Welcome to the Tournament Of Episodes, an unending game of bloodsport between some of the best episodes of the 2013-14 TV season, inspired by The Morning News’ Tournament Of Books. To learn more and see the schedule, go here.
It’s our first semifinal here at the Tournament Of Episodes, pitting Breaking Bad (which got here by beating True Detective and The Returned) against Girls (which beat Orange Is The New Black and How I Met Your Mother, possibly by having a much shorter title). Zack Handlen passes judgment.
Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” vs. Girls, “Beach House”
Zack Handlen: In “Beach House,” a weekend at the seaside turns sour when friends try to speak honestly with one another other. In “Ozymandias,” Walter White’s delusions of grandeur finally collapse when he’s forced the reap the inevitable consequences of his choices. Nothing that happens with Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa matches the violence of Walt’s downfall, but both episodes share an understanding that after a certain point, conversation can only make a bad situation worse.
I haven’t watched much of Girls; apart from the pilot, this is the only episode I’ve seen. The personalities of each of the four leads are richly evident. Marnie is hell-bent on reverse-engineering the perfect weekend; her ideas about where to swim and after-dinner activities are the plans of someone so determined to have the right kind of “fun” that she ignores how ill-suited her companions are to such a rigid schedule. Hannah is self-absorbed and vulnerable, throwing every thought back to the world with little regard for the consequences. Shoshanna is ignored until she explodes. Jess just wants to watch the world burn.
I’m sure I missed some of the story’s subtler resentments, but the strength of the script, and the performances, is in making the basic details of the various confrontations entirely clear. One of the better jokes of the episode (and it’s often very funny, in a painful, cringing kind of way) is that this was never going to be a fun weekend. These people just don’t fit together as a group anymore, and disaster was imminent even before Hannah invites a group of outsiders in to disrupt the situation. They are women and men who glide along the surface of their lives, mistaking relentless self-analysis for understanding—believing they can communicate when all they really do is talk.
The tension comes from watching everyone act as though they’re enjoying themselves, and noting each crack in the facade as it comes. Everyone has reasons for being upset, and there’s a clear sense of cause and effect that runs through each minor squabble. It’s possible to track insult to insult, but so much of the sparring is framed in the messy, casual cruelty of “honest” conversation, the “just kidding” exchanges that wound without leaving visible marks. When the real fighting starts, what comes through most powerfully is the exhaustion of trying to maintain an illusion no longer relevant. Some friendships don’t last. There’s jealousy and insecurity, but mostly, there’s people trying to move on with their lives, held back by the relationships that used to define them.
I have seen all of Breaking Bad, and “Ozymandias” remains one of the show’s crowning achievements. After four and a half seasons of dodging, Walt is finally forced to reckon with his sins, and the result is agonizing: a piece-by-piece deconstruction of every lie he ever told himself. Picking up with Hank’s final doomed moments in the desert, there’s Walt’s belief that he can talk his way out of anything, that even with all the monstrous choices he’s made, it’s still possible for him to protect the few good things left in his life. This a notion that is quickly, and brutally, dispatched.
But more painful collapses are to follow. Hank, for all his fundamental decency, was still an enemy, and it’s possible to imagine the lizard part of Walt’s brain viewing him as an acceptable loss—the final cost of doing business. Yet his wife and son turn on him as well, and with them go any real pretense that Walt’s criminal empire was built on altruistic foundations. The episode’s cold open flashes back to Walt and Jesse Pinkman doing their first meth cook out in the desert, and features Walt calling home to Skyler, to deliver his first lie—the first of thousands. Again and again, though, this episode reminds us that the real first lie was the one Walt told himself. It was never about family, no matter how many times he claimed it was. It was always about him.
This becomes painfully evident in the episode’s final major scene, as Walt, after kidnapping his infant daughter, calls his wife and lets loose a stream of invective that articulates the darkest interpretations of his behavior. There’s a moment in “Fly,” an episode from Breaking Bad’s third season, in which Walt talks about how he believes there must be some combination of words that could convince Skyler he’s doing the right thing; the phone call plays like a cruel parody of that misconception. The rant is an attempt to exonerate his wife, but it’s impossible to separate the lies from the truth anymore. By his own choices, Walt has arranged his life so that his worst self is the only self that matters.
Both episodes are smart, fascinating, and well-observed TV, and both deal with the collapse of dearly held assumptions; of reaching that point when you realize what you thought was your life isn’t your life anymore, and hasn’t been for quite some time. “Ozymandias” has the edge for me. “Beach House” is a convincing, organic spat that may represent the beginning of an end; the final scene is a lovely reminder that life goes on, and that there is at least some connection left between these women, even if it’s fading. “Ozymandias” is the end, without compromise or mercy. Because Girls is an ongoing concern, any explosions in “Beach House” are by necessity temporary, and that’s arguably truer to life. But the destruction and doom of Walt’s hubris is remarkable for paying off years of narrative build, slamming doors shut with enough fury to level mountains. If “Beach House” is a complicated sigh, “Ozymandias” is a howl in the wilderness. Both are worth watching, but only one will haunt my dreams.
Winner: Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias”
Disagree? Agree? Vote either way in our poll.
Tomorrow: Sonia Saraiya judges our other semifinal, pitting The Good Wife against Hannibal. Check out the full bracket below.