Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Bad 514: Ozymandias

This is the kind of show in which even the baby deserves an Emmy for her performance.

I think a lot of television relies heavily on elements of shock and surprise, these days, scoffing at the notion that an audience can be so overcome with emotion over a story whose endings are predictable (The Red Wedding is a recent example that comes to mind). So, it's all the more powerful when a show like Breaking Bad comes along and absolutely traumatizes its viewers with an episode of events they mostly could have seen coming. We knew Hank and/or Gomez would die in the shootout, we knew Walt and/or Jesse would be captured and forced to cook for Todd and the gang, and we knew there'd be a confrontation of sorts between Marie and Skyler that would somehow lead to their discovery that the news Marie had just learned over the phone from Hank had basically been undone...and then some.

In true Breaking Bad fashion, we're not taken back to the cliffhanger from the last episode, right away. Rather, we get a cold open that's so good it's worth the wait to get back to the shootout. These last eight episodes are so packed with plot, I wasn't sure they'd have room for all the artistic and visual details, but the flashback alone delivered all that, ending with the fade out of Walt, Jesse, and the RV and the fade in of the current shootout scene. There's so much to be said about the fact that these two defining events take place in the same spot, that Hank dies exactly where Walt first cooked and is buried where Walt hid his money. Throughout the whole series, the ABQ backdrop has played a "character" that's stayed the same, while all the players move around it, and this opener displayed that perfectly.

As for the flashback itself, it's almost comical now to see Walt and Jesse when they first started cooking. No one had any idea how dark and awful things would become. It's a sad reminder how far gone everyone's become from just over a year ago, but also a brilliant reminder of the transformation this show has accomplished. We also see the beginnings of Walt's evolving lying and manipulation skills - he rehearses them...then flubs his line anyway. But Skyler isn't suspicious yet, so she buys it, even being sold on a weekend getaway (later in the show, by contrast, she isn't so easily convinced by Walt to pack her bags and leave home).

And we're finally back to the shootout. Gomez is dead, as many probably presumed he was the minute he decided to stop playing by the book and join Hank in his chase. And, of course, Hank goes out the only real way he could have gone out, accepting his loss and making no attempt to beg for his life. It's a very "Hank" thing to do, just as Walt, in true "Walt" fashion, tries desperately to talk the Nazi gang into sparing Hank. It doesn't work, just as none of Walt's talks work anymore, and Hank is killed, Walt unknowingly having dug his grave for him (talk about blood money).

This is a pivotal moment similar to the moment Walt let Jane die, because we see him change into someone darker than we imagined him to be. We knew he was a murderer in the very first episode, but we didn't realize the evil he was capable of until he watched a girl choke to death on her own vomit. In Ozymandias, we already know Walt is capable of watching those close to him die and even killing them (Mike), but Hank is the first family death, and it hits him hard because it's such a huge failure of his main goal with the meth empire from the get-go: make sure the family is taken care of. He hits the ground, grief-stricken. But then he gets up, and it's pure anger. It's no longer, "Give Jesse a quick and painless death," it's, "Shoot him in the head while I watch, but wait, go ahead and torture him first, and hold up, before you leave, let me twist the knife a little more with a tiny secret about his dead girlfriend."

I have to say, I was so hoping Jesse would have run off to the cow house to hide, but it never looked likely he'd have managed any kind of escape from the situation. Nevertheless, this scene hurt to watch, for many reasons. In the first place, the writers on this show are master manipulators. Over the past six episodes, the one thing I've been grieving most is the slow death of Walt and Jesse's relationship*. It should be clear, especially from this scene, that there is no friendship redeemable between them, and YET, the moment Walt knows Jesse is under his car and the Nazi gang gets ready to send Walt on his way, some deranged, emotional, irrational part of me starts yelling, "YES, Walt and Jesse can escape together, they have a CHANCE!" Whether this comes from the show's brilliantly manipulative writing and acting or from my own personal wish to see this mentor/student, father/son relationship be as amazing as it could/should/would have been, my hopes are obviously destined not to come true.

The Jane reveal was probably the show's biggest and longest running secret, and I'd long ago written off Jesse finding out the truth. The only way I saw it happening was in a passionate moment of anger on Walt's part, and even then, it didn't seem likely to happen. Couldn't have been more wrong. It blindsided me, and while I've always been one of those Team Walt fans, he completely lost me when he did this. It was cold and done purely out of cruelty - unlike past instances where Walt took great efforts to justify to others his criminal actions and make them realize it was done for their own good, this revelation made no mention of Walt keeping Jesse's best interest at heart. He watched her die. He could have saved her and didn't. Simple as that. And poor Jesse doesn't even have the strength to lose his mind over what he's hearing, his body merely going limp as he's carried away.

It was hard enough last week watching Hank make his victory phone call to Marie after arresting Walt because it screamed of finality, of his story arc coming to an end. But good god, it was harder watching Marie walk into the car wash gloating that Hank captured Walt, with no idea that her world was about to be shattered. Marie is a quirky character, annoying more often than not, but it's hard not to feel for her - not only did she have a strong marriage, but she has no kids. Hank was more or less everything to her, and now that her relationship with Skyler is crumbling, she's essentially set to become a very lonely widow. If she survives the ending, that is.

I'm not quite sure why Skyler relented to Marie's demands so easily (or why she even took Marie at her word, regarding the arrest). She certainly didn't cave when she met with Hank in the season opener. I was also expecting Walt to call her before anything too serious went down between her and Marie, but for whatever reason, he didn't call, and Skyler agreed to tell Walt Jr. about the drug empire his parents created. Little bit of a stretch for me - Skyler has proven in recent seasons to be pretty good at finagling her way out of situations, so I expected her to pull through this time. Then again, the last she saw of Walt was him running out of the car wash looking beyond worried, so maybe her own subsequent worry got the best of her and she faltered in this moment.

I don't have much to say about Walt Jr.'s finding out the truth about his parents, other than R.J. Mitte finally had his moment to shine and he more than delivered. It hurt so much watching his facial reactions that I almost forgot to listen to what he was saying. I think he reacted exactly the way he should have, most notably, when he became the first character in the history of this show to call the police on his own family with very little hesitation. Well done, Flynn, thanks for showing the rest of your screwed up family how a decent human being acts to an awful situation.

The fight between Walt and Skyler was intense enough, but there was a lot more going on in that scene. Flynn, having spent the whole series choosing sides between his parents now faces the notion of not really wanting to choose either of them. Walt is finally starting to not believe his own lies: We are a family. But even as he says it after the fight, his face says otherwise, as he can't possibly look at his wife and son cowering on the floor in fear of him as any kind of real family. Similarly, when he kidnaps Holly in some last ditch effort to preserve the most innocent, un-corrupted part of his family, she wakes him up to the ridiculousness of his idea working with one simple word: "Mama."

Walt's phone call to Skyler was very clearly an act to absolve her of blame for everything that's happened. I'm not quite sure why that went over so many viewers' heads, as Walt was very obviously not acting like himself, but rather an over-dramatic movie version of a bad guy. Maybe the result of people watching so much dumbed-down television is that they miss key parts of the story on a show that does very little hand-holding. But I digress, except to say, beyond impressive acting from Cranston and Gunn during the scene.

A note about Jesse, or rather, several notes, because while his character tends to get lost among discussions of the White and Schrader family dynamics, he remains the main character on the show I've loved unconditionally and will probably continue to love until the end (criminal and all - DON'T JUDGE ME). I hurt for practically every character in this episode (excepting Todd and his crew), but more than anyone else, I hurt for Jesse. One could argue it's because he's suffering worse than anyone right now - physically, at least. Personally, I have other reasons, as well. Over the course of the series, we've seen the rise, triumph, and fall of just about every character, good and bad. Gus and Tuco were reigning kings of their industries, the Whites and the Schraders lived happy, humble, normal lives. Jesse, by contrast, isn't in a great place when we first meet him. He's a junkie amateur drug dealer who never made anything of himself, but who also never had supportive, loving figures in his life (I've always wondered about his parents' decision to have another child so many years after they had him). Anyone who ever has loved him - his aunt, Jane - has been a temporary presence, confirming that at the end of the day, Jesse has nothing and nobody. And, to take someone with nothing and break them even further, as Walt and Todd do, is unfathomable. I certainly saw meth slavery as a possible outcome for Jesse, but that didn't make it any easier to watch, and I can't bear to think that the worst is yet to come for him.

Another thing worth noting is a "family man" comparison between Jesse and Walt that came to light in this episode. Walt's original motive for deciding to cook and sell meth is to ensure his family is financially taken care of after he dies, and he takes some extreme measures to shield them from the horrors and consequences of his crimes. The irony, of course, is that he's done nothing but hurt them and put them in danger, and even the fortune he earned for them isn't necessarily safe in their custody. Jesse creates very similar goals when he grows close to Andrea and Brock, but unlike Walt, he has so far accomplished those goals. To ensure their safety, and that Andrea didn't find out about his meth business, he quickly distanced himself from a close family relationship with her and her son by breaking up with her (it took Walt until this episode to break ties with his family and selflessly get Skyler off the hook for his crimes). Jesse then gives Andrea money to move into a better place (Skyler, as I said, has yet to really have Walt's fortune in her custody, let alone use it). It's an illustration of a very fundamental difference between Walt and Jesse - Jesse is selfless in his actions and Walt, until this episode, has not been. With a picture of Andrea and Brock as a constant reminder of what'll happen if he doesn't obey, things aren't looking great for Jesse - Walt is the one who would talk his way out of such a situation; Jesse will merely keep taking the hits to save those he loves.

Some more amazing visual stuff:

- The closeup on the pot of boiling water(?) in the flashback reminded us of the mass gunfire going on in the current shootout, which I thought was so god damn beautiful...until I thought of it as a foreshadowing of sorts. And then, to my own horror, wondered if Jesse's "Put me in a coma," line could also be foreshadowing. :(

- Perhaps another bit of foreshadowing - during Walt and Skyler's knife fight, there's a quick shot of them on the floor, knife raised in the foreground, with Flynn directly behind it in the background. It doesn't create a cohesive image of Flynn being stabbed, but it's enough of a visual shot to drive me to that connection.

- A very stark Walt/Jesse contrast - Jesse's "victory move" when Walt is arrested is to spit in his face, and Walt's reaction is to bulldoze Jesse into a truck, almost taking him down - an impressive feat, given Walt is handcuffed at the time. Fast forward to their positions being reversed when Walt gives Jesse to the Nazi gang, Walt's final punch (the Jane reveal) is so much more cruel and effective and causes such a devastatingly weak and broken reaction in Jesse. Jesse had it right all along - whatever you want to happen with Walt, the exact opposite will happen.

- When Jesse looks to the sky and sees the two birds before he's nearly killed...such a great shot, but my brain was mush by that point, so I'm not too clear on what it symbolized. Thoughts, anyone?

- The phone-or-knife shots were delicious. In the flashback, Skyler picks up the phone, so the second time around, we're already betting on her going for the knife.

Can we just hand this whole cast next year's Emmy awards now, please?

* The only thing that helps me through said grief is the actors' real life bromance. Google image search it. Trust me, you'll feel better.

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