“Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the inevitability of the fall of empires to hubris and time seems exceptionally apropos here, as one survey’s Walt’s desert meth empire and despairs over the loss of life and the venality of it all. Like the proud Pharaoh, Walt demanded respect more than anything else — and it would appear that like the proud Pharaoh, Walt stands to end up with nothing but dust.
Hank is gone — but in a terrible irony, Walt proved that his humanity is not entirely gone. Faced with the ruination of everything he had worked so hard to build, Walt did not think selfishly. He did what he could to push Skyler out of his shadow and try to get the police to believe she was innocent of his Heisenberg empire; and he returned his daughter before striking off on his own. Those were two very decent things Walt did to wrap up the episode. And, perhaps, to begin wrapping up his life.
It’s too much, at this point, to expect Walt to redeem himself, but in pleading for Hank’s life, returning his daughter and trying to protect his wife, Walt has proven that not every part of the man he once was has been taken over by Heisenberg.
When the bullets stop flying, Agent Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) lies dead, while Hank (Dean Norris) has a slug in his leg and no ammo in his gun. Jack (Michael Bowen) has the fed at his mercy when Walt (Bryan Cranston) offers the neo-Nazis his $80 million in buried cash in they spare Hank’s life. But Hank won’t agree to look the other way, so Jack shoots him dead — devastating Walt, who falls to the ground catatonic. Jack’s crew finds the money but cannot find Jesse (Aaron Paul). Jack leaves Walt one barrel (worth about $11 million), but before he leaves Walt reminds Jack that he was hired to kill Jess — and points out his former partner is hiding under a car. Jesse is dragged out and Jack is just about to execute him when Todd (Jesse Plemons) suggests interrogating Jesse first. As they drag Jesse away, Walt tells him: “I watched Jane die. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”
Marie (Betsy Brandt) goes to the carwash to tell Skyler (Anna Gunn) that the jig is up; Hank has arrested Walt. In a bid at reconciliation, Marie insists that Skyler turn over all copies of the “confession” DVD — and tell Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) the truth about his father. When she does, Flynn doesn’t believe her and storms out. He and Skyler return home to find Walt packing to bug out. Skyler demands to know how he escaped from Hank, but Walt is evasive. Fearing the worst for her brother, she confronts Walt with a knife and cuts him. A brutal fight ensues, in which Flynn jumps in to protect his mother and then calls the police. Walt grabs baby Holly and flees.
Out in the desert, Todd drags a beaten and bloodied Jesse out of a cage and chains him up in the meth lab. “Let’s cook,” Todd says, as Jesse notices a tacked-up photo of Andrea and Brock — a not-so subtle threat. Meanwhile, and Amber Alert has been issued for Holly. Walt calls Skyler to scold her for not respecting him and going on the lam with him. He then threatens her and implies that he killed Hank — all while the police were listening in. Walt drops off Holly at a firehouse, and then later gets into a van with Saul’s guy who provides new identities.
This episode, the third-from-last, was an epic exercise in tying up plot threads. The flashback to Walt and Jesse’s very first cook was a great device to show how the series has come full circle: from that stammering amateur cook calling his wife to make up an excuse for being out in the desert, to today’s criminal mastermind, who called his wife to be completely unapologetic for what he did out in the desert. . At To’hajiilee, where Walt and Jesse’s partnership began, it ended. On the very site where he and Jess became inextricably bound for life, Walt gave the order to end Jesse’s life. In that place, all the money Walt had amassed to preserve his family was useless to protect the life of his brother-in-law.
Hank went out like a man, true to himself as a relentless and unyielding force. He never struck me as particularly good at his job; especially in earlier seasons, he seemed to keep getting promoted in spite of himself. I always thought it was more dumb luck that he took out those drug dealers and got famous. But he always did want to be a good lawman. And so he went down the way he tried to live.
One also has to (in a way) admire how dedicated Walt is to the idea of payback. He didn’t have to do it, but he wanted to tell Jesse about Jane; he needed to stick the knife in and twist it, to make Jesse’s last hours as painful as possible. After all, he had done the unthinkable: He’d betrayed and dissed Mr. White. Not that Jesse’s life is worth much anymore. He was apparently beaten severely enough by Todd to engender a whipped-dog reaction at the mere sight of his tormentor. And when did Todd get so sadistic as to ask his uncle to let him torture a guy instead of killing him? I had thought Todd was just some kind of dissociated sociopath who went along with whatever authority figures like Walt or Uncle Jack told him. But Todd is a chip off the ol’ block of concentrated evil. I guess there’s something about cooking meth that boils away your soul.
When Walt’s car succumbed to its bullet wound and died in the desert, forcing Walt to roll his barrel of money through the desert, it reminded me of another mythic character: Sisyphus, who was doomed to roll a rock up a hillside every day, only to have it roll back every night. Propelling that barrel through the scrub was a nice little shorthand for the series as a whole: Walt industriously working out in the wastes to compile a nest egg and struggle to protect and nurture it, no matter what strife comes his way.
And plenty of strife has come his way. His phone call to Skyler was possibly his last brilliant gambit. He clearly knew the cops would be listening, so he tried to clear her of responsibility for and complicity in his meth empire. However, the call was also epic for its illustration of the true Walt. He was furious at her for disrespecting him. “This is what comes of your disrespect,” he snarled. “Toe the line,” he commanded, warning that she could end up just like Hank. He specifically stated that Skyler knew nothing about how he built his drug empire, and talked himself up as the lone mastermind behind the operation.
There’s a reason this episode is called “Ozymandias.” Read it, and you’d think Shelley had Walter White in mind when he penned if (rather than Ramses the Great).
Listen to Bryan Cranston recite the poem as part of the promotional campaign for the final episodes:
I met a traveller from an antique land/ Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,/ Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,/ And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/ Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,/ The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed./ And on the pedestal these words appear –/ ”My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”/ Nothing beside remains./ Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley