Sunday, September 15, 2013

Breaking Bad's Ozymandias is the Show's Climax

As a general rule, I don't watch TV. I don't own one - it's just not my thing. And I'm not being high and mighty on my "better than thou" horse here: the internet is nearly fatally distractive to me, and I guess I can only drown to one singing siren at a time.

Keeping that in mind, I sincerely hope that Television does not conjure anything that is as skillfully conceived and executed as Breaking Bad for some time yet to come. I don't think I could handle the responsibility.

(what follows is a response to the most recent episode "Ozymandias." Yes, this is something of a divergence from the usual stuff I like to talk about, yes, there are spoilers.)

Apparently this episode is the creator's (Vince Gilligan) favorite, and though I think it is risky to put out what you consider to be your best work two episodes before what should be a continuous build up to a bang of an end, but the very premise of the show dictates that the shows climax be at some point before the end, so I guess it is an unavoidable reality.

Every article written about the show has some necessary nod to the fact that it is unique in the way it portrays a changing character that deals with a long and increasingly disconcerting string of challenges to his sense of morality. Of course this is true, but a more accurate and nuanced take on what makes Breaking Bad so great is the combined forces of the writers' ability to come up with a logical succession of realistic situational conundrums for Walt to solve and Bryan Cranston's incredible ability to act out a reaction that balances his character's psychopathic need for greatness with his allegiance to family and his battered (but everpresent) moral compass.

You can see this principle in action every time he deals with the prospect of killing someone. His despair over the glass plate discovery when he realizes he has to kill Crazy 8, his first choice to try and disappear instead of kill Gus Fring, his reluctance to kill Jesse, giving himself up to Hank rather than harm him - these are my favorite moments in Breaking Bad. The question of whether or not Walt will take one more step towards his transition to Scarface or let his Mister Chips side speak is asked repeatedly throughout the Show's history, and it is these moments that drive the plot forward, keeping people both interested and invested.

Yes, Walt's orchestration of Fring's death is exhilarating, yes, we enjoy seeing the creativity with which he builds his meth empire, but those things are nothing more than smart plot points. Smart plot points exist on a lot of television shows and are not particularly unique, watching Walt grapple with the path he has taken every step of the way on the other hand, is unique.

Take that away and the show falls apart.

The final situational conundrum for this show is how Walt is going to exit the stage. It is very clear that this will be a dismal ending for everyone involved, particularly Walt, and there is certainly a good bit of rubbernecking about that fact, but we as viewers are truly invested in finding out which version of him will surface in response to the challenges his new reality face - the nuts and bolts of how he responds to that reality are certainly fun, but they will not be the feature of Breaking Bad that keeps people talking.

That question has been answered.

Walt's phone confession tonight was descriptive of the worst possible morality Walt could possibly reach. He feigned a diabolical willingness to kill and emotionally batter those he loves most, his family, if they stand in the way of his greatness. He gloated that personally murdering a family member (Hank) was completely justified in his quest for greatness and that he would not hesitate to do it again to his own wife if it became necessary. He used fear and threats rather than cunning manipulation to get his way.

Throughout the show, his loyalty to his family has been the one saving grace for his character. Without it there really would not be any debate as to whether or not he is a redeemable character and the sneering maniac his family and the eavesdropping police heard through that phone settled the debate in their minds once and for all. He is unapologetic and uncompromising. He is a monster in their eyes, and his confession ensures that that fact will be his legacy.

But it's more complicated than that - Walt sacrificed himself. There is no doubt that Walt has become a despicable person, but his final sacrificial act leaves the book wide open as to whether or not he is redeemable. What's more, it's up to Skyler and the Audience to decide. No one else is fully aware of what is going on and therefore the writers cant use the opinions of other characters to take sides. The debate could go on forever.

And that's why his final actions - returning Holly to Skyler and protecting his family through his phone confession - represent the show's climax. The final moral question has been answered. Vince Gilligan and Co have figured out a complex and ambiguous way to allow Walt's humanity to shine through and while they did it, they wrenched your heart out while they did it, and Bryan Cranston's ability to be a tearful and sympathetic monster who is dying not from cancer, but from the slow torment of being fully aware that he has personally destroyed everything he loves in life, was the spoon they used to dig it out.

That emotional journey will be the defining experience of Breaking Bad.

The two remaining episodes will play out. It will be fun, it will be smart, it will be grotesque, it will be shocking, it will be a great many things. But it will not be as significant and as climactic as what we saw tonight. The question has already been posed to us, much like in the eponymous poem: can anything valuable be found in those lone and level sands stretching far away.

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.