Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
Writer: George Mastras
Director: George Mastras
Network: AMC, airs Sunday Nights
Original Telecast: August 12, 2012
“Dead Freight” is BREAKING BAD’s most plot-heavy episode this season, as it details Walt, (Bryan Cranston), Jesse, (Aaron Paul), and Mike’s (Jonathan Banks’s) complicated plan to heist methylamine from a freight train to support their burgeoning drug business. Despite a shocking climax, however, the episode’s focus on exposition related to heist-planning leaves “Dead Freight” without the emotional punch of previous episodes. Still, the build-up to the heist is entertaining, and having the absolute certain knowledge that the heist will go wrong in a very “BREAKING BAD”-type of way creates a potent sense of dread to go along with the anticipation, and it all works together quite well.
Some of this episode’s highlights include:
-An open with one of those cool visual non-sequiturs that BREAKING BAD is so good at planting in the beginning, and paying off in an unsettling way later on. We see a kid we’ve never seen before riding a dirt bike through the desert. He stops to pick up a tarantula and put it in a jar.
-Walt pays a visit to Hank’s (Dean Norris’s) new office, under the guise of talking about his recent marital issues. Walt gets weepy, which is awkward enough to send Hank out of the room, and gives Walt an opportunity to bug Hank’s office.
- The larger purpose behind this bugging was to get to the bottom of Lydia’s (Laura Fraser’s) story about barrels of methylamine at her factory having trackers placed on them by the DEA. Walt, Mike and Jesse hold Lydia hostage, the force her to call Hank so they can overhear his response through the bug and interpret his subsequent actions. At first it seems clear that Lydia made up the story about the barrels being tracked by the DEA in order to thwart their being taken by Mike’s crew, and the bug of Hank’s office seems to confirm this. Mike and Walt want to kill her as payback. Jesse dissents. He’s increasingly the conscience of the operation, but he’s outvoted here. Lydia gets a last minute reprieve, however, when their bug reveals that it was, in fact, another DEA office that actually planted the trackers on the barrels, and not her. Mike still wants to kill her, though. He reveals to Walt and Jesse that she put a hit out on him earlier. Lydia attempts to save her skin by saying she can put them onto “an ocean” of methylamine if they let her live.
-Walt interrogates Lydia alone to see if her story sounds plausible. She explains that she put a hit out on Mike, in addition to the nine of Gus’s men who are in custody, because she had no other option. She needs them all silenced to avoid even the possibility of prison, and Mike wouldn’t kill them himself. Because of this, Mike got “added to the list.” Knowing this about Lydia probably boosts her in his eyes, because her attitude regarding Gus’s nine jailed associates likely mirrors his own. The idea of killing Mike because of his stubbornness on this particular issue had probably occurred to Walt as well. Or if it hadn’t, it probably has now.
-The methylamine is on a freight train bound to pass through New Mexico. Mike explains that there are a million pitfalls to robbing a train post-9/11, and he’s not onboard with this plan. They’d have to kill the train crew. He explains that there are two kinds of heists: “Those where the guys get away with it, and those that leave witnesses.
-Walt argues with Mike for not signing on to the train heist plan, since, thanks to him, they have a sunk cost in the nine guys in prison they’re paying off, and without the precursor they need to make meth, they won’t have enough money to pay that cost. Mike says “It sounds like what you’re telling me, Walter, is that you want to do this heist, even if it means killing a couple of innocent men.” Walt doesn’t confirm this, but clearly he’d have no problem with that. Jesse, however, comes up with a better plan. They’re going to rob the train without anyone ever knowing it’s been robbed.
-Walt, Mike and Jesse plot the heist in the desert. They’ll use a diversion to stop the train, jump onto the car carrying the methylamine, siphon out the chemical they need using a hose, and then replace it with water so that the weight of the car will be the same, and no one will be the wiser. Todd (Jesse Plemons), one of the Pest Control guys they use to conceal their meth cooks, joins them, and they use a bulldozer to bury a tank under the sand that will hold the water and methylamine from the train.
-Meanwhile, at Walt’s house, Skyler (Anna Gunn) tells Walt that she’s not his wife; she’s his hostage. She’ll continue to launder his money and keep his secrets as long as the kids continue to stay at Hank and Marie’s. If he’ll agree to that, she’ll be “whatever kind of partner you want me to be.” Walt agrees to this, probably sensing it’s the best deal he’ll get from her at this point.
-The train heist plays out and goes mostly as planned. The plan threatens to unravel when a passing motorist offers to help push the ostensibly stalled vehicle that’s blocking the train out of the way before they’ve finished collecting the chemicals from it. But, after some tense moments, they still manage to secure the contents without being discovered.
-The heist is fairly riveting, and it appears to go off without a major problem. But successful, consequence-free heists are not what make BREAKING BAD, BREAKING BAD. The true BREAKING BAD moment comes immediately after the heist, while Walt, Jesse and Todd celebrate their apparent success. In the episode’s final moments, the three of them turn around to notice the kid from earlier, with the dirt bike and the tarantula, right behind them. He’s witnessed the entire heist. And having been given an earful earlier from Walt and Jesse about how no one besides them can know about the train robbery, Todd pulls out his gun and shoots this kid while Jesse watches in horror.
This is the gut punch that “Dead Freight” was saving up till the end, and it feels pretty awful, as usual. The show never lets you forget that there’s no way for these guys to move forward in their criminal career without hurting innocents. This climax also served as a reminder of how screwed Jesse is. Jesse makes the effort to steer their crew away from bloodshed wherever possible because he’s retained more of humanity than Mike and Walt have, but that fact ultimately makes it worse for him. Fundamentally their business can’t be separated from the process of destroying lives, and Jesse has to feel the pain and guilt again each time a new person suffers. And unlike Walt, he has no choice but to care.
This part was effective, but there were several things that didn’t work for me in this episode. The fact that “Dead Freight” was so plot-driven really drew attention to aspects of the plot that felt too convenient. For a risk-averse criminal enterprise, for instance, bugging the head of the DEA’s office seemed out of character, especially when Walt’s fingerprints will be all over the bugs, and Hank saw Walt holding the photo of him and Marie where one of the bugs was planted. Their plan has plenty of ways to fail, not least of which was that it was dependent on Hank being so uncomfortable with Walt’s tears that he would not only close the blinds but also leave his own office for an extended period. Also, it wasn’t clear to me why Mike and Jesse left Walt alone with Lydia to interrogate her after she brought up the methylamine train-heist idea. Obviously the writers felt Walt needed to hear about Lydia’s reasons for trying to kill Mike alone, but there seemed to be no reason that was relevant to the story for Walt to be in that position.
Still, the episode leaves us in an uncomfortable and interesting place. Both Lydia and Todd are shaping up to be the kinds of cold-blooded characters that would mesh more comfortably with Walt’s current worldview, and we could imagine him having designs on them as ultimate replacements for Mike and Jesse if he one day decides he’s tired of partners with consciences. Or even partners who think of themselves as equals.
And, increasingly, that day doesn’t seem like it’s very far off.
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Article: TV Review – BREAKING BAD – Season 5 – “Dead Freight”