Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Shattered Visage: Thoughts on a Phone Call

"I'm impressed that with 2 eps to go, #BreakingBad has produced a moment inspiring as much debate as the Sopranos finale," tweets Dave Crewe yesterday.  And indeed, Breaking Bad's antepenultimate episode, "Ozymandias," has caused a flurry of online discussion, analysis, and argument.  Or, to be more precise, one scene, late in the episode, has spurred all this discussion.  In this scene, Walter White, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, calls home and speaks to his wife Skyler.  The police are at the house and listening in; Walt has been exposed as a meth cook and a murderer and has lost most of his ill-gotten gains; his attempts to persuade his family to go on the run with him ended with his own son calling 911 on him, to which Walt responded by kidnapping his baby daughter Holly.  As Skyler begs for her daughter, Walt rants and raves, calling her stupid and a bitch, bragging about his criminal empire, complaining about her attempts to curtail his crimes.  The camera remains fixed on Skyler's face for most of the conversation, but when we cut to Walt, we suddenly see that he is crying, not raging.  When the shot pans away from him to the safe haven of a fire house, we understand his ploy.  Having cleared his wife of willing complicity in his crimes (of which she is actually guilty), Walt leaves his daughter in a fire truck and drives off.

Almost everyone who has written about or discussed "Ozymandias" agrees that the phone call was planned for the sole purpose of exonerating Skyler, Walt's one last attempt to protect his family.  Where the question lies is in the substance of the ugly, hateful things Walt says to Skyler.  Is he merely putting on a show, saying the most awful things imaginable to make himself look like a monster and her like an abused, innocent woman?  Or is he giving free rein to real emotions, exposing the real Walt whom he has kept hidden behind a reasonable, occasionally bumbling facade?  If you've been following certain people on Twitter for the last few days, you'll have seen this argument rehashed again and again, with most TV critics tending towards the second view and defending it with increasing vehemence (Vulture reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz, in particular, has been repeating the point with subtle variations almost nonstop for the last 24 hours).  In longer form, too, there's been much insistence that the phone call was not, or at least not entirely, an act.  At The Huffington Post, Maureen Ryan writes that "Walt's no hero"; Seitz himself has written a slightly over-determined analysis which describes Walt as an almost schizoid personality, with the phone call representing Heisenberg, Walt's drug-dealing alter-ego, acting on Walt's behalf; perhaps the most subtle analysis comes, unsurprisingly, from Emily Nussbaum on the New Yorker blog, in which Nussbaum, who initially took Walt's rant at face value, analyzes the ways in which the phone call plays into fan perceptions, and mis-perceptions, of Walt and Skyler. 

My first reaction to this debate is that it is unfortunate how an obsession with the phone call has obscured the rest of the episode.  "Ozymandias" is one of Breaking Bad's most harrowing, heartbreaking hours, and the episode itself is impeccably made, tense and fast-paced without giving short shrift to any of the many world-shattering events that occur in it.  It deserves to be remembered, and discussed, for more than a single scene.  This is the episode in which Walt's criminal empire comes crashing to the ground, and in which the people he loves are destroyed in the wreckage.  Skyler, who has been abetting Walt at the expense of her bond with her sister Marie, finally has enough and tells him to leave; Walt's teenage son Walter Jr. learns the truth about his father and then witnesses a knife fight between his parents; Walt abandons Jesse, his former assistant and surrogate son, to torture and imprisonment, though not before revealing that he is responsible for the death of Jesse's girlfriend Jane; and, of course, Walt's brother-in-law Hank is murdered by Walt's former associates (as is Hank's partner Steve Gomez, Breaking Bad's only non-villainous adult male Latino character; in the midst of all the deserved celebration of the show, it's worth remembering how thoroughly Breaking Bad has failed in its depiction of brown people, for example through Garland Grey's searing indictment of it on this point).

The reason, I think, that the phone call is what people talk about when they talk about "Ozymandias" is that unlike the rest of the episode, it is a blank moment.  To clarify, it's not a moment that actually tells us anything about Walt.  Critics like Ryan and Seitz have taken the scene as a final, definitive statement on who and what Walt is, but the way that the scene is shot, directed, and acted isn't aimed at that goal, but rather at the switcheroo, the trick, of revealing Walt's final scheme.  For most of the phone call, we're supposed to fooled, not gaining some new insight into Walt's personality--as Nussbaum notes in her essay, the things Walt says are all things that fans have said about him, either in admiration or disgust.  This is certainly reflected in an interview with episode writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Rian Johnson (best known for Brick and Looper, but who has also directed some of Breaking Bad's seminal episodes) who are almost surprised to discover that the phone call, which they seem to view more as a plot point, has spurred such debate (Walley-Beckett also gives her own definitive judgement on what the phone call means, but I'm with Ryan and Seitz in choosing to ignore this; not only because the author, as we all know, is dead, but because to take her word as gospel would put an end to all the fun).  It is also reflected in the fact that almost no argument I've seen for an interpretation of the phone call scene actually brings any evidence from the scene itself, because there is none--we see the call in isolation, without knowing what Walt did before placing it; we don't see his face throughout most of his rant; he remains grimly silent after it.  As a statement about Walt as a person, there is hardly any information here, and so, like The Sopranos's infamous cut-to-black ending, the phone call becomes a Rorschach blot.  Whatever you bring into it, in terms of how you see Walter White, is what you take out of it.

In light of this, it's easier to understand why there's so much emotional investment in interpreting the phone call scene, especially when you consider that high profile critics like Ryan, Seitz, and Nussbaum see a much broader swathe of fandom than the rest of us, and that they are repeatedly exposed to the kind of viewer who watches anti-hero shows in order to root for the lead (Seitz, in particular, has been quoting some of the pro-Walt interpretations of the phone call, in which Walt is seen as a hero doing one last thing to protect his ungrateful, betraying son and wife, on his twitter stream, and they are indeed baffling in their wrongheadedness).  But the result of this is a weirdly binary insistence: either you believe that Walt, despite also working to exonerate Skyler, was speaking 100% from the heart during the phone call, or you're one of those people who watched The Sopranos because they just wanted to see Tony whack people; if you think that Walt was deliberately exaggerating and playing up a monstrous persona for the benefit of the police then you probably also believe that everything he's done since the beginning of the series is justified because he was just trying to protect his family.

What I don't understand about all this is why such a stark division is even necessary.  In Breaking Bad's entire five season run, there isn't a single episode that does more to dismantle and explode Walt's "protect my family" ethos than "Ozymandias," which finally shatters what faint hope we might still have had that only Walt would suffer for his crimes, and that his family would be spared their consequences.  When Hank is killed, Walt, who has been frantically pleading and bargaining for the man's life, falls to the ground in a silent, agonized scream.  It's not because he loved Hank so much, but because he realizes what Hank's death means for his family.  Marie is a widow; she and Skyler will probably never repair their bond, already horribly damaged when Skyler helped Walt make a recording fingering Hank for Heisenberg's crimes; Walter Jr. has lost the man who would have stepped in as his father figure when Walt succumbed to his resurgent cancer.  Later in the episode, when Walt tries to salvage something from the wreckage by going on the run with Skyler and the children, Hank's death continues to reverberate and tear apart what's left of the White family.  It's the realization that her husband has killed her brother-in-law that finally shakes Skyler out of willingness to enable Walt's crimes, and it's what convinces Walter Jr. that his father is really a criminal.  Walt's inability to accept that Hank's death has irrevocably separated him from his family is what leads to the knife fight with Skyler, and is the reason that Walter Jr. will spend the rest of his life with the memory of having to come physically between his mother and his knife-wielding father.  And as we know from the flash-forwards that have appeared throughout the season, after Walt's escape Skyler will lose everything--her house, her business, her reputation--which might not have happened if Hank, a DEA agent, were still alive to argue for her.

Breaking Bad begins with Walt turning to drug production because of his desire to protect his family (officially, from destitution after his death from cancer, but under the surface, from having a paterfamilias so weak as to get cancer in the first place).  What "Ozymandias" shows us is how that desire actually ends up destroying Walt's family.  There will, no doubt, still be viewers who choose not to see this (as Nussbaum writes, some people just watch TV wrong), but that doesn't change what the episode's events are saying loud and clear: that everyone in the White-Schraeder clan would have been better off if Walt, upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, had just quietly bankrupted his family with medical bills and then died.  If anything, the phone call scene strikes me as offering some slight hint of a counterpoint to this conclusion.  It is a reminder that, for all its terrible destructiveness, the "protect my family" ethos is real.  If it's to be taken as a statement on the kind of person Walt is, then that person is the man we met in the pilot--a smart, resourceful, determined man who never met a problem he couldn't think his way out of.  The intervening five seasons, and all of "Ozymandias," have shown us the terrible consequences of Walt's problem-solving--how, by treating his medical bills and his family's financial future as a problem to be solved, Walt has created greater, insurmountable problems that will poison the rest of their lives.  So isn't it permissible for one final scene to show us that those skills, that intelligence, that ruthless capacity for self-sacrifice for the sake of some masculine ideal, are also real, and still there?

I think that "Ozymandias" teaches us how to read the phone call in its opening scene, a flashback to the pilot and to Walt and Jesse's first foray into cooking meth.  As he waits for the process to end, Walt steps away to call Skyler and explain why he'll be late for dinner.  We see him practice and hone his story, in which his boss has forced him to work late, and even compose a script for the phone call ("he's insisting that I... he's demanding that I stay").  But when he calls to deliver this story, the conversation turns into something real--he and Skyler joke about her side business selling ugly tchotchkes on eBay, and tentatively settle on Holly as the name of their unborn daughter.  It's a warm, loving exchange in the midst of the first lie Walt ever told Skyler about the criminal activities that would one day destroy their family.  I think that the phone call at the end of "Ozymandias" is the mirror image of this scene.  I think that Walt planned, scripted, and rehearsed what he would say for the police's benefit, but that when he actually made the call something real emerged from him--hatred, this time, instead of love.  In every marriage there are things that people think in their darkest moments--ugly, hurtful things that hopefully never get said.  How much more so, in a marriage like Walt and Skyler's, which has gone from loving to oblivious to abusive to steeped in blood?  That's what I see when Walt calls Skyler a "stupid bitch" and asks how she dares to tell his son the truth about him.

Because the fact is, the focus of the phone call isn't Walt, it's Skyler.  It's her face that we see throughout most of it, as we realize with her (actually a little after her) what Walt is doing.  The loving, happy phone call in the flashback can be seen as Breaking Bad's small, insufficient attempt to make up for its poor handling of Skyler in its first two seasons, in which she has almost no personality (this neglect has contributed--but is by no means the only reason for--the virulent, misogynistic hatred of Skyler evinced by some of the show's fans, which has even spilled over to affect the actress portraying her).  It shows us that Skyler is more than the happily oblivious nag she was before she realized that her husband was a drug dealer, and that her and Walt's marriage was real, and founded in love and affection.  The phone call at the end of the episode shows us that that bond, perverted and painful as it's become, is still there.  Alone in a room full of people who now see Walt purely as a villain, Skyler understands what her husband is doing, and plays along with his final, pathetically insufficient attempt to continue protecting his family.  It doesn't make him a good man.  It doesn't make up for anything he's done.  But it reminds us--maybe proves, for the very first time--that their marriage is real.

(The purpose of all this, of course, is to say that I'm on Twitter now, as @NussbaumAbigail.  I'm still rather dubious about the platform, or more precisely, about its suitability for me--as you'll probably have noticed, I'm not exactly someone who fits into 140 characters.  Nevertheless, if you feel like following me, and without making any promises, I shall endeavor to be someone worth following.)


Unknown said...

Your twitter account was there, but now appears to have been suspended. Very strange.

Standback said...

I see your account as suspended, too. :-/

Personally, I found Twitter surprisingly nice as a follower. However much or little you wind up using it, I'll be pleased to follow :)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have finally heard back from Twitter that they've reinstated my account. So now you can follow to your heart's content!

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