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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser