The hardest part of being a scientist, I imagine, is the patience it requires. A true experiment demands a rigorous and exacting process. It allows for no short cuts, it tolerates no half-measures. Wobbly, soft concepts like “questions” and “predictions” — the latter often translated by ordinary humans as “hope” — are permissible in the beginning stages but are banished when the real work begins. Once the test is under way, it can’t be manipulated. Purity demands a clean methodology. Desire, personal beliefs, or expectation can’t play any part.
It’s this latter point that cuts the deepest. No one wants to invest time, blood, and money into something and ultimately be proved wrong. None of us wants to be disappointed. Nobody wants to suffer. Yet running a successful, controlled experiment means giving up any notion of control over the outcome.
It turns out that Walter White, master chemist, is a terrible scientist. His ego would never permit him to see the obvious and, despite his jazzy nickname, uncertainty had no place in his laboratory. For Walt, the end didn’t justify the means — an optimal end was assured because everything he did was, in his mind, entirely justified. His process was corrupted from the start. And so, eventually, was he.
But, like “Ozymandias,” last night’s searing, feverish episode of Breaking Bad, let’s begin by walking it back. The prevailing lie of this series isn’t one Walt told Skyler or Walt Jr. or Jesse. The only lie that matters was the one Walt told himself: that he could keep things neat and tidy, that he was in the right, and that the catalyst that sparked his transmutation from milquetoast to murderer was an overwhelming, desperate love for his family. In fact, what ignited the propane gas fire of the past five seasons was, as I wrote last week, the resentment that bubbled deep within Walter, like unstable liquid in the beaker that was the first thing Rian Johnson’s camera focused on last night. And so this entire experiment was begun under false pretenses and got only more fraudulent from there. Bad faith. Worse science.
“Ozymandias” opened with a flashback to the first time Walt lied to his family, a seemingly inconsequential fib to Skyler about Bogdan, Walt’s onetime car wash boss, having a “bug up his butt.” Actual aging has changed the appearances of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul enough so that one could tell, despite noble makeup jobs to the contrary, that these weren’t actual deleted scenes. But fictional events have changed the characters far more than six real-life years ever could. How odd it was to see Walt not just happy — speaking of togetherness, dreaming of pizza — but meticulous: getting his story straight ahead of time so it didn’t distract from the overall narrative. There was barely enough time to process that what we had just witnessed was the first wedge, the initial crack in the crying clown that would eventually shatter a family into dust. Then the image, along with all optimism, was gracefully Back to the Future–d from view.
It was a different Walt we saw next, chained up in the backseat of Hank’s car, crying and screaming. He was a man chasing an outcome, not a mastermind observing one — a gambler after all. A week’s worth of talk about potentially questionable neo-Nazi marksmanship was revealed, inevitably and sadly, to be premature. Gomie lay dead where he stood. And Hank had a bullet in his leg. He tried to crawl his way to a miracle weapon, as he had in “One Minute,” but this time the clock ran out for him before he reached it. Again, Walt tried to beat back cruel violence with twisted logic, but his brother-in-law rightly saw a rock where the entire world had seen a mineral: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met and you’re too stupid to see. He made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” Uncle Jack shrugged almost apologetically. Then a gunshot. Then nothing.
Unlike breathing, or stopping your body from shaking, in the moments that followed, the one thing that was almost easy to do was slip backward right into Walt’s trap. Maybe there was something heroic about the way Heisenberg had stuck to his own personal red line: everything for family, nothing to hurt them. After all, he had offered up his fortune, his freedom, in exchange for Hank’s life. But the brilliant way Bryan Cranston played Walt’s anguish brought me back to my senses, at least temporarily. Lying on the ground, Walt’s mouth was a black hole. The darkness hadn’t overtaken him; in that instant it was pouring out from within. By the time Uncle Jack came back around, Walt had his thinking cap back on, metaphorically if not literally. The experiment wasn’t over. All of this was no longer his fault. Via the transitive property of frenzied denial, all of the guilt now belonged to Jesse.
A proper scapegoat has become essential to Walter White, more necessary than a lab coat and a sensible pair of underwear. Holding Jesse responsible for the death of Hank was only the latest in a series of fatal heuristics that now stretches back seasons: retroactively claiming a ridiculous plan worked because he had said so, insisting that he was the one who knocks without realizing he had become the one who knocks things over. It was Walter once again committing the cardinal sin of using evidence to support what he already believes.
It was unspeakably vicious, what came next: revealing Jesse underneath the car, sending him off to his death — or worse — with the truth about Jane ringing in his disbelieving ears. (Vince Gilligan, a much more exacting scientist than Walt could ever hope to be, was always going to revisit this lingering story. But I never thought it would boomerang back with razor blades attached.) In the end, what mattered to Walt wasn’t family or even the money. It was control: over people, over expectation, and over his own narrative. This makes him a monster, yes, and a fool — and there was something about the way he didn’t just jump off the edge of morality, but rather sprinted right past it without looking down, like another famous desert dweller — but also a terrible, terrible scientist. He won’t accept an honest outcome because he’s been dishonest about everything from the very start.
As Gomie and Hank’s lead-filled bodies took the place of the barrels of money in an unmarked grave and Walt, like Sisyphus, pushed a multimillion-dollar millstone through his own personal Hades, I began to realize something my ninth-grade biology teacher knew long ago: I’m also a terrible scientist. I, too, have a hard time relinquishing control, find it nearly impossible to sit back and let the chips (and bodies) fall where they may. Last night I found it nearly impossible to sit at all. “Ozymandias,” as written by longtime Breaking Bad staffer Moira Walley-Beckett and directed, with emotional violence and blessed visual restraint, by high-stylist Rian Johnson, was one of the most visceral and unpleasant viewing experiences I can remember enduring. It seemed designed to counter our cultural turn toward binge-watching. It was punishment for our bottomless, self-serving hunger. It felt sick, like a purge.
No show in history has ever demonstrated the courage of its convictions like this before. No show has ever made us suffer through the flip side of our fantasy. It’s truly saying something when the brutal, point-blank slaying of a beloved cast member was only the fourth- or fifth-worst thing to experience in an hour. And what it’s saying is awful. But at least Hank was dispatched quickly, able to say his own last words and scowl a final scowl. At least he wasn’t beaten to a pulp before being chained to a ceiling pipe and transformed into a human lab rat by a polite Nazi who won’t need to shave till he’s 50. At least Hank ended the hour with some rough kind of peace, not like the surviving members of his extended family: covered in tears, blood, and snot, their pleading eyes ping-ponging around a suddenly unrecognizable room for a reset button or an off switch. There’s a town in New Mexico called Truth or Consequences, and this episode drove us straight there, flinching and quaking, in a bullet-riddled Dodge with a hungover meth head at the wheel.
Everyone knows by now about Vince Gilligan’s pitch for Breaking Bad: that he intended to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. But the downward spiral he has really mimicked is that of a casual drug user into a hopeless, end-stage addict. Everything was so bright and fun at first; Walt’s actions seemed as containable as his cancer and brought Technicolor excitement both to the audience and to a drab character’s world that had previously been gray at best. But the gush of serotonin is never as good as it is the first time; it slowed to a trickle quickly and dried up entirely somewhere in Season 4. Now we sit down week after week to paw at the diminishing highs of Lydia’s heels, Saul’s suits, or Badger’s anything. We were invited to an all-night party. It was fun for a while, until someone padlocked the doors. Now the sun is coming up, our heads hurt, and we just want to go home.
But home is its own kind of hell. Everything that we had once thought unthinkable happened last night before we even had time to think. First Marie swung the truth around like a sledgehammer, shattering Walter Jr. — pretty sure he’ll just be Flynn going forward — in the process. (Kudos and a respite from pancake humor for RJ Mitte. He has crushed every opportunity handed to him this season.) And then the slow-motion horror of Walter’s centrifuge of bullshit spinning right into the unmovable reality of his ruined family. We saw in “Rabid Dog” how Heisenberg’s artfully constructed fiction crumbles at the front door of the White house. And so the husband-and-wife knife fight — let’s say that again: the husband-and-wife knife fight — was hideous and clumsy, an almost unwatchable display of domestic terror. When it was over, Walter’s precious red line of family was slashed into his hand. His mask was gone, his disabled son standing tall enough to protect Skyler and call the police. Yet even as Walter scuttled from low to low — snatching Holly as casually as if she were a sweatshirt on a potentially chilly day — his lack of self-awareness never wavered. Everything was someone else’s fault. If only they had trusted him more. If only they had listened.
If all of this felt like a violation, it was meant to. TV — even Golden Age, rapturously reviewed TV — holds the family as sacrosanct. Marriages end on dramas all the time, but that’s due to personal failings or plot-mandated shenanigans. If the sight of Walter driving away from his destroyed, weeping wife with their baby girl jammed on his lap like a hostage felt to you like it felt to me — and it felt to me like a nuclear accident near a petting zoo — then it was because it wasn’t like anything we’d ever seen before on a television show. Certain things just aren’t supposed to happen. We’d never seen something so ordinary twisted into something so ugly. Certain people and institutions aren’t supposed to be punished for the sins of one individual. When and if they do come, the metaphorical chickens are meant to roost home-adjacent, not inside the walls of the baby’s nursery.
Thankfully, if Walt’s adult family couldn’t hear him, he finally listened to baby Holly, a sweet and traumatized 1-year-old who never knew her father before he put on the black hat. She wasn’t just cranky and wet. She wanted her mama. She wanted to go home.
Walt’s final phone call was a masterful, ugly piece of work. There was an aspect to it that felt as if Gilligan and Walley-Beckett were performing the opposite of fan service. To hear Walt assail Skyler for all her shortcomings — her lack of appreciation, her meddling, her disdain, her disobedience — was fan shaming of the highest order. Walt was giving voice to those who’ve bombarded Skyler — and the remarkably poised actress who played the hell out of her, especially last night — for being the buzzkill in Walt’s wacky misadventures. And it was terrible to hear. But this chillingly precise bit of writing functioned on multiple levels, and making Redditors feel bad was only the lesser of the three.
What Walt was doing here, in hideous detail, was both revealing his sin and eating it, all for the eyes of Albuquerque’s finest to see. Everything he said was fundamentally true, if soaked in a bile the dread Heisenberg was usually able to choke back. “I built this. Me, alone — nobody else,” he fumed. But he went far and beyond a simple confession and skirted the lines of an apology because this — like much of the last five seasons, we now realize — was performance. Walt knew the cops were there and listening. He saw Flynn call them. By ranting and raving like a monster, he finally drew all the guilt where it belonged: into himself.
This was Walter White’s final gift to the four surviving people his hubris had destroyed before the Nazis show up to deal with Jesse’s taped confession. It was his last will and testament before climbing into the red van and a new life in New Hampshire. One drug-fueled year of manic improvisation and delicate chemistry had just blown up in his face. For all his big talk of money and security, Walter White left his family neither. (Remember Jesse’s words to Hank: “Whatever you think is supposed to happen, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen.” Remind me again which one is the idiot and which one is the scientist?) In the end, Walter White didn’t leave his family anything at all. In the end, the kindest thing he could do was just to leave.