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'Breaking Bad' Presents 'Ozymandias,' The Great And Terrible

Bryan Cranston as Walter White on AMC's <em>Breaking Bad</em>.
Frank Ockenfels
Bryan Cranston as Walter White on AMC's Breaking Bad.

[This post describes in detail plot points up to and including Sunday night's episode of Breaking Bad.]

We need to talk for a minute about evil.

There are those who don't really believe in evil, who believe that anyone who cannot be redeemed is more ill and broken than infected with wickedness and viciousness and brutality.

Television often appears not to believe in evil as a subject, but only as an object. A person acted upon — a murderer arrested by a heroic detective, a person punished by an avenging victim — may be evil, but a subject around which a show revolves is not. In fact, defining viewer sophistication in terms of the ability to ignore the appearance of evil has been a hallmark of the anti-hero era: Tony Soprano kills people, but really, he's a family man. Vic Mackey kills people, but he thinks he's doing good. Stringer Bell kills people, but he's a businessman. Understanding that these are not bad people is part of how you prove that you get it.

At times, Breaking Bad has seemed to be a show in this same vein: Walter White sincerely believes he's helping his family — or that's been his argument, at least. He's motivated by love for them. He's driven by insecurity, by fear, by wanting to leave his mark, by something other than being a terrible person.

But everything that happened in "Ozymandias," Sunday night's episode, is Walt's fault. Walt effectively killed Hank. Walt killed Gomez. As far as he knows, he killed Jesse, but not before sadistically, pointlessly rubbing Jesse's face in the easily preventable death of one of the few people who ever loved him. He kidnapped his baby daughter and placed her in terrible peril, he terrorized and betrayed his son, and he widowed Marie.

And that doesn't count the part where, when his wife tried to use a knife to defend herself and her children, asking nothing more from him but that he leave them out of whatever was to come, he attacked her to try to force her and the kids to come with him on the run, undoubtedly headed for a bloody and violent future.

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote recently at Vulture that as shows end, they do more than simply wrap up plots: "Endings put a frame around the story and suggest why it was told to us, and what we should take away from it." Whatever is coming in the last two episodes of Breaking Bad — which we know from flash-forwards will include Walt returning to his vandalized, empty home, still looking to kill with bullets and poison — it is beginning to build that frame.

And that frame is engraved with the words: This Is All A Crock.

It's not that the show is a crock, and it's not that the sophisticated considerations of fault and the human heart are a crock. It's that trying to locate the humanity inside a man who has killed and harmed and terrorized, all with the underlying goal of making a lot of money and avoiding consequences, is a fool's errand. Not because Walt is evil or isn't evil, but because it doesn't matter. Fussing over the motives of those who cause harm and havoc is the fussiest of fussing, because Hank is dead either way. Marie is a widow either way. Walter, Jr. is staring at a bombed-out crater that used to be his future either way.

Is Skyler complicit? Is Walt driven by greed? Is Walt really a bad person? Was all this inside him all along?

Who cares? Who cares, who cares, who cares? I'm not saying who cares about the show — I'm saying this is becoming the point of the show. What makes Breaking Bad one of the most moral shows in the history of television is that actions have consequences, whether those actions arise from pain or greed or fear or panic. You pay for your actions, not the operation of your heart. The psychoanalytical journey we could all choose to take — and that most of us have taken — with Walt is a bloodless exercise. It is a luxury afforded to people who can see selfishness and wickedness and violence in the abstract, the way you can when it's on television.

What these final episodes are doing is showing no mercy, because evil shows no mercy. That's not "Evil Shows No Mercy" in a tattoo-it-on-your-arm kind of way; that's reality. That's the reality of the fact that the reason to be a moral person is, in part, that brutal acts of violence do not take place inside a cage where the only ones hurt are the ones who deserve it — rats, or finks, or phonies, or fools. When you embrace doing whatever you want in order to get what you want, you cannot isolate the consequences. This is not a show that will ever be revealed to take place inside a snow globe; it's a show where everything spills everywhere.

Walt is as bad as bad gets. He is a sucking, mile-wide whirlpool that sinks aircraft carriers like Gus Fring, and working-stiff boats like Crazy 8, and reckless idiots on speedboats like Jesse Pinkman, and flawed, leaky sailboats like his wife, and Coast Guard patrol boats like Hank, and ultimately his own kids, out for a swim.

There was a moment in Sunday night's episode in which Walt called Skyler at home, after everything had already gone utterly pear-shaped. The police were listening. He read her out — she never believed in him, she was an idiot, this was all her fault, she ruined everything, she never listened or did what she was told.

This phone call has been analyzed more than anything else in the episode, and most people immediately concluded that Walt, while he was undoubtedly speaking from very real rage that it would be silly to doubt he very truly feels, was actually trying to do something good. He was exonerating Skyler by saying for the benefit of the police that he did this without her, that she wasn't part of it, and that he built it all on his own. And there was a sigh, an expression of people's minor relief in knowing he didn't just call her up and act cruel to her on the phone.

So, yes, it appears that after bringing drug dealing to their door, making it clear she wouldn't be safe if she left, refusing to let her get away safely with the kids, threatening Skyler repeatedly, kidnapping Holly in a moment that she will probably remember forever, putting their son in the position of pulling him off her, and getting her sister's husband killed, Walt perhaps decided to get her off the hook with the cops to avoid orphaning their son and baby daughter.

What a guy. Redefining, perhaps, the idea of "the least he could do."

It's the hypnotic magic of this show that anybody would sit around parsing the goodness or badness of Walt's behavior in making that phone call in the same episode in which he sent Jesse off to be tortured and murdered. This, I believe, is the frame. Whether it began this way or not, the frame has become, in part, the what are we doing? of antihero stories. What are we doing? Why are we picking apart how bad, how wrong, how evil is a guy who has killed or caused to be killed all manner of people? Why do people still bother arguing about whether Marie is "annoying"? She's a widow now. She's probably paid an adequate price.

There's a reason last week's cliffhanger shootout happened as it did. It's not a show that usually leaves you in the middle of a gunfight, but there you were. And why? To tempt you. To tempt you to believe that this TV show would behave like a TV show, and the good guy — Hank, in this case — would beat the overwhelming odds created by how insanely outgunned he was.

But ... no. Hank and Gomez were hopelessly outgunned, and what happened to them is what would actually happen to them: they died badly and were carelessly dumped into shallow desert graves. Walt could not control the scope of the consequences by offering Jack money to spare Hank. Contrary to what Jesse suggested a few weeks ago, Walt is not magic. He is not a genius. He has been lucky in moments of despair, over and over, but he is not moving pieces on a chess board according to a preconceived plan that spares the holy and punishes the unholy. Hank died because Walt wants to think of himself as a decent person, but he wanted the money more, wanted to stay out of jail more, wanted to avoid consequences more, and wanted an empire more. That's all; it really is.

If you spent the week thinking Hank might get out of it, this was your moment to ask yourself ... why? What made you think Hank could get out of a gun battle against several other people where nobody knew where he was, where nobody was coming to help him?

Why would Hank live? Really, only because it's television. Only because the nature of television evil is that it obeys rules, while the nature of real evil is that it doesn't. I heard people debating last night whether they'd ever kill the baby. Could Holly have died? The only reason she wouldn't is that it's television.

The brutality of this ending, the mercilessness of this sequence as it marches on, is brilliant precisely because I cannot wait for it to end. And were I watching, in real life, a real man with Walt's disdain for other people's safety, his petty need to prove his dominance, and his tendency to get people killed who are far less blameworthy than he is, I wouldn't want to watch it. I would want to turn away from it. I would want it to be over.

And if I'm honest, I want Breaking Bad to be over. I'm glad there are only two episodes left. The show's honesty about where greed and violence can take the lives of both the good and the not so good is unbearable, and its fairness in storytelling — its willingness to follow even the worst threads to their natural conclusions — is perfectly, rigorously heartless.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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