Breaking Bad, Not Breaking Character

(Warning, if you haven’t seen Season 5, Episode 14, Ozymandias, read no further. It’s spoilers all the way down.)

In drama, as in fiction character is everything. Once you know who your characters are, what happens happens. That’s how tragedy works. The circumstances might change. That’s chemistry – the interaction of the different elements, elements in the form of other characters, and it always leads to an inevitable result.

We knew that Gomez and Hank were most likely dead men when we left them last week. We also knew that the writers and actors wouldn’t let us down, but would surprise us once again. After the beautiful flashback to pre-Heisenberg Walter, or maybe the beginning of Heisenberg’s emergence, we see Gomez’s body. It’s a tease in a way. We knew he was the redshirt, the one most likely to die. The writers are saying, “You were right. We can’t fool you.”

Then they show us a wounded Hank. Shot once more in the leg. We see the blood. He knows he’s a goner, even if we don’t yet. He’s going for Gomez’ gun because he wants to take a few of the nazis with him.

Is Walt’s giving up his money to barter for Hank generous? Is it a sign of his humanity? Maybe we want it to be. That’s a subjective read. What it was objectively was Walt trying again to control the situation he was in. He’s talked his way out of tough spots before. Negotiation has worked. If he can gain a momentary advantage… If Hank will only play along…

But Hank at this point is both dead and not-dead-yet. Already bleeding out, with a gun to his head. Like Schrodinger’s cat in a box, the box is going to open and the gas is going to get released.

And Hank is going to go out like a man. That’s inevitable as well.

Walt showing the nazis where Jesse is hiding is Walt being Walt – Walt’s need to find someone else to blame for Hank’s death. If only Jesse hadn’t brought him out here. If only Jesse had met him in the plaza that day and they could have talked things out. If only Jesse had been rational and reasonable, more like Walt.

Walt’s telling Jesse about Jane may have been the most jarring moment, and at first it felt tacked on, a loose end being tied up for no reason. But it was again, an inevitable result of character. Walt wants to punish the one he believes (at that moment) set into the motion the circumstances that led to Hank’s death. He wants to tell him that just as Jesse witnessed Hank’s death and did nothing, he once witnessed the death of someone Jesse loved and did nothing. Ever the chemist, Walt wants to balance the equation.

But Jesse isn’t responsible for Hank’s death except in Walt’s mind. Walt signed Hank’s death warrant long ago out in that desert. He needed to blame someone else and he needed to hurt someone. Jesse served both purposes.

As the episode went on, more loose ends were closed. The Marie and Skylar haters will point to Marie lording it over Skylar, but that’s not what happened. They are sisters and they are close and there’s always a shift in that power dynamic. Marie believes she is ascendent, but she is also wants to save Skylar, to warn her what is coming, to get her to protect her from herself and any misplaced loyalty she may have toward Walt, to help her get her story straight.

Flynn reacts exactly the way we would expect a sheltered teenager to react to the news that his parents have both been lying to him.
Skylar’s picking up the knife was foreshadowed, and Walt’s insistence that they leave no surprise. He’d tell them why later, when he could think of a reasonable story that made it clear why none of this was his fault. Flynn’s defense of his mother and calling the police made perfect sense. He doesn’t know about Heisenberg, but he knows his father is not his dad, but the father-double in a nightmare, and he calls the police with no hesitation.

Walt’s taking Holly was not part of a master plan. He’s improvising. He grabbed the one family member he could still control or thought he could. He lashed out a final time at Skylar. We realize this when he tells Holly that he’s going to buy her a new car seat. That’s also the moment when she jars him back to reality by demanding her mother. That may be when it hits him that he’s dying and on the run, and taking her puts every law enforcement officer in America on his tail and endangers both of them. Walt is smart enough to know that the police are there, and he knows that Holly will need a parent to raise her, so he calls and does what he can to exonerate Skylar. We know it costs him emotionally because we see the tears in his eyes, but we also know that he actually did mean all those terrible things he said. It was a release for him to say them, and his anger at Skylar goes way back to his anger at himself for not living up to his potential and his anger at her for not being Gretchen. And Walter won’t blame himself for saying terrible things to the mother of his children. He’ll tell himself he only did it to save her, and he’ll comfort himself in the knowledge that he knows that she knows that.

Too many viewers and reviewers continue to talk about Heisenberg as though he and Walt are separate beings, as though he is the golem brought forth out of he earth to protect Walt, but who will inevitably destroy him. That’s true only as metaphor. The reality is Heisenberg is not a separate being, but simply an aspect of Walt. A side to him that had been latent for years. This isn’t a question of coal transforming to diamonds. It’s more like something mutable. Water freezes and then melts, but is always water.

As for what happens next, on AMC’s preview it’s clear that the police don’t completely buy Skylar’s innocence. and that may be what brings Walt back to New Mexico, but it still doesn’t explain the M-60. Walt does not like to be dismissed. In letting him live, Uncle Jack was basically saying “You aren’t the one who knocks. You are a dying man on your knees in the desert. You are of so little consequence that I’ll let you live and even give you enough money for car fare. No need to be greedy.”

That as much or even more than Hank’s murder is a reason Walt would want him dead.

There was a beautiful moment when Jesse looked at the birds flying in the sky, and you knew he was ready to die. Imprisoned, he’s still ready, and probably knows enough about chemistry (learned at the hands of the master) to take the lab and Todd down with him.

As for the ricin, whatever Walt is planning, he doesn’t expect to get out of it alive, and if he does, he doesn’t want to spend his last weeks or days dying in a hospital in chains. The ricin is for him.

It would be a nice bit of redemption if Walt did wind up saving Jesse’s life. Maybe rescuing him from an exploding meth lab. God knows it would make the viewers very, very happy, but it wouldn’t be inevitable. Usually in a tragedy, as in Shelley’s poem, the land is laid to waste and everybody dies. Still, let’s not forget that once upon a time, Breaking Bad was darkly comic, so maybe there’s a chance that Jesse walks away. After all, elements are volatile and uncertainty is a principle.

Science, bitches.

(Marion Stein wrote a novel featuring drugs, sex, murder, cannibalism and even a touch of necrophilia, yet even she was shocked and at the edge of her seat watching Ozymandias)

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