This episode was going to be on the list if I just used the marketing for the episode, featuring Walter White (Bryan “I should have been Lex Luthor” Cranston) reading the title poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Run down to the bookstore and pick up a copy of all of Shelley’s works if you can, he was pretty amazing. The poem was written as a friendly competition between Shelley and poet Horace Smith, each about Ozymandias and the statue of him that was to arrive in Britain. The poem describes finding an ornate statue in the desert, and on the pedestal, are the most well-known lines:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Those words, when read right, are dramatic, threatening, and glorious. Cranston does them perfectly, however, it’s the next three words that he truly nailed in the ad.
‘Nothing besides remains.’
Cranston truly captures the simple truth of those words: Every empire will fade. The world will change and leave it behind. And that’s what we have in this episode.
Breaking Bad is a show about Walter White’s decline and fall. Walter starts as a sympathetic guy with cancer who decides to partner up with his ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to cook meth so he can provide for his family after he dies. By the fifth and final season, Walter is, by almost every standard, no longer sympathetic. In fact, at the end of Season 4, you probably were on team “Please kill him now, cancer,” because he’d just done something unthinkable in order to motivate someone else to kill for him. He’d dragged his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) into it, even though he’d worked to hide it from his son Walt, Jr. (RJ Mitte). I will confess that the ending of Season 4 had led me to believe that Breaking Bad was, effectively, over. That there was no more merit to the show. To tell you how wrong I was, two episodes of Season 5 are on this list.
During the first half of season 5, Walt pretty much continues to indulge his bad nature. He has a ton of people killed, kills a few himself, and is willing to tolerate the killings of others fairly freely. He even partners with the Aryan Brotherhood to help kill a number of people at once. The result? He makes $80 million dollars. As the first half ends, however, Walt’s brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), discovers that Walt is the kingpin “Heisenberg.” The second half starts with Walt’s cancer finally coming back, and Hank trying to find any way to prove that Walt is Heisenberg. Walt and Hank both play an elaborate chess match trying to determine whether or not Jesse will betray Walt for most of the season. Finally, Jesse sides with Hank, and tries to help Hank set up a trap to find Walt’s millions. Hank subdues Walt, just as Walt’s team shows up to kill Jesse. And, just before this episode begins, a firefight ensues.
At the start of the episode, Walt and Jesse have been hiding from the gunfire, Hank is wounded, his partner is dead, and Walt’s crew, led by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen) are perfectly fine. Walt begs for Hank’s life to be spared, offering all of his money. Jack responds by executing Hank, who refused to beg or negotiate, and stealing 6/7th of Walt’s money, before taking Jesse with him to “interrogate.” As Jesse is being taken away, Walt taunts him by revealing his role in the death of Jesse’s ex. Then, Walt takes what money he has left, goes home, and finds that his family will not run away with him. Walt steals his baby daughter, Holly, and starts to run.
As he talks to Holly, all she says is her first word, “Mama,” breaking Walt’s heart. Finally, Walt calls and plants fake information on a recorded call to exonerate his family from any connection to him, and leaves Holly to be returned to her mother. As the episode ends, Walter completely abandons his life for a new identity.
Nothing besides remains.
At the beginning of this part of the season, Walt seemed untouchable. He had millions of dollars, people supporting him, and the only crack was Hank’s suspicions which were tenuous at best.
Five episodes later, he has nothing, not even himself. His empire has crumbled. All that remains is Heisenberg, his criminal shell. At some point in the episode, every main character drops to their knees in grief, in reference to looking on his works and despairing, further driving home the comparison.
Ultimately, this episode was almost the climax of the series, despite not being the last one, because this really shows us what has befallen Walt for his hubris. We’ve followed his arc from sympathetic hero to outright villain, but now, we see all of him in one episode. He begs for the life of Hank, the man trying to take him in. He cruelly mocks Jesse as he is being taken away. He attacks his wife. He reveals his crimes to his son. He takes all the blame to save his family. He kidnaps his daughter and returns her. Finally, he surrenders his identity. All of these contradictory actions are taken but none of them ever feel wrong. That’s how well Walter White’s character was crafted. Because we had watched his rise and fall, both in terms of power and morality, we were able to see why he does everything. That’s the hallmark of a great character.
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Here’s the Poem:
The Show’s on Netflix.