Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter (Bryan Cranston) finally see their marriage… (AMC )
In one of her periodic posts on fantasy and science fiction novels at Tor.com, award-winning novelist Jo Walton says there are two ways to plot out a fantasy series after the big bad has been destroyed. The first way is easier but also less satisfying and involves simply saying that the evil wizard (or whoever) had a second in command or left a way to resurrect himself, that he needs to be defeated again. (For a non-fantasy context, think of how “Return of the Jedi” brings back the Death Star the Rebel forces destroyed in “Star Wars.”) The harder but much more satisfying version of a continuation involves revealing all of the evil forces the big bad was keeping in check, descending into the chaos that comes when an orderly system is replaced by disorder. It is about crumbling ruin and what was once at least stable turning to dust. An evil regime has been removed, but at what cost?
To its credit, “Breaking Bad’s” fifth season has been firmly in the “consequences” camp. What has happened this season has almost all followed logically from the death of Gus Fring, whose orderly system to keep drugs rolling around the American Southwest became too much of a threat (and too much like a day job) for Walter White. Walt wasn’t wrong. There was no way for both him and Gus to exist side by side in the series’ version of Albuquerque. Gus despised instability, and Walter has always been the ultimate instability, a man who fancies himself a king but never understands that being king requires a certain fastidiousness, right alongside a certain ruthlessness. Walter loves power, and he loves feeling like the top dog. But he’s not comfortable with imagining himself as a bad man or monster, even though he very much is.
Last night’s episode, “Ozymandias,” is perhaps the pinnacle of this final season of episodes, one that could very easily stand in as a series finale if the show needed it to. Where the prior episodes have sometimes been mechanical to a fault, making sure that all of the pieces were in place for the fallout to come. Now that we’re actually in the fallout, though, it’s so rich that any minor missteps along the way don’t matter. This is the story of a man who lost his soul and carried on like it hadn’t happened at all. “Ozymandias” is what happens when he realizes just who he’s become. It restores some of the awful vulnerability to Walter White and some of the poetry to the show’s depiction of its universe. At episode’s end, when Walter heads off to his new life with the guy Saul knows, it’s possible to imagine this as his last moment in New Mexico, except the flash-forwards let us know that’s not true.
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Throughout, “Ozymandias” wants to let us know just how far Walter has fallen. The teaser shows us Walter and Jesse on their first cook, in a moment of downtime, when Walter wanders up a bluff to call Skyler and tell her what may very well be his first lie designed to cover up his meth cooking. In this sequence, Walter is humane and warm and a little bit dorky. “Breaking Bad” has made very clear that the things that turned Walter into such a monster were always present within him, but they didn’t need to be unleashed. It wasn’t an inevitability. It was about tiny little steps along the path to ruin, like telling his wife he needs to stay late at work when he has to do nothing of the sort.
From there, it’s a relentless onslaught of everything Walt has hoped to keep from happening actually playing out, sometimes right in front of his face. Uncle Jack kills Hank, even after Walt makes the argument he’s family and tries to buy Hank’s life with his fortune. The Nazis take all but one barrel of Walt’s money. And back in Albuquerque, Skyler and Marie are filling Walter Jr., in on what his father’s been up to all these years. Still, Walter Jr., doesn’t want to believe until his father gives him reason to.