Breaking Bad: “Dead Freight”
A-

Breaking Bad: “Dead Freight”

They rode against the railroads,
And they rode against the banks
And they rode against the governor
Never did they ask for a word of thanks
—Warren Zevon, “Frank And Jesse James”

What people always forget, when romanticizing outlaws and gangsters, are the people who got killed just for being in their way. The gutpunch ending of “Dead Freight” is a dreadful and dangerous reminder that the general public can’t be fully predicted, controlled, or shunted off to a safe distance. And the questions for the last three episodes of this half-season are written in boldface: What kind of boss is Walt going to be, in the face of this unexpected complication? What kind of partner is Mike going to be, with the additional responsibility to clean up this mess that he was insistent on avoiding in the first place? And what kind of role will Jesse decide to play, with his worst nightmare enacted and his triumph as the ingenious peacemaker of the trio in tatters?

Let’s start with the thrilling action at the center of this episode. Season five is shaping up to be one awesome adventure after another; first there was Operation Magnets, Bitch!, and now we have a ringside seat for The Great Train Tanker Robbery. It all starts with Lydia, who gets pulled into a Houston metal shop’s basement by the Heisenberg gang to find out once and for all whether the GPS devices on her Madrigal methylamine barrels were a desperate Rodarte-Quayle hoax or a real DEA threat. Thanks to a bug planted by Walt in Hank’s new office (with a receiver cleverly interpolated in the computer's ethernet connection so it can be monitored over the Internet), they are able to hear Hank’s response to a scripted call from Lydia. She reports the trackers and asks whether it was part of a “law enforcement operation or sting or whatever you call it.” Hank promises to check it out, then asks Gomie after hanging up whether they’d placed any such devices. “Nobody from my team planted anything, why?” Gomie responds, and that sends our triumvirate into a huddle to determine their play and Lydia’s fate.

But then, just as the gang are debating plans to swoop down on the warehouse and grab all the precursor they can before Hank follows up and actually gets the place covered, the bug comes alive again as Hank calls the Houston office and discovers the tracking device was their not-so-bright idea. (Hank: “Who would do something so stupid as to put a tracking device on the outside of a barrel?”) And it wasn’t just that one barrel; it was all of them. The Madrigal warehouse connection is therefore shut down for good, but at the same time, the meaning of Lydia finding the GPS has done a 180. Now she’s not a traitor, but a savior. And she’s aiming to ensure her worth to the operation by continuing to facilitate their supply of methylamine, not barrel by barrel, but by giving them access to “oceans” of it. 24,000 gallons a pop. Tanker cars full.

She’s got it all figured out, at least from the railway angle. Stop the train in a remote New Mexico location, in a monitoring dead zone where alarms won’t go off and cell phones won’t have a signal. Identify the car carrying the methylamine by referring to the freight manifest that gets sent to Madrigal automatically once the train leaves the yard. Then it’s up to Walt, Mike, and Jesse to figure out how to boost the precursor and leave no trace. “Keep in mind that I’m taking a huge risk providing this information,” Lydia announces with admirable chutzpah. “I expect to be paid.” Then, as the men who had just threatened her life react in disbelief, she backs down: “We can talk percentages later.” Mike, who was against listening to Lydia’s audacious scheme in the first place (“The woman put a hit on me!” he announces, aggrieved; “A hit, like the Mafia?” Jesse exclaims in awestruck disbelief), notes that a train robbery means killing the crew because “there are two kinds of heists: those where the guys get away with it, and those that leave witnesses.” But just when he and Walt are reviving their old sniping about going for broke versus prudently scaling back, Jesse contemplates the liquid climbing up the straw in his drink and comes up with a way to have their cake and eat it too.

They can arrange to stop the train by having a vehicle disabled at a crossing, then use a convenient trestle hundreds of yards back to drain the methylamine out of its tanker, while replacing it with slightly less water (since water weighs slightly more). “It’s all about the weight, yo,” Jesse explains to Todd who is helping them bury two large plastic tanks below the trestle; as long as the tank weighs the same when it arrives as it did at its last check, nobody will be the wiser. And since they’re only substituting water for 1,000 gallons out of the entire tanker’s capacity, the product will end up about 4 percent diluted. “Yes, they will notice,” Walt answers Todd's concern. “At which point they will blame China for sending a marginally weaker batch.” “Damn, you guys thought of everything!” Todd sucks up; Walter bestows a smile of approbation to his young apprentice; and Jesse basks in the warm glow of approval from both his mentor and their subordinate.

The moment of truth arrives, signaled by distant whistles (the same whistle, we suddenly realize, that we heard at the end of the cold open, sounding in the distance as the boy rides away with his jar) and powerful POV shots of the arriving locomotive, as Walt stands at the head of a phalanx on the trestle's edge, flanked by Todd and Jesse. Saul’s associate Kuby (played by fan favorite Bill Burr, and last seen extracting a large check from Ted Beneke) drives a dump truck onto the crossing and lifts the hood, then flags the train to a stop. As soon as the two-man crew starts examining the truck (“Either one of you guys know anything about engines? Of course you do, that's why they call you an engineer!” Kuby riffs, using those same improv skills that got Bogdan to sell the car wash to Skyler), Mike gives the signal and the trestle trio spring into action—Walt setting up at the tanks, Jesse wrenching open the drain opening in the car’s undercarriage and attaching a hose coupling, and Todd using a pneumatic drill to remove bolts and open the fill access point at the top of the car for the water. It takes an agonizingly long time to get set up, and then once everything starts flowing, the meter on Walt’s end of the hose ticks over gallon by gallon while everyone else waits.

But then a rogue element arrives, something not accounted for in any of their planning. A guy in a big pickup comes along and offers to push the dump truck out of the train’s way. Suddenly Mike and Kuby are no longer in control of when the train starts up again. But Walt refuses to let reality interfere with his perfect plan. He has no intention of stopping before the meter hits 1,000 gallons, which means that Jesse and Todd are ripping out their equipment and replacing the car’s seals as the wheels start moving again, leaving Jesse flat on his back between the rails while the cars pass overhead and Todd leaping from the moving tanker. It all seems like part of the daring adventure in the flush of their triumph (Jesse lets out a “Yeah bitch!” after his narrow escape).

But then a rogue element arrives. Again. Another person in the way

Walt’s gone on record with tacit approval of eliminating people who become threats through no fault of their own. Since shutting down or slowing down production is off the table, then everything else, including the occasional civilian casualty, presumably remains a viable option. Mike’s gone on record in strong favor of killing people who have willfully asked for it by betraying the operation or making themselves into unsustainable liabilities. Jesse has managed to avoid both extremes so far by intervening or offering creative alternatives. But nobody briefed Todd on how to respond when a kid on a dirt bike, with a tarantula in a jar in his pocket, shows up during their celebration. Todd’s ambition has been noted before, and it’s likely part of why he took action when the kid appeared. But he’s also just carrying out the orders he got from Jesse (“No one other than us can ever know that this robbery went down”), reinforced by Walt (“You sure?” he emphasizes). “Yessir,” Todd says, ever the faithful foot soldier, and from one perspective at least, obeying to the letter what Mike told him upon the Vamonos team’s first introduction to Walt and Jesse. And the kid pays the price for this failure to plan, this failure to set limits—and this insistence on absolute directives in fluid situations. 

Skyler, in her way, is just as single-minded as Walter. His one goal is to make as much meth money as fast as he can, and heaven help anyone who gets in the way; hers is to keep the kids at Hank and Marie’s, out of a house that is now a meth business’ headquarters and out of harm’s way. When Flynn storms back home and locks himself in his room, Walt gets him back to his uncle and aunt’s by answering his son's pleas to be told what's going on with “Because we’re your parents and you’re our child, that’s reason enough.” Skyler agrees to help Walter with anything he needs as long as the kids stay away, but reiterates that she’s not about  to change her mind about him, or about having the kids around. “I’m not your wife, I’m your hostage,” she puts it bluntly. He seems to agree to this arrangement, tells her that as far as Hank and Marie are concerned she’s seeing a therapist in Rio Rancho (“first name Peter, last name is up to you”). “Out burying bodies?” she needles him about the dirt on his knees. “Robbing a train,” he responds with unfeigned satisfaction. If she is going to demand an end to pretense, then honest answers she will get.

The kid shot off his dirt bike, though, seems to leave Skyler’s plans as riddled with holes as the Heisenberg partnership’s. There’s no perfect crime. There’s no safe place. Nobody can fence off the innocent or quarantine the threats. Walt may try to redefine it as the price of doing business. Todd may hope to capitalize on it as his application to be one of Heisenberg’s made men. Mike may scramble to clean up the mess and cover their tracks. Jesse, though, is face to face with another dead kid. He’s been in the middle since the season started. Time to make a choice.

Stray observations:

  • I waffled on the grade for this one, almost going down into the “B” range because the material with Skyler and Junior seemed clumsily functional. Compare the way Rian Johnson, last week’s director, took the homefront material and made it as tense as this week’s train heist. There’s an important thematic element in that sequence—Walt Jr. refuses to get out of the way as instructed, another potential rogue element that won’t stay safely sidelined—but Skyler and Walt’s conversation comes off as stagey dot-connecting, just a way of getting to the “deal” that she offers. (Interesting that writer George Mastras takes on directing this episode in addition to scripting it.) Ultimately, though, this weak patch is more than made up for by the tremendous extended heist sequence and its tragic culmination, which is both well-conceived and perfectly shot.
  • Although the kid on the dirt bike in the cold open, with his handy tarantula jar at the ready, doesn’t pay off until the final scene (but how devastating is that payoff?), I really like the way it helps to situate Breaking Bad as a Western. The show was in gangster territory all last season, but now, with the gang robbing trains and talking about Jesse James, they’re all about the iconography of outlaws, right down to Walt’s apparent determination to go out in a blaze of glory.
  • Wouldn’t Walt’s visit to Hank have made a fantastic alternate cold open, though, with his just-enough-truth “Skyler thinks I’m a bad influence on the kids” sob story and his abrupt transformation into a double agent the moment Hank leaves the room? And, in retrospect, the way he continues to install the bug in the picture frame even while Hank is entering the room with his coffee, smoothly pretending to be contemplating Hank’s supposedly happy marriage in contrast with his own, foreshadows his brinkmanship at the trestle in refusing to quit until he’s finished the job he assigned himself.
  • Little in-joke as Walt appears to blank on the imaginary therapist's name in Hank's office (“Peter…”), which coincides with co-executive producer Peter Gould’s name in the credits.
  • Walter Jr. (a.k.a. Flynn to Skyler and Marie, a.k.a. “Emo McGee” to Hank) is certainly a teenage handful in Hank’s house, refusing peace offerings of lasagna and Blu-ray Heat with equal disdain. But Hank is besotted with Holly, entreating her “Can you say ASAC? Can you say boss man?”, insisting that she be given breast milk instead of formula, and contemplating not giving her back to her parents. Holly is indeed the most delicious baby.
  • “I’ve made mistakes,” Walt says truthfully through his crocodile tears. “Trust me, buddy, it’s always darkest before the dawn,” Hank assures him, leaving us to wonder what’s coming for a man who thinks that (as he said last week) he’s just getting started.
  • Words from Mike that Jesse ought to take to heart: “Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head.”
  • Words from Hank that Walt ought to take to heart: “Being the boss can be kind of a grind, you know?”

More TV Club