“Box Cutter” began the exact same way, taking the final act of the third season—Jesse shooting Gale—and flashing back to Gale unveiling all of his shiny new lab equipment with Gus Fring underneath the laundromat. That scene kicked off the fourth season with an explication of how Gale’s humility and respect for greatness—Walt’s superior chemistry—set off a chain reaction that led to his own murder. Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 15
The opening of “Ozymandias” emphasizes that same sentiment, in a scene from Walt and Jesse’s first cook, where Walt would bury his unfathomable cache of cash. Walt rehearses his first lie to Skyler, about his hardass boss at the car wash keeping him late as a cover for dipping his toes into the meth trade. (And when director Rian Johnson cuts away to Skyler answering that phone, there’s Chekhov’s knife block sitting prominently in the foreground, but more on that later.) These final eight episodes of Breaking Bad have been as much about visually and structurally echoing back to earlier points of the series, slowly tying a neat bow, as it has been about hurtling toward the conclusion of why Walt needs the ricin pill and what he’ll use an M60 for. And when the episode opened with a flashback, it raised the level of difficulty significantly, because Breaking Bad so rarely goes to this well that to break it out now requires something strong to back it up.
But now, a few hours later, still in a state of shellshock, I can say “Ozymandias” is one of the most emotionally destructive yet dramatically satisfying hours of television I’ve ever seen. Not just a standout scene, or a few peaks of excruciating tension. This is an all-around best-of from everyone involved, moving from unforgettable moment to unforgettable moment. Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn turn in some of their greatest scenes as Walt and Skyler White. Betsy Brandt and RJ Mitte step up to the challenge as well, the plot screws continue to tighten, and oh yes, in case you forgot, we lost Hank Schrader, the would-be hero who only minutes before victoriously phoned his wife and told her he loved her.
An episode like this rests on the opposite end of the spectrum from “Fly,” another hour directed by Johnson, character-driven and almost entirely removed from the overarching plot movements of a season. “Ozymandias” takes all of the plot threads inching along over the past few weeks, and shoots them forward at an unbelievable pace to convergence. In an opening that lasts 20 minutes, Walt loses all control as he watches, spineless, helplessly in over his head in a scenario that leaves my pick for the most-improved character in Breaking Bad’s entire run in a shallow grave next to his best friend.
Even though Hank’s fate got teased out over a week between episodes, he’s still dispatched in tragically simple fashion. Gomez lays splayed out in the dirt, and Hank has a bullet in his leg, looking at the shotgun as his last line of defense. In one of the subtlest nods to earlier events I’ve ever picked up on, Hank lurches onto his belly to crawl towards the gun, giving himself up in search of his goal—just like the cousins in the opening scene of season three. Hank’s last chance at life echoes the same dangers he faced in “One Minute” from other characters that Walt indirectly sent into his orbit. The forces Walt put in motion—the white supremacist biker gang—now strips Walt of everything he was trying to protect: his money and his family. He’s left with a barrel of cash (10 or 11 million dollars), stranded in the desert.