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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge