Breaking Bad series 5 episode 14: "Near them on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies"

If chemistry is the study of change, then what we are left with after a major family loss is pure, unadulterated Heisenberg.

WARNING: This blog is for people currently watching Breaking Bad series 5, part 2. It contains spoilers.

In the run up to the second half of series 5 of Breaking Bad, AMC released a short, cinematic trailer in which Walter White reads the Shelley poem, “Ozymandias”. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings”, he growls, “Look on my works ye mighty and despair!” The words, and the gesture, nicely reflect the manic egocentrism of Walter’s alter-ego, the empire-building drug lord Heisenberg. At the same time, it reminds us, as the poem does, that all earthly things will fade, and that in the long run - “chemistry is the study of change” - nobody will be remembered, and nothing will survive.

In the prologue to series 5 episode 14, we are back in To’hajiilee, but not as we left it last week. Instead we return to Walt and Jesse’s first cook, in their beloved RV, which Walter leaves for a moment to make a call to his wife. We see him as a liar in training, explaining that Bogdan is keeping him late at the car wash, but that he’d like to enjoy some “family time” at the weekend. The call mirrors Hank's heartfelt message to Marie last week. Skyler suggests the name “Holly” for their daughter. Before the opening credits roll, Walt, Jesse and the RV disappear. That first cook represented the beginning of Walter’s material wealth: the shootout in the desert represents its end.

When we return to the present, we see that Hank has been shot and Gomie is dead. The Nazis descend and Walt begs Jack to spare Hank’s life. He reveals that all his money - “80 million dollars” - is buried nearby. When Jack refers to Hank as a “fed”, Walter corrects him: “His name is Hank.” But Hank goes one better: “My name is ASAC [Assistant Special Agent in Charge] Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself.” Jack kills Hank, but not before he tells Walter that he is the smartest person he knows, but still too stupid to realise Jack’s mind was already made up. Walt collapses to the ground, knees first, and the camera forces us to peer into his crooked dank maw: Vince Gilligan is the Edvard Munch of New Mexico.

Buried treasure. Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Todd is clearly shaken by seeing Mr White betrayed. The rest of the Nazis load up Walter’s fortune, and replace the hole in the ground with the bodies of Hank and Gomie, giving a grim new significance to the coordinates pinned on Walter's fridge. Jack decides to settle with Walt by leaving him a single barrel of cash, insisting they shake hands (zoom in on the swastika) to confirm that their business is settled. He chastises his men when they complain about the loss: “Jesus, what’s with all the greed? It’s unattractive.” But Hank’s death has sent Walt spiralling. He spots Jesse hiding under the car in which he and the DEA duo arrived, and orders his execution. Todd, however, has a reason to keep Jesse alive. He needs help cooking, and we later see a badly beaten Pinkman emerge from a hole near the aircraft carrier where the Nazis go to work. By now the episode has taken on the feel of a horror movie, as Jesse shuffles along, one eye closed, attached to a metal cord. As he was dragged from To’hajiilee, Walt tried to hurt Jesse for what he sees as his disloyalty (snitching, after all, is frowned upon by kingpins): “I watched Jane die,” he tells him.

Later, while Walt purchases a second hand pickup truck from an elderly Navajo man, Marie shows up at the A1 Car Wash, convinced of Walter’s arrest and the forthcoming conclusion of the family’s troubles. She forces Skyler to tell Walter Jr everything. Unsurprisingly, he thinks it’s all “bullshit”. When they drive baby Holly home, they find Walt packing clothes for the four of them. Skyler is confused, and asks where Hank is, but Walter cannot even begin to formulate a plausible falsity this time. “I negotiated...” he falters. As “Flynn” goes to pack, the camera cuts behind the house phone and a block of knives on the kitchen counter. It’s the classic conundrum: which to pick up.

Skyler opts for the weapon and a tussle ensues. “What are you doing!? We’re a family,” howls Walt, as his son protects his mother and he realises the position he has put them in. I’m going to confess that I was so tense during this scene that I drew on myself. All I can say is it’s a good job it was a uni-ball I had in my hand at that moment and not a knife, or Mr White would have another body to add to his count. Walt steals baby Holly and does a runner. Skyler follows him out into the street and drops, dotted in her husband’s blood, to her knees - mirroring Walt's own reaction to Hank’s death at the start of the episode.

Walter makes off with his daughter, Holly. Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

With gaffer tape wrapped around his hand, Walter changes Holly in a public toilet. On cue, the baby begins to call for its mother (Emmy contender?) Back at the house Skyler and Marie are surrounded by police officers. When Walter calls, his voice is pure Heisenberg. What he says is staggering: “Tow the line or you will end up just like Hank,” he tells his wife. It is his acquisitive, remorseless and desirous self that screams, “I built this, me alone, nobody else!” reducing the family to the individual and compounding the fact that he has no one left. The words and the voice do not appear to match the image of a man weeping heavy tears as he prepares to give his daughter away, using a fire engine as a kind of escrow service. At the end of the episode, Walter disappears inside Goodman’s friend's red Primavera of no return: diminished, deserted and lost.

Read last week's blog here.

In "Ozymandias" things get physical between Walt and Skyler (and Phil). Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses