We start back at the original cook. The original lie. The original sin. It’s nice to see the boys again when they were grudgingly getting along, before it all went so horribly, horribly awry.
But perhaps this is the time to talk about art forms, and the different mediums in which they’re presented. Movies were long thought to be the superior art form over television, and indeed for the most part that was true. Movies had bigger budgets, better effects, better actors, just plain better quality of filming and presentation. People dressed up and went out and paid to see movies whereas TV was on at home all day for free. It just made sense that movies were better.
But then, something strange happened. The experimental days of the 70’s and 90’s ground to a halt, and the big studio moguls didn’t want to take as many chances. The idea was to appeal to as many ticket purchasers as possible, which led to sanding off the edges of stories, making them more safe and easier to commodify. In the meantime, the converse began to happen on television. Pay channels began to crop up, and they could market to a smaller and more discerning audience. Probably the first television show to really make people step back and reconsider the entire medium was The Sopranos. Certainly, there were great television shows on TV before then, but none of them broke the mold the way The Sopranos did. It had top-tier acting, writing, direction—and no commercials, wow!
It also most importantly began to break down the barrier between TV actors and movie actors, allowing more and more A-listers the freedom to “lower” themselves by appearing on the silver screen. Which in turn, of course, led to better acting on television shows. And then the floodgates opened, and we got The Wire, Mad Men, Arrested Development, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, and on and on and on. And then yes, Breaking Bad. If you add up the total viewership for all those shows together you still wouldn’t come up with even a tenth of the number of people who saw Iron Man 3 this year. But the beauty of television now is that with a million channels, artists like David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gilligan can afford to be niche. And that’s the long game. Rest assured, absolutely nobody will be talking about Iron Man 3ten years from now, but new generations will be discovering great art like The Sopranos and Mad Men centuries from now.
All of which is a bloated and serpentine way of leading up to this, the finest hour of television ever produced. Now I’ll grant, there are many, many hours of television I’ve never seen, so I can’t make this statement definitively. Perhaps there was a really great Very Special Episode of St Elsewhere out there, were the lead doctor guy…let’s call him Phil…learns how to cure cancer but then is hit by a bus. Ooh, a bus full of cancer patients going on a retreat! Yeah!. Maybe that episode is better thanOzymandias.
But for me at least, this was the tops. And sure, part of it is having a tight, amazing script that doesn’t let up for a single second, darting from one thrilling scene to the next. And part of it is Rian Johnson’s amazing direction, setting up half a dozen iconic shots that will live forever in my memory. (Walt falling to the ground with his face in a silent scream, Skyler falling to her knees on the street, blood on her blouse, the knife pointing straight upwards, the bluer-than-blue sky framing Uncle Jack and Walt as Hank looks up at them both, the last thing he ever sees). And a big part of it is the performances of every single actor on the show. Bryan Cranston in particular gives his best performance, nailing every scene, even the most difficult one at the end, where Walt has to “act” as if he’s furious with Skyler. His voice is pure menace, but his eyes and face tell a different story entirely. It’s phenomenal.
But mostly, it’s because television, good television, allows us to live and breathe with these characters for hours upon hours. It’s true that some shows overstay their welcome and we grow weary with the characters we once loved, but if they time it right, a show can hit that sweet spot and leave on top. Take for example, the knife fight between Skyler and Walt in this episode, or really that entire scene. We’ve seen dozens, even hundreds of similar scenes of domestic violence in movies, but we only knew the characters involved for an hour or so. There’s only so much emotional investment possible. But Walt and Skyler and Flynn (I will never call him “Junior” again) are our friends. They’ve been in our home. We’ve wondered about their fates for years. The fact that the knife could’ve gone into Skyler or Flynn at any moment was terrifying, to say nothing of the fact that it was devastating that any of this was happening at all.
Vince Gilligan has gone on record saying this was the best episode of the series, and I’m thinking he’s right, that the final two will be great, but perhaps also a tiny step down, much in the same way the The Wire would always go for the good drama on the penultimate episode.
But even if the final two are only half as good as this one, they’ll be getting great raves from me. I’ll be watching with a lump in my throat and probably a tear or two in my eyes, but also a smile on my face. Well, maybe just an internal smile.