Five Essay Prompts for Breaking Bad 5×14: ‘Ozymandias’

"Um hello, can I get a pizza delivery?" (AMC)

“Um hello, can I get a pizza delivery?” (AMC)

These questions regard last night’s episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.

1. Whew. Ok. Glad nothing much happened in this one.

This entire show has been about Walter White’s arc as he transforms from mild-mannered science teacher to vile monster. And in this episode we see the last remnants of his former self torn away as he becomes pure Heisenberg, much like the burning off of impurities that happens in his vaunted meth-making process. At the beginning of the episode, “family” is still something he holds sacred, but by the end he is using it as a taunt to spit back in Skyler’s face. Where before he was always driven by self-interest, here he is seen doing several truly cruel things–telling Jesse about Jane, kidnapping Holly–that seem motivated simply by revenge. All of the episode’s events lead up to this transformation, but which would you say is the key, decisive step in this purification process: Jack shooting Hank, Skyler pulling the knife, Walter Jr. calling 911, or none of the above?


I’d say Jack shooting Hank, or possibly none of the above. But lets back up a step.

In Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece about Bryan Cranston last week, he talks about how Breaking Bad isn’t a show about a good man becoming evil, but “an invisible man becoming vibrant.” I think that’s much closer to the heart of the show: “Mr. White” may have been mild-mannered, but he was never a nice guy. Go look at the first episode again: His immediate position towards Jesse is to blackmail him, his only interest in Hank is seeing if he could get a “ride-along” to learn how the meth business is going to work. For all his self-delusions, neither Walter White nor Heisenberg has ever actually cared about family all that much.

That being said, the strange line Walter has drawn in the sand over the last two episodes–Jesse can (and should!) die, but Hank can’t (because he’s family!)–shows you how far Walt needs to believe in the delusion that he’s still a person with some moral compass. So after Hank is killed, of course he’s going to rat out Jesse, and tell him about Jane, and then turn on Skyler for challenging his sense of patriarchy. He’s a man possessed, but it’s not by Heisenberg, who didn’t give a shit about family. What we’re seeing now is how much of the “brackishness” in Walter White Heisenberg was actually able to keep invisible all these years.

2. After a half-season punctuated by flash-forwards, we now get a flashback. Besides the obvious connection of the identical location (which allows for the truly gorgeous fade out/fade in sequence bookending the opening credits), what else does this reminder of Walt and Jesse’s first cook allow us to see that we wouldn’t already be thinking about? Is it simply for us to be able to see how far Walt has come (and not just in terms of hairstyles), or is there more going on here?

Oh, I thought (after I got over my initial befuddlement over “fat Jesse”), that this was the first clear time we’ve heard Walter give a shit about Holly, or even said her name out loud. Seriously, when was the last time you heard him care about the kid? Season 3, when he was using her to blackmail Skyler?

3. Is Todd just a weirdo opportunist, or is he secretly an evil genius? Saving Jesse in order to make him cook seems to show Tood with a depth and a capacity to think ahead in a way that was only hinted at in earlier episodes. Considering the expanded focus on him lately, is the show setting Todd up as a new antagonist for Walt? Might the big gun Walt buys in the flash-forward be intended for him?

Todd’s creepy “Norman Bates of meth” thing is not doing it for me this season, maybe because I thought it was a cheap cop-out to have Jesse found and almost shot, only to have him “saved” by the only person in the world he might find more repellent than Walter himself. Although there does seem to be an “evil genius” side of Todd’s magic ability to create a picture of Brock and his mom out of thin air, apparently having trailed them for long enough to get a good camera for stakeouts.

4. Even now, with two episodes left, bodies dropping everywhere and Walter as cold-blooded as we’ve ever seen him, the showrunners take a moment out to make him look totally ridiculous once again. Not only do we get another flashback look at him in his tighty-whities, but we get to see Walt rolling his barrel of money through the desert while a old-timey folk tune plays (“Take My True Love By Her Hand” by the Limelighters). Is this simply to provide comic relief, especially since old-standby Marie is a bit too preoccupied to fill that role right now, or is it supposed to build in some sympathy? If we can still laugh at Walt, does that make him somehow redeemable?

Uh. Yeah, I think Walt’s gone a little too far to be redeemable anymore. I thought that was a great scene because even in the desert at high noon and dying of cancer, you can still see what Walt really cares about. And guess what? It’s not his family he’s trying to save out there.

5. The episode’s title, Ozymandias, refers to the Percy Shelley sonnet of the same name, about an ancient Egyptian statue found ruined in the desert. As read by Bryan Cranston in a promo for the final season:

Show creator Vince Gilligan has been quoted as saying that in this episode, “You are gonna gaze upon Walt’s works, and despair.” But this is clearly a misreading of the poem, which is not about how mighty Ozymandias’s works are, but about how futile such things are in the context of vast time and space. In the sonnet, the statue is only a pair of feet; the king it depicts is forgotten, his “mighty works” ground down to dust and buried by the expanse of the desert. Is Mr. Gilligan intentionally misleading us about the episode’s reference to the poem, and if so, why? Are we supposed to see Walt’s works as something terrible, lasting and mighty, or, in the context of this other desert, as something that will disappear and blow over?

Well, a lot of people have misread Ozymandias, including and not limited to Alan Moore. I don’t think Gilligan is being intentionally misleading, so much as trying to point us to what part of the poem he thinks is relevant.

What’s funny is that there is still a part of Walter White’s “good” legacy that still exists after this nuclear fallout. Even after going “full Heisenberg” he has returned Holly, which I believe he always intended to, because he realizes that a) It’s not feasible to keep a baby on the lam and b) The child wants her mama.