This post discusses plot points from the September 15 episode of Breaking Bad.
In the beginning of Breaking Bad‘s run, the idea that Walter White was cooking meth to provide a nest egg for his family was morally ludicrous because of what this justification allowed him to do. For Skyler, the woman he’d talk to on the phone about pizza deals, and ceramic clowns, and the possibility of a drive and a walk on a trail, and a modest meal out at a restaurant, and for Flynn, and Holly, the “almost-four of us,” Walt convinced himself that it was all right to cook meth. That it was all right to commit violence in self defense and not report it. All right to commit a truly premeditated killing. Al right to sit by and watch a woman die because she was inconvenient to him. But by “Ozymandias,” the real moral obscenity of Walt’s self-justification has become clear: Walter White has done more to harm his family than dying of cancer and leaving them impoverished ever could have. His conception of family as a hermetically sealed unit has, paradoxically, opened it up to tremendous harm.
“Ozymandias” does a ruthless job of exposing the fallacy that Walt’s embraced and the damage it’s done to his family–and the dangerous limits of his definition of family.
First, there’s Walt’s desperate attempt to save Hank. It’s an effort that demonstrates how little he knows Hank, that if it succeeded, would require Hank to destroy every concept that he has of integrity. And perhaps most importantly, Walt’s desperate bid shows no recognition that Walt’s belief that his family is sacrosanct doesn’t actually apply to anyone else he’s dealing with. “Hank. Nothing can change what just happened. But you can walk out of here alive if you just promise us that you’ll let this go,” Walt insists to his brother-in-law, oblivious to the extent to which such a compromise would destroy Hank even if he lived. With Jesse Pinkman, Walt could always suggest anything because Jesse had so few core principles, so little self of his own. But Hank is a person Walt has never particularly cared to know, who he’s looked upon with contempt. And Walt hasn’t just set up a scenario that’s lead to Hank’s death. He’s done his brother-in-law the disrespect of failing to know him. “You’re the smartest guy I ever met,” Hank tells him, doing Walt a paradoxical kindness in acknowledging Walt’s genius in his final moments. “And you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago. Do what you’re going to do.” Walt may have believed that Hank would have been betraying the White-Schrader family by arresting him. But putting Walt away would have been generosity given what’s coming to Walt next. And Hank at least saw Walt for who he was. He’s a better family man than Walt ever was.
Then, there’s the money. Walt’s rationale for cooking has always been not the psychological health or physical unity of his family, but their financial security after his death. Seeing that money disappear into Uncle Jack’s hands, particularly after he failed to use it to buy Hank’s life, has to be particularly bitter for Walt, perhaps the failure of his family ideals that it’s easiest for him to recognize. That it’s going to a motley band of Neo-Nazis is an irony that Breaking Bad doesn’t really get to in this episode, and maybe it doesn’t need to. But for Walt, the idea of “enough” has always been foremost in his mind, clouding questions of the money’s security or actual usability. This is a difficult episode to enjoy on any level–it’s one of a very few hours of television that’s left me feeling physically ill. But there is some small pleasure in seeing Walt lose his pile, of seeing him roll a plastic barrel with $10 million in it across the New Mexico landscape to the tune of Eddy Arnold’s “Time’s A Getting Hard,” and knowing that the true love that he’ll “Lead…through the town” is that cash, rather than a human being.
And before that ignominious retreat, Breaking Bad offers a reminder that doing something for your family is no actual defense against committing monstrous acts in other parts of your life. Jesse may have betrayed Walt at the end, he has committed murder, and cooked and sold drugs, and done terrible harm to a great many people. But by any moral calculus, watching Walt abandon Jesse to what he knows will be torture, and before he leaves him to be tortured, telling Jesse that he destroyed one of Jesse’s abortive attempts at building a family, is hideous. “I watched Jane die. I was there,” Walt tells Jesse, coldly, in what could be a confession, but feels more like his own contribution to Jesse’s coming immiseration, a terrible truth that will accompany Jesse into Todd’s hands. “And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.” To see what Walt did to Jesse, turning him into a puppet of a man, made physical, with Jesse chained to a steel cable on a track in Todd’s lab, is an obscenity. What does it mean to be kind to your family–which Walt is not in any consistent fashion–if outside the threshold of the home you share with them, you are shaping yourself into someone who can do such things? How can you not see what building that capability in yourself means you might do to the family that you claim to love?
The clinic that Marie puts on in Skyler’s office, in what she believes is a moment of triumph, may be more vindictive and conflicted than anything Walt would consider acceptable behavior towards a member of your family. But it’s also a reminder that to be family, sometimes you’re required to hurt each other and to participate in each other’s healing. That’s something Walt has never been able to do because it would require asking for forgiveness and taking responsibility, two acts that have historically been antithetical to him.
“I almost didn’t come here. Because I barely even know who you are. And I sure as hell don’t know if I can ever trust you again. And then I think about how you were so upset with Walt, and how you wanted the kids out of the house, and all this makes me believe there has got to be hope for you, that whatever he did to you can be undone,” Marie tells her sister, giving Skyler agency, letting Skyler feel her anger, and beginning the painful work of moving forward, though in a direction she knows not which. “All I know, all I have been forcing myself to remember, is that you are my sister. And so I”m here. Everything changes, now, and you have got to prepare yourself. Hank will help you as much as he can, and I will support you.” I don’t know if the viewers who have watched and despised Marie, the woman Skyler once described to Hank as “my spoiled, kleptomaniac bitch sister who somehow always manages to be the center of attention,” can recognize what Breaking Bad did tonight, setting up Marie as the truest example of what really doing right for your family looks like. But I hope at least some of them do.
And given the treatment of women in this episode, it doesn’t surprise me that “Ozymandias” was written by a woman, specifically, Moira Walley-Beckett, who’s been with the show since the first season. The episode comes to its horrible climax when the consequences of Walt’s actions finally catch up to his children, to Flynn, who is confronted with the reality of who his father is, and what his father has made his mother, who has to tackle his father to save his mother from harm, who has to call the police and tell them a version of the truth about his father; and to Holly, who is stolen, not by someone who loves her, but by a man who narrated Scarface to her as an infant, a man who literally places his own interests above the obvious needs, emotional and otherwise, of his infant daughter.
In an enormously tense episode, perhaps the most quietly sad moment for me was Flynn’s phone call to the police, in which we see the first seed of Walt’s real gift to his son, not the muscle car, but the ability to lie when he needs to. “My dad. He pulled a knife on my mom,” Flynn tells the police, substituting a domestic violence narrative for the truth, which is worse than he can possibly explain in that short period. “He attacked her. He’s dangerous. I think he might have killed somebody. He’s still here. He’s still in the house.” If Walt’s goal was to freeze his family as they were, to make sure they would be peaceful, and happy, and safe even after he’s gone, he’s achieved the opposite of that. He’s poisoned his wife and son with some of his own capacity for mendacity, putting them both in a position where they have to commit physical violence to protect themselves, leaving them peniless and in considerable danger, and abandoning his daughter to the kindness of strangers, potentially to be adopted or put in foster care, if she ever finds her way home to her mother.
The writer Anna Holmes said on Twitter of Walt’s vicious tirade to Skyler on the phone shortly before he abandons Holly, and I find this persuasive, that “he’s doing it for the benefit of the police so Skyler doesn’t get in trouble.” But even if this interpretation is correct, it means that Walt has brought his family to a place where all he has left to offer his wife is abuse. And the truth is that even if Walt is faking the ugly sentiments he’s voicing now, the things he’s telling Skyler are things that he’s believed about her and their live together over the past several years, that “You were never grateful for anything I did for this family,” that “You have no right to discuss anything about what I do. What the hell do you know about it anyway? Nothing. I built this. Me alone. Nobody else.” Walt may not believe his wife is a “stupid bitch,” but he’s treated her like one, and worse. And he may not actually intend for his threats to sink in, this time, but he surely did when he told Skyler “No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger! A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”
Convincing yourself that you’re doing everything for your family, it turns out, is a quick and vicious route to destroying it.