‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Dead Freight”

(Read about the previous episode here.)

Well, that didn’t go according to plan.

Kids are often placed in harm’s way in movies and on TV. How many times have you seen a guy take a child hostage as leverage?

But the kid gets away. Almost always. Because seeing children die is unpleasant, especially when it’s done in a violent way.

On Breaking Bad, though? You never know.

We’re more than halfway through this season now (since I refuse to consider a year-long hiatus as two halves of one whole season, no matter how many shows try to pull this off), and it’s been a mixed bag. I don’t mean quality-wise — but every episode has felt distinctly different, with a unique rhythm and pace and tone. There were the heist-movie hijinks of “Live Free Or Die,” the corporate espionage of “Madrigal,” the methodical reboot of the cook details in “Hazard Pay,” and the tense marital strife of “Fifty-One.”

Now, there’s “Dead Freight,” which is another heist of even more preposterous proportions. It’s a lot like the season premiere, in several ways — the guys are faced with a seemingly impossible task, Mike and Walt are at odds as to how to pull it off (or whether they should even try), Jesse improbably comes up with an out-of-the-blue approach that’ll make it work, Walt brings some scientific know-how to the proceedings, and everything goes off without a hitch.

Okay, well, on Breaking Bad, there is always a hitch, even if they get away with it at the last minute. There was a hitch in “Live Free Or Die,” and there’s one here. Walt, Jesse, Mike, and their exterminator henchmen are robbing a train of its methylamine on the DL, which as you may guess is no small feat. Any true student of Breaking Bad knows something will go horribly awry during this heist, because the episode is ominously titled “Dead Freight,” and because Walt & co. got off relatively scot-free in “Live Free Or Die.” Breaking Bad is not a procedural, in which the characters succeed at everything they try to pull off and everything is reset at zero for the next episode. Vince Gilligan just wouldn’t end “Dead Freight” in yet another victory for these not-so-smooth criminals. It’s too late in the season for that. This episode is just about the right time for a downward spiral to begin, and quite possibly, it has, thanks to… Todd? But more on that in a moment.

First, Walt proves that he’s become almost as good an actor as Bryan Cranston when he breaks down in Hank’s office because Skyler called him a bad father. (Again, Walt uses the truth as a weapon, omitting all the details that reveal his own culpability.) Hank isn’t sure how to comfort a grown man in tears, except maybe get him some coffee, so when he ducks out Walt takes it upon himself to bug his brother-in-law’s phone and computer. It’s to Breaking Bad‘s credit that we know Walt truly is upset about what Skyler said — but that doesn’t mean he’s above using it to his advantage. It also shows that Walt is getting both ballsier and more reckless, because if these bugs were discovered, Hank might not have to think too hard about who’s been in his office lately. (He just got there, after all.)

Meanwhile, Walt Jr. has become a surly teenager at long last, despite the shiny new car. He can’t understand what’s going on between his parents (how could he?) or why he has to stay with Hank and Marie. Skyler negotiates with Walter — the kids stay out of the house, and she agrees to do whatever nasty business Walt asks of her. On some level, he knows she’s right — Walt Jr. and Holly are in danger in that house, should any of Walt’s enemies come a-knockin’ — so he agrees. Is this a way to give Marie and Walt Jr. more to do on the show, or a way to conveniently stash two underused characters together where they can be ignored as a unit? We’ll just have to wait and see.

In more dramatic news, Lydia has another near-death experience at the hands of Mike, who suspects she bugged her own methylamine to thwart the operation. Lydia has proven herself to be truly kooky, seemingly always in a state of hysteria, constantly on red alert. I feel sorry for her daughter. (When reading from Mike’s script — much better than Skyler’s stab at screenwriting last season — Lydia can’t even say her own name convincingly.) We can’t be sure she was like this up until things started going south at Madrigal, but now? I can sum her up in two words: batshit and crazy. Of course, this makes her highly entertaining. I don’t know in what context it would happen, but I would love to see her alone in a room with Skyler. I think those ladies would have plenty to discuss.

Anyway, Lydia is the first of several potential “innocents” whose blood may or may not get shed during the episode — a topic of much debate in this hour. Jesse wants to let her live, of course, because she sure sounds convincing. “Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head,” Mike retorts. But thanks to Walt’s bug, it is confirmed that batshit Lydia is, in fact, on Team Meth after all, and did not plant the tracking device on her own methylamine. (I didn’t think so. I doubt Lydia is quite that smart. Or quite that stupid.) But Lydia knows where they can get a whole “ocean” of the stuff.

This brings us to the season’s second Jesse James reference, even more appropriate considering the great train robbery that’s about to take place. Walt even wears his Heisenberg hat for the occasion, which is slightly cowboy-ish. (Never mind that Mike likened Walt to the coward Robert Ford, and not James himself.) The heist is, naturally, this episode’s big set piece, and in true Breaking Bad fashion, we watch it unfold in painstaking but highly convincing detail. Despite the high tension, our guys do actually pull the thing off. Jesse even lets loose another “Yeah, bitch!” as an echo of the season premiere. But, like I said, we fans have a hunch these guys won’t be riding off victoriously into the sunset this time around…

…And we are dead right. A young boy on a motorbike has witnessed… well, we don’t know what exactly, but enough that he’s a clear liability. Mike has unwittingly stated the stakes in an earlier moment — there are two kinds of heists, the ones where the bad guys get away with it, and the ones that leave witnesses. The guys have already had lengthy debates about whether or not to let Lydia live, and whether or not they’re willing to murder the crew on the train to get their methylamine. In both cases, Jesse fought vehemently to shed no blood and Walt came down on the side of bloodletting, while Mike was willing to dispatch of Lydia (she does kind of deserve it, sorry to say) but not a bunch of guys who are just trying to do an honest day’s work. In that way, “Dead Freight” is rather brilliant — not a word needs to be said in this climactic scene to know just where these guys stand.

Well, all of them except one.

In a truly shocking twist, it is not Walt, Jesse, or Mike who pulls out a gun and kills the boy, no questions asked. It’s Todd, the exterminator lackey, a character we’ve barely gotten to know,who up until this point has come across as a rather harmless simpleton. Yet that turns out to be the most intriguing possible way this could have gone.

See, back in Season Three, Walt and Jesse had beef with Gus Fring’s willingness to use children for nefarious purposes (and kill them when it doesn’t work out), but we’ve come a long way since then. (Emotionally, that is. As we learned last week, it’s only been a few months.) Walt was willing to poison a child last season as a roundabout, rather risky method of getting Jesse back on his side. We’ve come to learn that no man, woman, or child is safe when Walt’s neck is on the chopping block.

But what about in this situation? Poisoning a child is different than shooting one point blank. There was some likelihood Brock would recover, apparently (since he did), and almost possibly killing a child is different than doing it for sure. Plus, Walt himself didn’t even administer the poison, and Saul was the only witness (or, in this case, accomplice), so the guilt was mitigated by a number of factors. Walt might use some deductive logic here: so a kid on a dirt bike saw them. So what? Surely he doesn’t really understand what he saw, has at most a vague sense that it might be illegal. Maybe he tells someone he saw a bunch of guys sucking some stuff out of a train with a hose. Is anyone going to call the cops over that? And if they did — how accurate a description could the kid give them? How would they trace this back to Walt, Jesse, and Mike?

There’s a 99% chance they could have let the kid live and that would be that, but that’s still a gamble. There is always that if, and Mike already told us no witnesses can be left. Walt wouldn’t like those odds. But even if, morally, he could, would Walt unleash his dark side in front of Jesse? It would certainly snuff out any last shred of faith Jesse has in good ol’ Mr. White, and likely might get Jesse thinking about other children who have found themselves in a bad way when Walt has something to gain. That wouldn’t be good. And honestly, I’m not convinced that even Heisenberg himself would be so quick to pull the trigger on this little witness. As bad as he’s become, is Walt this bad? Is he truly evil?

That will be a question for a future episode, because right now, Walt’s off the hook. We know Jesse wouldn’t dream of offing an innocent kid. We can’t be quite so sure about Mike — yes, he fought for the lives of the train crew in this episode, and generally only kills when it’s absolutely necessary, but he was about to shoot a single mother a few episodes back. This might fall in that “absolutely necessary” category for him. But it ends up being the wild card, Todd, who takes action. In a lesser show, this might be a cop out — letting a character we hardly know do the dirty work to absolve our “heroes” from doing so — but Breaking Bad isn’t interested in letting anyone off so easy. There will clearly be a lot of messy emotional aftermath, which will be very telling of everyone’s true nature. Shit, meet fan.

Think about it — Walt pulling a gun on this kid would have been a major drag. A turning point of no return. What’s fun about Breaking Bad is that we, and the characters, are constantly tested with how much moral murkiness we’re willing to endure. Walt the remorseless, irredeemable child-killer would cease to be an interesting character — Walt is much more devious than that. His brand of brutality is not nearly so direct. He likes to deflect the blame onto everyone else. And it wouldn’t really have been a surprise. It would have felt obvious — not a word we like to associate with Breaking Bad. In this case, Jesse and Mike would have to turn against him, and there’d be a lot of drama, but it’d be at a fever pitch. Instead, allowing Todd to do the killing has opened up a lot more possibilities for where this story is headed, because, though we’ll never know how Walt would have handled this situation without Todd around, what we do know is that Walt is a master at finding the silver lining in a grim situation and twisting everything to benefit himself. What’s done is done. Why not make the best of it? I have no doubt Walt will have an easy enough time doing so, but Mike and particularly Jesse may not be so unmoved.

You may, for a moment, believe that the ill-fated arachnid-lover in “Dead Freight” could have just as easily been a sweet old lady or any other passerby — but Breaking Bad doesn’t select its victims so randomly. Earlier in “Dead Freight,” Lydia asked Walt to swear on his childrens’ lives. Skyler sent the kids off to Hank and Marie’s for safekeeping. Lydia used her daughter as a reason Mike shouldn’t kill her. A couple episodes back, Jesse broke things off with Andrea, primarily for Brock’s sake; an episode earlier, we witnessed Mike playing with his granddaughter in “Madrigal,” the intended recipient for his blood money from Fring. All the guilty parties involved in the train heist — Walt, Jesse, Lydia, Mike — have children they love in their lives. (With the presumable exception of Todd — and we don’t know enough about the other guy.) Last season, Walt could stave off his conscience by telling himself that killing Gus was for the greater good, even if Brock did die. In Season Five, there is no moral high ground. None of these people can properly justify what happened. Nobody’s head is on the chopping block. They were just doing a bad thing, and got caught. That simple.

Initially, I wasn’t blown away by “Dead Freight,” despite solid execution. (Blame so many awesome episodes for raising the bar — I have to grade on a curve.) The heist isn’t quite as clever or fun as the magnets of the season opener — not that it was intended to be. (We’re a little past “fun” at this point in the season.) As with many Breaking Bads, it’s only with a little reflection that we see how carefully this has been set up. Thanks to prior plot points, we know exactly how all these guys grapple with killing, how far they are (and aren’t) willing to go to save their own asses, and despite extreme selfishness otherwise, they’ve all made personal sacrifices for the well-being of the kids in their lives. (Even Walt took his own children out of the danger zone in this episode, right before putting someone else’s kid directly in it.)

So the death of a minor has upped the ante. What originally was a triumphant moment for Jesse — coming up with an ingenious, Mr. White-like plan for a heist — is now a tragedy he thought up. This fearsome foursome won’t be able to look themselves in the mirror anymore — at least, not all of them. Lydia may very well have a black soul (she’s on Walt’s side about killing the innocent train crew), and I’m guessing Walt will eat his guilt and move on. (While having an increasingly difficult time believing that he’s still a good father.) If Skyler catches wind of this? Hoo boy! But Mike and Jesse, I wager, will not merrily return to meth cooking without a second thought as to whose little boy they just buried. There is no longer any question about whether what they’ve done is right or wrong. It was the murder of an innocent child, in cold blood. How heartbreaking is it that he gave a little wave just before he died? It gets sadder and sadder the more I think about it…

I think the clear lesson coming out of “Dead Freight” is — don’t play with tarantulas.

Just don’t.

Grade: A-

2 thoughts on “‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Dead Freight”

  1. A great write-up for a great episode. Every week this show blows my mind with how engrossing it is. Like you say, this season has felt a little more uneven that the previous series – they clearly have a lot of stuff they want to show us before the finale (the series finale I mean) and, I for one, have loved every episode so far this season.


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