TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Ozymandias” (05.14, 2013)

Written by Moira Walley-Beckett (Previous Episodes: “Breakage,” “Over,” “Más,” “Fly,” “Bullet Points,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Gliding over All”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly” and “Fifty-One”)

Back when I reviewed the first episode of this half-season, “Blood Money,” I wrote that, “My guess is that [Heisenberg] is able to buy enough time from Hank to get to use the disappearer but doesn’t kill Hank, leaving the case hanging over Walt as he escapes. However, Lydia is unhappy about the quality she is getting and forces Jesse into the business. Walt somehow finds out about Jesse’s position and goes back to save Jesse, hoping that it will be a final act of redemption.” As has been the case many times in this show’s history, it did end up where I thought it was obvious that it would, but the narrative took surprising twists and turns at every opportunity before getting there. Just as an example, we knew that Walt would have to get Gus out of the way back in season four and I knew it would require him to embrace the evil in himself somehow to do it, but I didn’t expect that embrace to allow him to manipulate Jesse into helping him, let alone the specifics of his poisoning of Brock and so on. This time, I was right that he was going to end up at the disappearer and that Jesse would be forced back into cooking, but I got everything that led to that state of affairs wrong.

This episode, unsurprisingly, opens with a teaser set in a different time, a teaser that is imbued with tension because we are all waiting for the outcome of the shootout from the last episode. Cleverly, the teaser actually foreshadows later events with Holly by showing us a conversation between Walt and Skyler from back when Walt first cooked with Jesse where they decide the girl’s name. It’s an interesting technique, because it should make it obvious that something is going to happen with Holly later but because we don’t really care about this conversation while we’re waiting to find out who exactly dies in the shootout, it’s not really obvious. As with all of these flashbacks, it also reminds us just how much things have changed, with the dumbass meth-head Jesse refusing to listen to the nerdy science teacher explaining the meth production process before we cut to the end of the shootout and watch hardened criminal Walt plead for Hank’s life and then Heisenberg order a sniveling Jesse’s death.

At the scene of the shootout, we see Walt pleading for Hank’s life, appealing to the idea that Hank is “family” and refusing to admit, as Hank says, that Jack has already made up his mind. It looks like the death of Heisenberg, as it is Walter White who pleads (unsurprisingly, unsuccessfully) for Hank, thinking that he has Heisenberg’s manipulative powers. However, Heisenberg returns to order Jesse Pinkman’s death, finding Jesse hiding underneath a car, just after a handshake agreement where we see Jack’s swastika tattoo featured prominently.

Then, Todd interrupts, claiming that they just want to find out what Jesse told the DEA before they kill him, though at least I immediately thought that he was taking Jesse to help cook. Jack may be happy with the quality he’s getting from Todd, but Todd isn’t—he knows what Heisenberg produced and thinks that Jesse can help him reach that level. He may be a psychopath, but he also has a level of professional pride and studiousness about his cooking that only Heisenberg and Gale have ever shared. Heisenberg, in a final act of anger toward the teenaged burnout he had long since broken, finally lets loose the secret that he watched Jane die (Though he omits the detail that he actually turned Jane onto her back, without which she would not have asphyxiated.) and then watches his former partner being taken away by the neo-Nazis.

One of the clear mysteries of the last season has been why Walt is apparently separated from his family, since he’s performing the bacon ritual without Skyler way back at the start of the season in “Live Free or Die.” I had been wondering whether there was anything that Walt could do at this point that would be a bridge too far for Skyler and drive her away, and the only even possible answer I could come up with was for him to kill Marie in order to keep her quiet, since she knows about Jesse at this point. It turns out what finally turned her against Walt wasn’t Walt or even Heisenberg but Walter Jr., who turns her against her husband by saying, “If this is all true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.” She acts like it’s the revelation that Walt killed Hank that sets her off, but she surely would not have reacted by fighting him off before hearing her son say that.

Then we see Jesse’s fate. In a harrowing and beautifully-shot sequence, Todd drags a beaten and bloodied Jesse out of a cell in the ground into his lab and chains him to the ceiling with a picture of Brock and Andrea prominently displayed as a constant warning (surely a warning that carries even more weight from neo-Nazis given their race) then puts on one of the yellow suits we have seen so often and says, “Let’s cook.” Jesse is trapped helping Todd, and Todd does not know mercy. Todd would also surely be willing to kill Jesse as soon as he is no longer providing any value, and Jesse knows how sick Todd is from watching him kill Drew Sharp. In fact, Jesse saw the danger in Todd before anyone else, and we probably should have known then that Jesse’s fate was to end up trapped under Todd’s heel.

Walt then takes Holly and calls back to scare Skyler into submission as Heisenberg, giving her a terrifying speech about the dangers of crossing him even as tears run down his face at the loss of his family and perhaps even Hank’s death. Or perhaps he is mourning the loss of Heisenberg. The man who returns to Albuquerque in the future is Walter White, not Heisenberg, and this moment may have been the end of Heisenberg.

With the police in his house, his son now aware of his actions, probably every living member of his family now talking to the police, and Jesse chained up and forced to help Todd cook, he runs to the disappearer, and leaves town. With two episodes left, Heisenberg’s empire that he prides himself on telling Skyler that he built remains but nothing else he sought does. His real son and his wife have turned against him and he has turned away his own chosen surrogate.

Rian Johnson, the greatest film director working today, returns for his third episode of the series, and it is again a wonder to behold. Michelle MacLaren’s direction is so brilliant that I often say that a film would be proud to have shots that she and Michael Slovis get on this show, but Johnson’s appearances are a reminder of how much of a gap exists between even the best television director and a great film director: in addition to big things like the beautiful night-time lighting at the fire station, he imbues everything with brilliant details like the repeated use of zoom in otherwise static scenes and a simple, static shot of the empty street after Walt has driven away with Holly before returning to Skyler’s collapse. There are so many of these details that one could write an entire review just naming them, so I won’t spend too long, but the episode is perhaps the most beautiful in this show’s history, which is high praise indeed.

Overall, this episode is an excellent and harrowing climax to this point that sets up a reasonably clear finale but leaves enough questions unanswered that we can’t know everything to expect. It’s Breaking Bad at its finest yet again.

Notes

  • Walt has to be coming back to get Jesse out in a final act of “redemption,” I feel fairly certain. But it honestly seems a little strange at this point for him even to discover what’s going on with Jesse.
  • It was nice to see a Johnson regular, Noah Segan (who appeared as Dode in Brick [USA 2005] and Kid Blue in Looper [USA/China 2012]), make a small appearance as the fireman who finds Holly.
  • Who painted “Heisenberg” on the wall? It’s starting to feel like it’s going to be someone closer to home rather than just some random tweeker.
  • Where are Skyler, Walter Jr., and Holly when Walt returns to town?
  • I had a new thought about the ricin—maybe it’s actually for himself. I could see Walt seeking redemption by first saving Jesse with the machine gun and then going to Skyler for forgiveness having already taken the ricin so that she cannot turn him in.
  • Once again, given more to do, R.J. Mitte steps up. He was great in this episode, as were Anna Gunn, Jesse Plemons, and Bryan Cranston.
  • If we want to call season 5b its own season, it is surely the greatest season of television in history.

Update: I had already had the review up for a bit when I realized that I wrote the part about Walt’s phone call as though it were totally credulous and just completely forgot to say anything about the real motivation. The way he was drawing attention to her lack of knowledge and pretending to believe that the police weren’t there, and Skyler’s reaction when he drew attention to her lack of knowledge, suggest that he was actually trying to help Skyler out of the mess by making sure that the police knew it was “Me–me alone!” It wouldn’t shot me if there is at least some reality in what he is saying (Walt has often mixed truth in with his lies.) anyway, but scaring Skyler into submission is only the ostensible motive, not the real one. It’s a rare moment of humanity for Walt these days, and one of the greatest moments ever for Cranston, which is about the highest praise a moment of acting can receive.

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TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “To’hajiilee” (05.13, 2013)

Written by George Mastras (Previous Episodes: “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.,” “Kafkaesque,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Hermanos,” “Crawl Space,” and “Dead Freight”)

Directed by Michelle MacLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” “Salud,” “Madrigal,” “Gliding over All,” and “Buried”)

Tension doesn’t always mean not knowing the result, and that may never have been better exemplified than the standoff at To’hajiilee at the climax of this episode. We know that Walt is alive and not in prison in a year, so we know the essentials of what has to happen in that sequence, but there is still tension rivaling anything outside of “Box Cutter” (04.01, 2011) in watching Hank arresting Walt, knowing that the neo-Nazis are going to be coming in. The only question was whether Jesse would survive, and Gilligan and company of course leave that as the unanswered question going into next week.

Watching Walt literally brought to his knees before Hank and Jesse, two people he has consistently out-thought and manipulated to his own purposes ever since his criminal career began, it was impossible not to see the resentment, resignation, and humiliation on Bryan Cranston’s face and the mixture of fear and joy on Aaron Paul’s, a moment that has to remind the viewer of the duo whose chemistry was so often at the center of this show. They have been completely torn apart at this point, and that’s without Jesse even knowing that Walt essentially killed Jane way back in season two. And for the first time, Jesse seems to have won. But of course, as we already know has to happen, the neo-nazis show up, stopping Jesse from winning and continuing Heisenberg’s consistent good luck even when he has resigned himself to failure.

The episode actually began with more of the Continuing Adventures of Todd, Weird Boy, as he completed a cook at a purity of 76% in front of his uncle and Lydia but it came out not blue and then he used his connection to his uncle to apparently hit on Lydia, who was perfectly willing to use his attraction even if she was going to turn down the offer. I’ve said that Todd is a psychopath and also just plain weird, but probably the most clear case of both things we’ve seen is his hitting on Lydia by suggesting that he could have his uncle “smooth things over” with her buyers. Lydia seems to know what’s going on and is manipulative enough not to run away even though she does not want what Todd is offering (either textually or subtextually). It’s a sequence that continues to build both characters, something the show has desperately needed to do for some time. At this point, I feel like I have a handle on Todd but that he’s a rather simplistic character, but Lydia still feels rather enigmatic. She’s obviously very intelligent and she’s a willing manipulator, but it’s difficult to pinpoint much else about her.

Next up, Walt explains his plans to the neo-Nazis, who agree to kill Jesse but want payment in the form of Heisenberg cooking to teach Todd. Walt reluctantly agrees, but the really important thing from this scene is that we learn that he not only doesn’t know that Jesse is working with Hank at this point but seems offended at the very suggestion that Jesse could be a “rat.” In the end, what finally allowed the law to catch up to Heisenberg was his trust of Jesse Pinkman.

Then, Jesse’s phrase (“I’m going to get you where you really live.”) from last week turns out to mean exactly what I first thought–the money. His plan is to get Huell to flip and tell them where the money is, but Walt already planned for that and kept that knowledge from Huell. Hank then takes a picture of a barrell of money and has Jesse call about it, claiming to have found the money and be burning it. The plan works and lures Heisenberg out of Walt and into the desert, plus gets him to angrily admit to a number of crimes on the phone with Jesse.

Michelle MacLaren, as always, does a beautiful job. The wonderful mix of low-key lighting and red coloring in the scene between the neo-Nazis and Walt is an excellent visual that emphasizes the dark deeds going on and perhaps even emphasizes the Nazi connections by using their flag’s colors as the dominant colors for the scene. The red-hued Todd looking down into the darkness, a willing participant in blood but not a true member of the evil, is an image any film would be proud of, let alone a television show.

There wasn’t really much that happened this episode. In fact, it felt a bit drawn out to me. However, it’s a little difficult to complain about an episode with such a tense climax. It’s a worthy episode, though honestly perhaps the weakest of this amazing final half-season so far.

Notes

  • “Timmy Dipshit” is a great insult.
  • Why does Skyler give Saul back a ten and five fives? Really, she doesn’t have any twenties and only has one ten? At a car wash where the typical wash seems to be $14.95? Weird. However, I love that Walter Jr. knows the commercials and is excited to meet “the lawyer guy” from them. A great moment of levity in an episode that was otherwise (understandably) light on it.
  • Hank says the van didn’t have GPS, “But Walt doesn’t know that.” Did anyone else immediately think, “Walt would know that?”
  • Say goodbye to Jesse Pinkman, folks. His exit has been drawn out long enough, and I don’t see how Gilligan & co. take it any further. Take a bow for one of the all-time great television performances over the life of this series, Aaron Paul, and then exit stage right.
  • So, he’s heading to Haji’s Quick Vanish to get away from the neo-Nazis, it seems, but what brings Walt back to town, needing a machine gun in the trunk and a vial of ricin, seems more difficult to figure out than ever.
  • Calling Marie felt like it was just added to fill time. The exchange with Saul similarly felt like filler. Especially for an episode written and directed by two of the strongest veterans on the show’s staff, there seemed to be a lot of filler time in this one.

Movie Review: “Before Sunrise” (Richard Linklater, USA/Austria/Switzerland 1995)

Perhaps Woody Allen’s most celebrated film is Manhattan (USA 1979), a film I have never considered any more than decent and certainly nowhere near the heights Allen has scaled in films like Annie Hall (USA 1977) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985). Its most celebrated sequence is a truly beautiful sequence of Allen and Diane Keaton falling in love in front of the river. The sequence’s genius is not in the always-excellent dialogue or Allen’s and Keaton’s pitch-perfect performances. The genius is in Allen’s ability to tell an entire love story in just a few minutes, and to do it largely visually–allowing the Prince of Darkness to tell the story with his lighting just as much as Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman do in the script. Before Sunrise very much feels like a two-hour version of that scene done by a director who wanted everyone to know how good of a writer he is and didn’t have Gordon Willis.

The film is quite a simple love story, told over a single night as two tourists, one from the United States and one from France, meet on a train to Vienna and decide to spend the night together. It’s filled with existential angst, literary references, and jokes and exchanges lifted directly from Woody Allen (adding to the feeling that it was that brilliant Manhattan scene stretched out beyond reason), but the film is ultimately nothing more or less than a love story.

The first big problem is that it doesn’t have a point to make while telling its love story. Instead, Linklater and co-screenwriter Kim Krizan rely on the supposed universality of the story to carry the film. (I do feel compelled to point out that this idea that all Americans know what it’s like to go tour Europe and fall in love is extraordinarily pretentious and reeks of upper class privilege. It reminds me of lawyers I met during law school who would ask about when the last time I went to Europe was, not being able to fathom that some people don’t have the money to do that.) If you’re going to do that, using a love story is probably the best way, but it’s a much better idea just to have something to say about love instead of telling a story, just like everything else. There is absolutely nothing that ties the film together other than the narrative, and that’s a problem for any film.

Visually, Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel do very little with this film. First, they play with focus, keeping a shallow focus so that the lead characters remain in focus while the backdrops melt into fuzz until they start paying attention to something in the background and then using a deeper focus. It’s a fine but not really exciting technique. Then, they constantly return to shots of trains passing by either alone or in pairs depending on where in the story we are. This technique is rather annoying, as it is so ham-fisted as to be laughable. You really needed that to tell us what was going on between these two people? It’s all that’s happening! If the film actually had a point, some sort of metaphorical recurring shot like that could be forgiven in spite of its inherent pretentiousness, but it doesn’t, so it can’t.

Acting-wise, the film is actually quite strong. Julie Delpy plays a rather dull character with some thought and depth that makes her work far better than she should have from the writing, giving us a far deeper understanding of who Celine is than Linklater bothers to give us anywhere else. Ethan Hawke, meanwhile, is given a much better drawn character and plays it well–he’s a lonely, damaged, weakened guy and we can see all of that before he tells us anything, with his odd winks and stares and inability to hold himself upright when nobody is looking.

In the end, this film is a great example of the type of film that impresses neophytes and does nothing at all for me: it has some good dialogue, excellent acting, and an easily understandable and relatable story, but it has no point and does nothing visually. Ripping off Woody Allen is not a bad idea, as Rob Reiner can tell you, but borrowing bits and pieces of Woody Allen and completely missing what makes his best work special is not just a bad idea but is completely awful and unwatchable. This film does not work because Linklater is borrowing without understanding what makes what he’s emulating work.

Richard Linklater has been one of those people whom the internet has tried to convince the world is a genius without much evidence, hanging its hat on this film as the ultimate evidence whenever someone is skeptical of the “greatness” of the thoroughly mediocre The School of Rock (USA/Germany 2003). After watching this one, I’m pretty much convinced that Linklater is a capable writer who hasn’t got a visually creative bone in his body. It’s a film not worth watching, particularly when you can watch Gordon Willis and Woody Allen do it better in about a tenth of the time.