Television viewers won’t remember the Sunday Night Football game played on Sept. 15, 2013, a few years from now. The 49ers were blown out by the Seahawks, the eventual Super Bowl champions. There was that rain delay right in the middle of the game, though — almost a divine sign that you ought to have switched off the football game and turned your TV set to AMC, where arguably (and we argue in favor) the greatest episode in television — Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” — was playing out. While an American hallmark grew stale on one channel, the American ethos was being brutally deconstructed on the other.
We were compelled to the story of Mr. Chips’ transformation into Scarface. We were thrilled with the corrupt Heisenberg and soon-to-be iconic moments of hideous ego — from the “I am the danger” speech to “I’m in the empire business” declaration. Even after he poisoned a child and willingly watched a woman overdose, we gazed as Walter White stood on top of his multimillion-dollar meth empire — triumphant.
Walter White’s mixture of grandiose ambitions and his by-any-means nature with which he achieved them orbited the American ethos.
But the real empire was, perhaps, the 60 episodes required to build to “Ozymandias” — named for the same Shelley poem about the demise of empires that this very magazine takes its name from. And in minutes, Vince Gilligan destroyed it all. Surrealism looms — and sin — as White crumbles onto the desert floor, as he sees his brother-in-law (DEA agent Hank Schrader) lying dead. All as a consequence of his evil.
For the rest of the episode, we follow a king mourning his ruins and his victims writhing in its poison. Marie Schrader is left a widow; Jesse Pinkman is a broken, meth-cooking slave; Skyler White is distraught; and Walt Jr. — who sadly had no stake in any of the drama — is betrayed by his father. It was all powerfully directed, viscerally acted, tear-rending greatness.
White wasn’t just a great character to watch grow. In his anti-heroic concept, Walter White’s mixture of grandiose ambitions and his by-any-means nature with which he achieved them uncannily orbited the American ethos. For decades, we preferred to watch people on TV who reclaimed their autonomy from repressive institutions to stake claim to the American dream. That’s what White represented the moment he made that switch from chemistry teacher to meth kingpin. But his dream was dark, making White a perfect anti-hero to root for. Even when he destroys the most crucial of all Americana — his family.
And lastly, there is that final phone call between White and Skyler, where Walter — playing Heisenberg — speaks invective in order to exonerate his wife in front of listening police. How much did he actually mean is endlessly debatable. But look at those bitter tears. This is a scene of dissolution. With this, family is no more and Heisenberg isn’t either. And so he sobs. And we do, too.
And now: Have we lost the anti-hero genre altogether? The American audience has long been compelled to television characters who transgressed ideal American values for their own goals: Vic Mackey (The Shield), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Omar Little (The Wire), Don Draper (Mad Men).
Those stories — with the exception of Mad Men, which airs its final season next year — have come to their end. Walter White/Heisenberg represents the last of that line. There’s been no other character that’s reached his heights in the year since “Ozymandias” premiered. But if White truly represents the end of the line, at least it’s an endlessly rewatchable exclamation point.
Happy anniversary to the one of the greatest hours of television ever.