Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Breaking Bad is frequently cited as one of the best television dramas ever made. “Ozymandias” is often cited as its best episode, thereby logically making it one of the best episodes of television drama ever made as well. It is therefore important to understand what all happened in “Ozymandias”, why it happened, and how it made for such great television.
Positioned three episodes prior to the series finale, “Ozymandias” served the role of the series’ emotional climax, wrapping up many long-dangling loose ends and dictating where the story would logically end.
Obviously, there are spoilers coming. In the episodes prior to “Ozymandias”, Walt had sought to exit the meth business permanently, but the matter of securing his money remained. This grew further complicated upon his brother-in-law Hank finally putting two and two together (during a number two, no less) and now being hot on his trail. Hank finally manages to trick Walt, with the help of a beleaguered Jesse, by dangling the threat of losing his money in front of him. Walt first calls for backup in the form of Todd’s Nazi uncle and his motorcycle/meth gang(?), but ultimately calls them off and surrenders to Hank and Gomez. However, Todd’s uncle was not taking “nevermind” for an answer, instead opting to show up anyway, guns loaded. Walt screams for Uncle Jack to stop. Jack doesn’t. Hank and Gomez ready themselves. A standoff ensues until finally, shots are fired. We fade to black.
We begin with the fallout from the shooting. Gomez is dead, Hank is wounded. Jack quickly takes care of Hank, who dies having come so close to capturing Heisenberg, but falling just short. Marie is devastated, as expected, and furious with Skyler for what she may have known. All but one of Walt’s money barrels is stolen by Jack’s gang. Jesse becomes a prisoner to Jack’s gang, a fate only slightly better than death. Walt Jr. learns the truth. Walt attempts to get his family to flee with him, but they are terrified of him. Instead, he kidnaps baby Holly after a terrifying battle with Skyler over a knife. Later, he returns Holly and attempts to deflect suspicion from his poor wife.
So much happened in just 47 minutes of runtime. The episode begins with a flashback to the beginning days of the meth operation, with Walt talking to Skyler on the phone and agreeing on Holly as a baby name. This becomes significant later on in the episode. Hank dies, the end of his painful arc of constantly searching for the man right under his nose. Walt Jr finding out permanently ends the careful divide Walt had attempted to maintain between his family and his business, with Jr being the final card to fall. Walt had officially lost the whole family. Skyler even pulls a knife on Walt, believing he is to blame for Hank’s death (technically true), leading to one of the best-directed struggles over a weapon you’ll ever see on TV. Walt abducts Holly and takes her with him on the run, but changes course when Holly cries as she utters her first words — “mama”. Even innocent little Holly can see only the evil in Walt, and wants to be away from him. He does the right thing (sort of) and leaves Holly at a fire station, while also calling Skyler and intentionally deflecting blame from her. This would be the beginning of Walt trying to right his wrongs before his death. The episode packs so much story into a small frame of time, being both masterfully written and directed. It is challenging to think of a better episode of television ever made, and the episode marked the climax of the best drama of our era.