment service. Walt’s abuse feels heartfelt, but he’s also deliberately giving Skyler an out. We know because Walt implicates himself in a murder he didn’t commit. When Skyler accused Walt of killing Hank earlier, Walt protested vehemently. Later, on the phone, he goes out of his way to claim responsibility for Hank’s death, and everything else that Skyler might otherwise get blamed for. Walt’s parting call mirrors the call he made in the opening scene.

Walt’s call is a performance for the police, but like any good actor, Walt is tapping into real feelings, and Walt has boundless reserves of misogynist rage to draw upon.

“I still have things to do,” Walt tells Skyler, and we have to wonder what he has in mind as he drops off baby Holly with some friendly firefighters and slips over the Red Minivan of Event Horizon. Walt’s call to Skyler is his way of leaving her some shred of gratitude to remember him by. It’s simultaneously selfless and manipulative. In the final two episodes, Walt will try to do something memorable to the Nazis. It’s too late for Walt to redeem himself, but he still has some control over how we remember his name. The mighty Ozymandias couldn’t hold onto power, or even control how people would remember him, but his name lives on.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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