You should read the rest of that poem, you boob.
– Stan Rizzo to Michael Ginsberg, Mad Men, Dark Shadows
Like his fellow schlubby wannabe-alpha-male-at-heart, Michael Ginsberg, Walter White conducts himself like the only words of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” he remembers are, “I am Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” (Above is an AMC promotional video of Bryan Cranston reading the poem; the poem itself is here.) But Ginz couldn’t even begin to have night terrors about the things Walt has done, and seen done, out of his screaming need to wear the silver stripe on his back just once before he dies. Through all of it, he has somehow maintained the fantasy that he’s doing it all for his family, in spite of the fact that he’s had innumerable opportunities to quit while he was ahead and spurned them all because he just had to have more more more, now now now. But in Ozymandias, the shattering third to last episode of Breaking Bad, it becomes clear that even he can delude himself no longer that he’s any kind of a hero, or any kind of family man.
The cold open flashes back to around the time of the pilot, when he and Jesse were so new at cooking that Walt had to remind a bored and irritated Jesse he couldn’t smoke in an RV full of explosive chemicals, and when Walt was first beginning to dream of what might be for his wife, son, and daughter-to-be. He believed he could go cook meth in the desert, call Skyler to tell him he’d be, so sorry, a little late because his carwash boss blah blah blah, pile up the bloody dough, and come home like a typical suburban dad, with no one — including his DEA-agent brother-in-law — suspecting a thing. They’d take sweet little family excursions, eat pizza, have pool parties with Hank and Marie, and then…what? When was he going to tell them about the money and where he’d gotten it? He obviously hadn’t thought that far ahead; at that point, he hadn’t even told them he had a terminal illness, and he thought he could get away with hiding that, too. “Bad news, honey, I have ten minutes to live, but good news — you guys are set for life! Don’t ask, just enjoy!”
Now Flynn (I guess that’s his name now, huh?) is the last person to have the scales yanked forcibly from his eyes, and once he knows that not only is his Uncle Hank dead but that Walt was responsible for having him killed, it’s all over. When Marie (who doesn’t yet know Hank and Steve are dead) enters that car wash to tell Skyler about Walt’s arrest, they leave a smiling Flynn manning the front desk, and you know those are going to be the last innocent, regular-kid, un-damaged moments of his life. You wonder, can anyone ever recover from something like this, from not just his dad cooking meth, and his mom covering it up, but a beloved family member getting his brains blown out because of it? Holly, who Walt abducts and then returns in a truly harrowing sequence, is at least lucky enough to be too young ever to recall this turn of events, although she may grow up to have some PTSD about it she can’t explain. But the young adult son, named after the man whose name his mother and his aunt will refuse to let pass their lips ever again, will have this burned on his memory for the rest of his life. And the way things are going, you wonder how much longer even Flynn is going to live. Once upon a time, Walt wouldn’t have let Hank or Jesse be taken out by neo-Nazi contract killers, either, even by accident.
Jesse, the man whose life those killers came to snuff out, does get out of the shooting ordeal alive, but only because Uncle Jack is in a chipper mood about Walt turning over his buried treasure to them (in a last-ditch attempt to get them not to kill Hank) and because Todd has an epiphany that they should try to get as much information out of Jesse as possible before they “do the job” on him. But Todd, on the ride home from the desert, apparently has a better idea than killing him after he confesses all: make Jesse cook for them, since Jesse’s meth-making abilities are nearly equal to Walt’s. They beat him to a pulp, lock him in a cell, and bring him into a lab where a picture of Andrea and Brock leaving their homes is posted right where Jesse will see it (signaling that if he tries anything, those two will get it). Then they chain him up, leaving only his extremities free to cook. And all this after Walt has taunted Jesse by telling him that he watched Jane die and could have saved her, but didn’t. So Jesse is, more or less, a dead man too, even though he’s still upright and breathing. At this point, he might actually prefer having his occiput blasted to smithereens without warning.
Walt is magnanimously left with one barrel of cash, with about $11 million inside, thanks to Todd’s residual “respect” for Walt, or at least for Walt’s talent. (“I’m sorry for your loss,” Todd says blandly to Walt after Hank takes his final breath, as if Todd himself had nothing to do with it. Ricky Hitler, indeed.) He is devastated by having to watch Hank get shot, after Hank tells Walt not to bother pleading with Uncle Jack to spare him. “You’re the smartest guy I’ve ever met, and yet you’re too stupid to know he made his mind up ten minutes ago,” Hank snarls, before telling Jack to go ahead and finish the job — which he does before Hank can finish his last word. Hank was never going to leave this world begging on his knees, and that’s all Walt has left, trying in vain to get a freaked-out Flynn and an infuriated Skyler to flee with him and his $11-million barrel without asking the wrong questions. But he’s out of “magic,” as Skyler called Walt’s manipulation and blackmailing skill set back in Fifty-One. Where she once threw her hands in the air and told Walt that she would do whatever he wanted because she had no choice, now she brandishes a knife in order to get Walt to keep his distance from them for good, and when Walt gets his hands on the knife, Flynn throws himself in front of Skyler to protect her. (Fantastic work by R.J. Mitte here, as he handles the most dramatically challenging lines he has ever had to speak with heartbreaking believability. And Anna Gunn’s Emmy reel is here too, as she demands with ever-increasing fury to know what happened to Hank.) “What is wrong with you? We’re a family!” Walt yells, but that line has become a sick joke, like everything else about him. They’re a family, all right — Skyler, Flynn and Marie, united in contempt and disgust against the craven man who would be patriarch. Not exactly what Walt had in mind during that first cook in the desert, was it?
“If you want to know how God feels about money, look who She gives it to,” I was told numerous times (in different wordings) during my time in Debtors Anonymous two decades ago. Well, here She has given 11 big ones to a man who can’t possibly spend it all in the limited time he has left (other than on a fee to Saul’s vacuum repair man to disappear him), and whose family now loathes him and will never see another dime of it, plus another 69 to the Aryan Brotherhood as a kill spiff for two DEA agents. So I guess the DA folks were right. Walt, deep down, understands that he can’t flee with his baby daughter — and not just because she keeps asking for “mama,” but because he is running from bullets both outside of his body and inside of it. As despicable as he is, he can’t put her through that; she’s the only member of this family who still has a shot at escaping this relatively unscathed. He also knows perfectly well that cops are listening in on his last conversation with Skyler, and while calling her a “stupid bitch” and saying he built it all himself and all she did was slow him down initially seems like fan service for all the Skyler-haters, in the end it’s turning that fan service on its ear, because he’s letting her off the hook as a potential co-conspirator. That barrel of money is all that remains, and he will have to use it to buy a new name, a new town, a new past, and new intimates who have no earthly clue of all he’s wrought. What he can’t buy, though, is a clean memory for himself and his family, and it’s the only thing he will ever want.