Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers have proven yet again their facilities for subversively manipulating the familiar narrative contours of the crime melodrama. After all the anguish and duality, the parallels and rivalry that have been carefully established over the years between Hank (Dean Norris) and Walt (Bryan Cranston), the former is ultimately shot in the head like a winged dog, in a manner probably befitting any number of people who've gotten on the wrong end of Uncle Jack's (Michael Bowen) path.
Walt's expectations, which cannily mirror the audience's, are such that he assumes a member of his inner circle can never truly buy it unless he wants them to, and last night's "Ozymandias" toed a powerful line in providing Hank a death of real stature that still somehow managed to feel poignantly random. Hank's death was tragically puny, and the pairing of those seemingly contradictory words goes a long way in explaining the impressive range of emotions that "Ozymandias" stirred. Many of us assumed, and probably hoped, that the final series showdown would be between Walt and Hank, a way of ironically maintaining the sanctity of family while simultaneously destroying it. But our lives rarely provide us with carefully orchestrated waves of pleasure and closure upon our demand.
Walt and Hank had their final clearing of the air, with the series finale two weeks away; they were briefly equal in one another's eyes again, for the humbling that Uncle Jack had respectively dealt both of them. Walt pleads to Uncle Jack for Hank's life, and it's a powerful reminder of his authentic connection to Hank despite the oblivion he's managed to steer them both toward. This is as vulnerable, as purely human, as we've seen Walt in a while, and he tellingly offers Uncle Jack all of his money to spare Hank's life. For his part, Hank proves yet again that's he's the realist foil to Walt's egomaniacal fantasist, and his goodbye to Walt is a heartbreaking confirmation of the mutual love and resentment that still flowed between them: "You are the smartest man I've ever met, but you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago."
Facing death, Hank went out with dignity intact, resisting the obvious temptations that existed for him to compromise himself for a slim shot at survival, and it's clear that we're supposed to understand that he rose to this occasion in a fashion that will forever elude Walt, the desperate, morally ragged schemer. Walt may walk off into the sunset, but any tangible illusions he had of himself as a family man and hero have been shredded by self-realizations that were way past due.
"Ozymandias" isn't just about Hank's death, but about how Walt spun and exploited it to the total ruination of his place within his family. There's a telling image near the end of the episode that shows Skylar (Anna Gunn) and Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) crouched on the floor partially embracing as they steel each other for what they presume to be Walt's forthcoming attack, an obvious symbol that serves to permanently place Walt on the outside of the home that he always so conveniently used as fodder for justifying his right to do whatever the hell he pleased.
Of course, Walt has always felt that he was standing apart from his family, on the outside looking in. Breaking Bad has always been concerned with proletariat emasculation, and "Ozymandias" serves as a fleet, nasty catharsis after years of watching Walt as he said everything except what he probably thinks. On the phone with Skylar, after having fled his home with baby Holly (whom he briefly kidnapped essentially out of loneliness and spite), Walt tells Skylar, in a moment that parallels the vicious outburst he dealt to former girlfriend Gretchen at the beginning of the series, that she's just a bitch who's been grinding him down, that he's never appreciated or understood what he's done. Walt openly exploits his family's assumptions that he killed Hank, directly threatening Skylar's life.
But it's clearly an empty, pathetic gesture, and it's heartbreaking to watch Walt as he conceals one of the few admirable emotions he's had recently, which is his obvious devastation at Hank's death. But Breaking Bad isn't an either/or show: We still see the vicious manipulator when Walt barters to have Uncle Jack take Jesse (Aaron Paul) away to torture and kill, as Walt now blames Jesse for Hank's death. He'll blame anyone, really, but himself.
"Ozymandias" is classic Breaking Bad: a staggering, relentless nightmare that immediately announces itself as one of the best episodes of the entire series. (It has the weight and resonance of a series finale.) We now know why Walt appears as a drifter in the flash-forwards, and it's a pretty safe bet that Uncle Jack is the man meant to be at the receiving end of that huge weapon in Walt's trunk. Walt has nothing now; any reason he ever had to do anything has blown away in the wind. All that remains is his bruised ego, his melancholy, and his thirst for pure vengeance that's partaken not of a self-delusional claim of wanting to perform any kind of service for anyone other than himself, but for the sheer animal satisfaction of it. Uncle Jack would be well-advised to brace himself: He and Walt are finally playing by the same rules.
Chuck Bowen is a freelance film and TV critic living in Richmond, Virginia. Check out his website, Bowen's Cinematic, and follow him on Twitter.