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'Breaking Bad,' 'Ozymandias,' 'The Sopranos' and the endgame
Well, no one ever said tragedies were supposed to have happy endings, right? Or, put another way, writer-director Vince Gilligan never promised us a rose garden either. That "Breaking Bad" should roar to an ending foretold -- of death, disaster, dissolution, and some other "d" word I can't think of at the moment -- is entirely appropriate to this series' artistic intentions.
But Sunday night's "Ozymandias" probably won't go down as any fan's most favorite episode either. There was just so much to absorb, deal with, comprehend, and process:
-- The deaths of Hank and Steve (as a blunt force example) would be enough for any episode, any season, but that was largely wrapped in the first act. That was just the beginning of the whiplash.
-- The cornering of Jesse.
-- Walt's grim secret revealed, that he essentially murdered Jane; Then, abandoned in the desert with $11 million a barrel, he leaves his bullet-riddled, gas-drained car and finds the energy to roll his fortune through a moonscape, his determination as remarkable as it was pathetic.
-- Sklyer's brutal reveal to Walter Jr. -- who learns that the world is mad after all.
-- Walt and Skyler's knife fight -- knife fight!
-- The kidnapping of Baby Holly.
-- The call to Skyler from Walt-on-the-run.
-- Walt's almost complete break with sanity.
-- And finally, certainly not even remotely least, the enslavement of Jesse.
Did anyone have a chance to breath? Obviously the actors didn't. I'm just wondering here about viewers.
But episodes this crazy require a little deeper examination, and with your forbearance, I want to step back a moment to take a broader look at the theme of this episode, third from the bitter end.
The episode title and literary reference take you in one obvious direction. The famous sonnet, "Ozymandias," is reflected in the opening credits, and not just that line about the vanity of kings, or their vassals (. . . "stamped on these lifeless things / The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed . . ." but the one about the brutality of time:
. . . " Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away."
The scenes, two scenes actually in question, stripped away time under that blue sky, beneath those ocher-red cliffs. The first was that moment in the opening seconds, after Walter's first "cook," which dissolved to a vast open space in the desert where the RV had once stood.
That open desert shot was repeated a little while later, after the catastrophic end to everything, when Uncle Jack has cleared out, when Walter was left alone . . . with nothing, but his barrel and encroaching madness.
As some fans know, this episode is in direct homage to "The Sopranos'" third to last episode, "The Second Coming," also about encroaching madness, unraveling, the beginning of the bitter and brutal end of time, and of the series itself.
That episode was based on a poem too. (Hey kids, pay attention in English class -- you too can be a TV writer some day.)
That equally famed poem, from Yeats, has these lines: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . ."
Yeats wrote this on the eve of the Irish Civil War, but -- to put this in extremely simple terms -- it also embraced some of his theories about the cycle of time, and the futility of history, bound by a cosmic karma, that what goes around must come around again and again.
It's also the stuff of TV tragedy, and as "Sopranos" rushed to its brutal end, that sense that the sins of the father were about to be visited upon the son was overwhelming. This was the episode when everything fell apart in "The Sopranos" as well: A.J.'s attempted suicide after he embraced the bruising message of the poem, and his own sense that life was not only meaningless, but worse, he was doomed to repeat it.
In fact, both poems are essentially the same, with a massive difference. Yeats is purposely mimicking -- even mocking -- "Ozymandias," because his Sphinx -- the same one as Shelley's -- returns to life, and "is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds . . ." (A scene, by the way, from last night, too.)
The cycle (of history) begins anew.
OK, I'm done with this morning's literary lesson, but bring it up only to cast a deeper meaning on the horror of "Breaking Bad's" “Ozymandias” episode. Walter's crimes, as Tony's, have circled back on those who perpetrated them, destroying the only bonds that tether them the world: Family.
Walter has lost Hank -- "He is family!" -- murdered in cold blood, right in front of him. He has lost not one son but two -- Jesse and Walter Jr. He has lost his wife, and finally, he lost baby Holly.
He strapped her in the front seat of a firetruck -- that was an obvious reference to the opening of "Breaking Bad" five seasons ago, when firetrucks rushed to the scene of the RV out in the desert. It was at that moment, five seasons ago, when all of Walter's future could have come to a crashing end. Instead, the fire engines rushed by.
"The Sopranos" was about -- and "Breaking Bad" has been about -- family. Tony, recall, began his treks to Dr. Melfi's office because he understood that he was doomed to repeat what his father had begun, but -- like those ducks that finally vacated his swimming pool -- everything would ultimately be voided, rendered meaningless, and then repeated again.
Like family (and family swimming pools) Walter also attempts to wrestle his meaningless fate to the ground -- by finding life's meaning in family. He had been struck with cancer, then begins the transformation that will lead only to destruction, and self-destruction.
That's the heart of this tragedy, and now we are all left to ponder the end -- because the "end" really happened last night.
There are two episodes left, and I think it's inconceivable that Gilligan and company want to leave us on this note -- depleted and hopeless.
"I've still got things left to do," said Walter.
Those "things," viewers might imagine, entail revenge (on Uncle Jack.) But we can also begin to wonder what happens to Jesse at the end of the line.
As tragic characters in a tragic tale, both Jesse and Walter have fallen as far as they can fall. But -- I think -- viewers need to be pulled back ever so slightly from the edge.
Tragedies don't have happy endings, but you do want to walk out of the theater, or in this case, away from the TV set, with your feet on the ground, and a sense that while life may be meaningless, there are still some shards of meaning to be found.
As fans -- sometimes against our better judgment -- we have cared for Jesse and Walter these five seasons. They were relatable and human, flawed and even occasionally heroic, full of hubris, but also full of a sense that life is about love, as expressed in family ties. Jesse could never find that love from his own father, but he did find it in Walter.
I guess what I'm saying is that we want something better for these characters, or at least I do. Things have fallen apart, and the center cannot hold -- we get that -- but we want some sign (I do) that there's some vestige of hope.
David Chase, to his credit, refused to give fans the ending they wanted. Screen goes to black -- YOU fill in the blanks. There was no romance, no hope, no anything in that last moment. Just the empty expanse of nothingness.
Last night, we all plunged into the void in “Breaking Bad.” Now the question is, will we all be pulled out?