As part of Complex Pop Culture's best-of-2013 coverage, staffers and contributing writers will pen short pieces on their favorite TV episodes of the year. The week-long series continues with senior staff writer Matt Barone.
It wasn't easy saying goodbye to Walter White this year.
We knew it was coming. The overwhelming, borderline overboard amount of press and media coverage that surrounded Breaking Bad's final eight-episode run made sure of that, on a daily, if not hourly, basis. It was certainly the best drama I've ever had the privilege to watch live on the air.
Breaking Bad's showrunner Vince Gilligan sent Walter White (incredibly played by Bryan Cranston) to the pearly gates after laying waste to those Neo-Nazi scumbags and letting his ever-beleaguered partner/rival/quasi-son Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) flee with his life intact. But in my eyes, "Felina" isn't when Breaking Bad's storyline concluded—for me, Walter White's sayonara came at the end of "Ozymandias," the third-to-last episode. It's the one where everything went to shit for Walt; his loved one was executed right before his eyes; Jesse ended up a chained prisoner for the Neo-Nazis; and Walt drove off in Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) extractor's car, en route to a life of seclusion, anonymity, and undying despair.
That, to me, will always feel like Breaking Bad's proper resolution. The bleak AMC drama's most traumatic and all-around best episode, "Ozymandias," directed by feature filmmaker Rian Johnson (Looper) and written by Moira Walley-Beckett, exemplifies the show's unpredictable, messy, downbeat spirit. The profound tragedy is first served on a bed of bittersweet happiness in the cold open, a flashback to Walt and Jesse's first cook in the RV parked in the To'hajiilee desert. Walt's in a pleasant, hopeful mood, taking a break to chat with Skyler (Anna Gunn), who's oblivious to what he's really doing. They're discussing what to name their new baby girl, ultimately settling on "Holly." Walt smiles.
This brief moment of joy exists to show you how far down the rabbit hole of personal destruction Walt's gone in the days leading up to his current stay in To'hajiilee. This time his arms are tied behind his back, leaving him helpless watching Neo-Nazi leader Jack Welker (Michael Bowen) stick a gun in Walt's brother-in-law Hank's (Dean Norris) face, having already killed Hank's DEA partner, Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada). There's nothing Walt can do as Jack blows Hank away, except for weep uncontrollably, knowing that he, not Jack, is the reason Hank's dead. Only the viewer feels any satisfaction from seeing Hank go out like the sarcastic, defiant badass he's always been.
All of this happens within the episode's first ten minutes. "Ozymandias" is an avalanche of emotional and physical pain. Thinking Jack's crew is about to murder Jesse, Walt coldly tells his younger associate that he watched Jesse's one true love, Jane, die, choking on her own puke while strung out on heroin. At his home, hoping to wrangle up Skyler, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), and Holly, Walt is confronted by his knife-wielding wife, who tells him, "You killed Hank," before slashing open his right hand.
The ensuing scuffle sends Skyler and Junior to the ground, looking up at Walt like he's the devil himself. And just like that, everything Walt's been "breaking bad" for—i.e., his family's well-being—is erased. They think he's a monster—even Walt Jr., the one who calls 911 to report what his father has done. The only one who, before "Ozymandias," still saw Walt in a positive light.
Whether one thinks Walt is actually a monster or not, however, is up to his or her personal discretion. Me? I've had trouble calling Walter White "the devil in a beige sports-coat" in the subsequent months following "Ozymandias." The episode's later scenes show a man who's certainly devolved into a wrecking ball of emotional and domestic devastation, but Satan? Nah.
It's in how he manipulates the phone call to Skyler, making it seem like he hates her and thinks she's a "stupid bitch," when, really, he's giving her the alibi she'll need to be rid of him for good. It's in the mercy and love, albeit tough and toxic, he shows towards Holly by abandoning his thoughtless, shotgun plan of kidnapping her and leaving her safely inside the firetruck.
That look of fear and sadness on Baby Holly's little face is an overpowering heartbreaker.
In that moment, when I first watched "Ozymandias," damn near paralyzed by the episode's events, Holly was my surrogate. That's precisely the look I had on my face as I watched Walt step foot into the extractor's vehicle seconds later—the unhappiest of endings. But also the most fitting conclusion for Breaking Bad one could ever hope for, no matter what history will tell you about the two episodes that followed, "Granite State" and "Felina." Yes, those two hours do exist, and they're as neatly wrapped together as the Christmas presents grandma and grandpa will hand over to you next week. "Ozymandias," on the other hand, is the ending that Breaking Bad deserves—a finale that's untidy, uncompromising, and pulverizing, just as the series as a whole is at its best.
In my lifetime, I may never experience a television episode as emotionally and effectively assaultive as "Ozymandias" again, and I'm OK with that. It's up there with films like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream and Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark—towering artistic achievements that are too distressing to casually revisit.
When the extractor's car headed down the highway to nowhere good, at around 10:58 pm. EST, September 15, 2013, I made my peace with Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad leaving me forever. And it felt right.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)