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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage