"Breaking Bad" — "Dead Freight": The Great Train Robbery
I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about what it means to want Walter White to succeed. It’s not quite that we’re rooting for him, but it’s also not like we’re watching with the hope that he’ll turn over a new leaf and everything will be OK. We’re invested in the story, but we’re not always prepared for what that means.
It’s extremely hard for a TV show to turn someone into a real villain, and even harder to keep from pulling any punches. Omar Little on “The Wire” wasn’t a good man at all — he was a stick-up man and frequent murderer — but he was also colorful enough that viewers grew attached to him. You know what he’s doing is wrong, and it’s not a life you’d ever wish on yourself, but at the same time, you like him a little. He’s funny, and fun, and undeniably charismatic. We tell ourselves it’s OK to like him, and we don’t quite think about how that affection connects to who he really is.
The stunning thing about “Breaking Bad” is it makes you ask those questions. Walter White is not a colorful or pleasant man. He’s not an antihero, or a gangster with flair, or some shotgun-wielding stick-up boy trying to beat the streets the only way he knows how. It’s not all in the game for Walter. This is what it does to a person to do these things. He’s not glamorous or godlike, and his rationalizations are exactly the bullshit Skylar says they are. He’s willing to lie in unconscionable ways to get what he wants, and it’s impossible not to be indicted along with him. Because the truth is I wanted him to get away with the heist on this week’s fantastic, riveting episode, “Dead Freight.” I didn’t know how they’d pull it off, and I was stunned by the ending, but I still wanted Walt to make it out. Everything about the way I live my life says I should hate this guy, and if we as viewers met the character like this, we’d recoil in disgust. But we knew him when he was weak and craven, willing to break the law to just save his family. And we’ve stayed with him every step. I love this show, but I’m not done processing how I feel about loving it.
I reasoned a few weeks ago that Todd would play an important role this season simply because you don’t cast an actor at Jesse Plemons’s level for a throwaway part. I was right, but I had no idea the horror he’d visit upon the story. None. The cold precision with which he murdered that boy was revolting, but it’s something Walt brought on himself. This is the business he’s chosen, after all, and like the man said, when you play in dirt, you get dirty. The killing was a gut punch and shocking narrative twist. I’d been worried that Walt’s greed at cutting the heist so close would mean Todd would be discovered, or possibly hurt while getting off the train. But this? I could never have guessed. I would never have imagined.
Director George Mastras, also credited as the writer, choreographed the episode to perfection. I barely breathed for the last 20 minutes. He trotted out every possible thing that could’ve gone wrong — an unplanned civilian at the train crossing, a slower-than-expected transfer of chemicals — and he kept upping the tension one amazing beat at a time. Dave Porter’s pumping score made things even more tense. The sequence was like a miniature masterclass in how to shoot a heist. The rest of the episode was just as gorgeous, too. The wide desert shots, especially of Walt, Jesse, and Mike walking away from camera down the tracks, felt like something out a classic Western. I also loved the way Mastras really played up the visual difference between Walt’s and Jesse’s homes — dark, grimy places defined by shadows — and the bright, sunlit space occupied by Hank and Marie. The warehouse basement where Walt interrogated Lydia was similarly dank and grown over. There was a nice tonal meeting when Walt visited Hank, and his office got a little darker as the shades were drawn. Walt brings that darkness with him like a cloud now, no matter where he goes.
The murder that capped the episode was, perhaps, inevitable. Lydia came a hair’s breadth from being killed herself, and Mike warned that the only successful heists are those that don’t leave any witnesses. But it’s probably the most heinous killing we’ve seen on the show to date, and that’s really saying something. This was the murder of a child to get away with a heist to make and distribute drugs. It’s stomach-churning, but it’s not as if it will change Walt’s mind. These things are awful, Walt will tell himself, and he’ll probably believe it. But he won’t stop. That’s what makes it so hard to look away.
• Best comic moment: Hank referring to Walt Jr. as “Emo McGee.” Props to Marie for sticking with the whole “Flynn” thing, too.
• Pro tip: If Jesse Plemons shows up on your show, you know someone’s about to get got. Do not get in Landry’s way.
• Walt’s tearful confession to Hank about Skylar had me on the fence. Could he really feel these things?, I wondered. Even a little? What’s his endgame here? But to see the way he wiped the tears away and instantly set to work bugging Hank’s office was jaw-dropping. “You bastard,” I said out loud to the TV. (My dog looked at me funny but got over it.)
• AMC had the hashtag “#BreakingBad” on screen for a while during the cold open, though it mercifully went away. I’ve never logged onto their site for the simulcast experience, either. As I’ve said, it’s not my bag, but has anyone else done it?
• It’s hard to believe, but there are only three more episodes before the show goes away for another year. I know I won’t be ready.