From the moment Breaking Bad began, viewers knew that Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) lies and secrets would eventually catch up with him. For the majority of its five-season run, the series manages to create a near-constant stream of tension from that very fear. As Breaking Bad moved further into its fifth and final season, though, Walt only seemed to amass more and more power. For a brief time, he appeared as untouchable as the head of a criminal empire could possibly be. No one, not even his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), seemed capable of beating him.
Then, in one of the most brilliant creative strokes in TV history, Breaking Bad brought all of Walt’s schemes crumbling down around him within the span of just one unforgettable hour of television. The episode in question, Ozymandias, is widely regarded as not only Breaking Bad’s greatest installment but one of the best TV episodes that’s ever been produced. Ten years later, it still holds just as much power now as it did when it originally aired on September 15, 2013.
As a chapter of a long-running television series, it’s as thrilling and dramatically engaging as any other. And as the explosion to a fuse that was first lit 59 episodes before it, Ozymandias is more impactful, destructive, and devastatingly final than anyone rightly expected it to be.
Directed by Rian Johnson and written by Moira Walley-Beckett, Ozymandias begins, fittingly, in the desert. As a memory from Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walt’s first meth cook slowly fades away, viewers are brought to the present by the sounds of gunshots — the inevitable fallout of the confrontation between Hank, Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada), Walt, and his crew of neo-Nazi followers that ended the episode immediately preceding it. We are, notably, not shown the gunfight itself. It doesn’t matter. Ozymandias isn’t interested in action sequences. It’s concerned only with the consequences of one man’s actions, and Steve Gomez getting killed is somehow the episode’s least noteworthy.
Within the span of its first act, Ozymandias kills Steve Gomez and then Hank Schrader. It robs Walt of most of his stored-away fortune and offers him just one moment of wrathful vengeance when he spitefully confesses to a confused, terrified Jesse that he stood by and watched Jane (Krysten Ritter) die right in front of him three seasons prior. The episode’s pace evokes that of dominoes falling — moving from one emotionally horrifying blow to the next. The line between Walt’s home and criminal lives is obliterated. His son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), learns the truth about him and steps in-between him and his estranged wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), when the latter desperately attempts to keep her abusive husband at bay with a knife.
The episode’s last third follows Walt as he kidnaps his daughter and then, perhaps out of empathy or his own exhaustion, leaves her to be found in a local firehouse. Its final moments see him cash in his emergency fund and disappear in a van to begin a new life somewhere else. While he manages to get out of Albuquerque alive, he doesn’t escape justice.
There are, of course, many moments throughout Ozymandias that call to mind the poem from which it gets its title. One could, for instance, superimpose the words, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!,” over the image of Walt looking down at his terrified wife and son. But in its final shot, which shows Walt riding off into the early morning dawn as the flat expanse of Albuquerque lies in the distance, the episode somberly evokes the poem’s final, less oft-quoted three lines: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Breaking Bad proved itself frequently capable of pulling off the narrative equivalent of magic tricks. For its first four-and-a-half seasons, the series made a habit of trapping Walter White in impossible situations and then planting the seeds for his eventual victories. These moments, like the explosive climax of Face Off, evoke the same satisfying sense of puzzle pieces falling into place. The brilliance of Ozymandias is how it manages to replicate that feeling even as it takes everything away from its protagonist. Ultimately, Walter’s losses, like his triumphs, are nothing more than the product of his own decisions.
Most episodes of TV, including many of Breaking Bad’s best, are about threatening, but not actually upsetting their show’s status quo. Ozymandias is an exception to that rule. It doesn’t just upset Breaking Bad‘s status quo — it blows it apart with the same ferocity and narrative ruthlessness of a Martin Scorsese-directed gangster film (see: the last half of Goodfellas). In the end, nothing remains. Just the decay.
All five seasons of Breaking Bad are available to stream now on Netflix.