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.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism