A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Fashion designer Coco Chanel was once quoted as saying that before a lady leaves the house, she should look in the mirror and remove the first accessory that catches her eye. I’d like to propose the opposite for television writers. Before going into production on a season, a TV company should ask strangers to read the scripts from start to finish, then ask which scenes the readers remember. Pretty much everything that goes unmentioned should never even be shot.
Take Snowfall, FX’s buzzy drama about the connection between crack cocaine, the CIA, and gang violence in 1980s Los Angeles. I admired enough elements of the show to keep watching throughout this past summer. But when the first season reached the end of its excellent seventh episode, “Cracking” (where the protagonist discovers this new way of making coke smokable), I tried to tally up everything I could recall about Snowfall’s first six hours. I came up with about a half-dozen scenes… or maybe two episodes worth of material. It made me wonder: Could “Cracking” have been the show’s third chapter, instead of the seventh?
During its six-year run, Breaking Bad was occasionally criticized for its deliberate pace, as creator Vince Gilligan and his writers took time to move dominoes into place before toppling them. But even at its slowest, Breaking Bad stacked up one unforgettable moment after another. Ask fans of the show what they remember about it off the top of their heads, and you’ll get a litany: the bathtub body disposal, the exploding meth, Heisenberg’s hat, the deadly ATM, the charred pink teddy bear, the decapitated head on the turtle, the pizza on the roof, the wheelchair bell, “Run!,” “I am the one who knocks,” “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!,” Jane’s asphyxiation, Gus Fring’s exploded face, the ricin cigarette, the poison plant, and on and on.
I’m sure “Dead Freight” would make most Breaking Bad fans’ best-of lists—or, at least, the train robbery that takes up much of the second half of the hour would. One of the show’s great pleasures was that it was impossible to prepare for whatever Gilligan and company had in store from week to week. Obsessive viewers could guess the broader strokes of what accidental drug kingpin Walter White might do next. But anticipating that the writers would devote the bulk of an episode on an elaborate heist, in the middle of the desert? Not so much.
“Dead Freight” comes surprisingly late in the overall Breaking Bad arc. It originally aired on AMC on August 12th of 2012, as the fifth episode of a 16-episode final season that was broken in half, with nearly a year gap between part one and part two. Anyone who watched the show as it aired saw “Dead Freight” about 13 months before the series finale in late September, 2013. Today though, anyone who binges the show on Netflix will see the episode as the 51st chapter in a 62-chapter saga. That’s awfully close to the end of the story for a daring caper.
And yet the machinations of an episode like “Dead Freight” are exactly what made Breaking Bad an all-time great TV drama. It’s not just an episode where something happens, but one where the action follows its own uniquely twisted and ultimately revealing logic.
Gilligan’s typical snappy “What’s this show about?” explanation for Breaking Bad was that the show was about watching Mr. Chips become Scarface. Smart, mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher and devoted family man Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and turns to manufacturing crystal meth with his drug-dealing former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) so that he can leave some money behind for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and their teenage son Junior (RJ Mitte). Each subsequent decision Walt makes after deciding to become a criminal turns him darker, meaner, and more controlling.
Most television though stops just below the surface level of what actors like to call “motivation.” Walt’s a proud man who needs money, and he sees an opportunity to become a drug dealer. That’s the story. On a lesser show, everything that follows would be just about how what Walt does makes him and everyone around him “feel.” But while Breaking Bad is definitely concerned with that too, Gilligan and his writers were even more interested in nitty-gritty details of process. Walt and Jesse want to cook meth, okay… But how do they get the ingredients? How do they distribute the product? How do they account for the influx of cash? Are the existing drug cartels going to be okay with an amateur entering the market? What about the law?
When I interviewed Gilligan back in 2010, at the end of season three, he told me that he and his writers would collaboratively draft each individual Breaking Bad episode beat-by-beat, and would delight in boxing themselves into corners, just so they’d be forced to come up with creative solutions to tricky narrative problems. They’d ask themselves, “What’s the most obvious thing that could happen here?”—like “Walt kills a rival” or “Walt goes on the run.” Then they’d ask, “What’s the least obvious?”
The combination of specificity with unpredictability is what animates Breaking Bad. It’s how the show ends up with Walt having a brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who works for the DEA: because if law enforcement is going to be on Walt’s tail, it adds more potential wrinkles if the cop is family. It’s how Skyler eventually becomes an active participant in her husband’s business, yet openly and persistently resentful of him as a person. Most TV dramas would either drop “the wife” out of the story altogether after a while, or would have her and her husband quickly reconcile after a few episodes of rote emotional turmoil. And it’s how characters who were originally meant to be minor, like fixer-for-hire Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), become integral to the plot.
Watching “Dead Freight” then is like watching a Breaking Bad writers’ room session play out within the episode itself. By this point in the series, Walt has eliminated most of his competition, but is still facing increasingly complicated problems with his business, mostly having to do with procuring liquid methylamine without catching the attention of the DEA. Making matters worse, Walt, Jesse, and Mike have become convinced that their primary supplier Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) is in cahoots with the feds.
Like Gilligan and his writers, Walt and company walk themselves through various scenarios. The obvious thing? Kill Lydia. But that won’t fix their methylamine shortage; and besides, thanks to a listening device that Walt has planted in Hank’s DEA office, they soon learn that Lydia’s not a snitch. Lydia then gets involved in the conversation, suggesting that they cut out the middle man and just rob the company that supplies her, by holding up a train that ships giant tanks full of methylamine. But a heist like that will draw even more heat, and will require that they execute innocent railroad employees.
It’s Jesse who actually thinks his way through to the least obvious thing. He suggests they just stop the train—with the help of one of their occasional cohorts, Patrick Kuby (Bill Burr), who fakes a truck breakdown on the tracks—and then secretly siphon off just some of the cargo, replacing the missing chemicals with water. The remaining methylamine will be only marginally diluted… enough to be noticed, but not enough to be suspicious.
“Dead Freight” writer-director George Mastras stages the big train robbery beautifully, making use of the flat, dry, open spaces of the New Mexico countryside to keep the viewer constantly aware of where everyone’s positioned. While Patrick’s fumbling with his truck and Mike’s keeping a lookout from a distance, Walt, Jesse, and another lackey, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons), are quickly attaching hoses and pumps. Then complications ensue, including the arrival of a trucker who offers to help Patrick before the heist is over. At the last second, Walt gets all the methylamine he needs and everyone narrowly escapes undetected. All of the action is clear. The whole sequence is fast-paced and thrilling, with close shaves and high drama aplenty.
And then, just when the audience is ready to celebrate along with Walt and Jesse, a random youngster on a bicycle pedals by the scene of the crime, and Todd coldly shoots him dead.
The arrival of an unexpected witness is a classic Breaking Bad twist, made all the more wicked by the way it’s set up. The episode’s cold open shows this boy, out in the desert, collecting a scorpion in a jar… and then he’s not seen again until the end. We’re meant to forget all about him after the first few minutes of “Dead Freight,” so that when he comes back and gets killed, we quickly cycle through two reactions: “Oh yeah, that kid,” followed by, “Oh no, that kid.”
But the brilliance of Breaking Bad is that this twist doesn’t exist in limbo. It’s a plot machination that serves two purposes: to jolt, and to start laying the groundwork for how the rest of the season will play out. Because Jesse’s fundamentally a sweet guy, and is so emotionally fragile, he’s going to blame himself for this murder, and start spiraling down. Meanwhile, it turns out that Todd and his equally sociopathic criminal family are poised to move in and seize control of Walt’s operation.
All of that comes later though, and with a step-by-step inevitability. Nearly every little piece of this show proceeds organically and cleverly from something that’s come before. Nearly every character has her or his own rationales, and they’re rarely as pat as “I’m just a jerk” or “I have daddy issues.” In “Dead Freight,” for example, Mike is driven by a feeling of responsibility to the guys he used to work with in his former boss Gus Fring’s operation, and feels he has to keep making money to take care of them and their families. That’s a much richer motivation than simple greed, because it means that when Mike clashes with Walt over any move they make together, Walt has a more difficult time changing Mike’s mind.
“Dead Freight” isn’t devoid of wheel-spinning. A good chunk of the episode is devoted to Walt’s domestic problems, as Skyler decides to send the kids away to live with her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) and Hank. Skyler agrees to keep laundering Walt’s money if he’ll agree to support her choice to keep the kids out of harm’s way; but to get to that point requires too much run-of-the-mill marital squabbling.
Since I’m talking about TV in terms of what we remember, I’ll confess that I’d forgotten about the parts of “Dead Freight” that are, well… dead air. I hadn’t seen the episode since the original telecast, and when I re-watched it the other day with my wife, she too was taken aback by all the non-train-robbery scenes. And that’s saying something, since my wife reviewed nearly every episode of Breaking Bad for this website, and wrote the following about “Dead Freight:”
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.
Donna was right. A good counter-example for the flimsiness of the Walt/Skyler interactions in “Dead Freight” is the scene from earlier in the episode when Walt bugs Hank’s office, tricking his brother-in-law into leaving the room by feigning an emotional breakdown over his troubled marriage. Mastras stages this scene well too, using a skewed high-angle shot for a lot of it, capturing the awkward body language of both men in full. But it’s also nifty that Walt manipulates Hank essentially by telling the truth about what he’s going through. The scene is a fine bit of character self-assessment and it’s an entertaining little con.
I wish those kind of moments were more the norm in TV drama than the exception. As I wrote earlier this year in this column while talking about The Walking Dead, television writers and producers seem to live in fear of burning through plot too quickly, so they decide way too far in advance where they want their story to land, and they artificially space out the major checkpoints. They make their characters dither and navel-gaze to kill time, convincing themselves that this is essential to their “world-building.”
More often than not, not only are these scenes of self-doubt and hesitation trite, they’re tedious. Or, as I put it in a tweet a while back:
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with relying heavily on dialogue. People talk in real life; they should talk on TV. But we tend to learn more about characters not when they stand around in unnaturally darkened rooms and whisper about their hopes and fears, but when they make a plan, assemble their equipment and personnel, and try to carry it out. That’s when writers start asking questions like, “What could go wrong here? How would our hero react if the worst happens?” And therein lies a tale.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: The Brady Bunch Hour, “Vincent Price And H.R. Pufnstuf”