It’s heist time again on Breaking Bad, but truly the most effective elements of this week’s episode are the bookends that open and close the show.
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
After the closing scene of “Dead Freight” it’s hard to focus on anything other than the implications of those final few seconds. The ‘wrong place/wrong time’ fate of the curious tarantula kid (Samuel Webb) we met riding his dirt bike in the cold open is sure to have water coolers buzzing today. Children caught in the crossfire of the drug world isn’t anything new for the Breaking Bad world, but I don’t think it’s been as astutely effective as it was in this episode. We can make arguments or even justifications for the adult deaths we’ve seen throughout the series, but bringing children into that mix is an entirely different story.
Consider these examples: Last season’s shocker that Walt (Bryan Cranston) poisoned little Brock (Ian Posada) with Lily of the Valley pretty much cemented Walt’s submission to the dark side. Although a murderer at the tender age of 11, Tomás’ (Angelo Martinez) death – possibly ordered by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) – was enough to think Fring capable of anything. And it sent shivers down my spine when Fring coolly threatened to kill Walt’s infant daughter Holly last season. Lydia’s (Laura Fraser) daughter has pulled on Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) heartstrings, saving her from execution (for now at least). Mike’s granddaughter is the underlying cause behind his acceptance to do the unthinkable – lie metaphorically in bed with Walt, the ticking time bomb. And the entire crux of the series, Walt’s foray into the meth world was ultimately motivated for the well-being of his children. There’s just something innate in us that feels compelled to take care of the children in our world. Their innocence trumps anything and everything.
Taking any life should be considered bad enough, but taking the life of a child? We’re on an entirely different level here. Which is why the swift execution of this innocent dirt bike bystander is sure to reverberate significantly throughout the characters’ lives in the next few episodes. For me, this plot point brings out some complex moral issues not only about the fictional characters, but the implications on me as a viewer. There’s been moments like this throughout the series – think back to S1 when Walt struggled with killing Krazy 8 (Max Arciniega) knowing that Walt’s entire family would likely die if he didn’t do the deed. It was a struggle rich with thought-provoking layers. I can’t say the situation was relatable, but we were definitely in ‘what would you do?’ territory.
There were shades of that debate in “Dead Freight” and I found myself asking “Well, what can they do?” when the little boy appeared. This spawned an extensive debate, going from “No, there must be another option” to “I don’t think there is” and “Are you actually advocating the murder of a completely innocent child?” The way in which the scene unfolds seems designed to promote an internal dialogue. We linger on Walt as he sees the child, not knowing what it is he’s staring at until the camera cuts to the kid. The boy innocently waves as Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt and Todd (Jesse Plemons) stare blankly in return. This quiet moment is heavy with tension as both the characters and viewers are likely processing the same questions I listed above. Even now, I still don’t know what side of the coin I fall on, which speaks volumes in terms of the efficacy of the show overall.
We’ve become so engrossed with the narrative that we can’t help but root for our main characters, another aspect I’ve been delightfully wrestling with for the past two seasons. As I mentioned during “Mission: Im-magnet-ble“, after being with Walt from day one, it’s impossible not to have a moments of wanting him to succeed, despite his recent descent into the reprehensible. ‘Dead Freight’ sets it all up again. How is it possible that we actually want the holy trinity of baldies to get away with this? Putting aside the whole getting stinking-rich-off-drug-addicts thing, the body count between the three of them alone is enough to make your head spin. But the fact of the matter is that we do care and we are invested in these characters. Truly, the nail in the coffin for any television drama is indifference. And being a viewer who is still thinking about this episode long after its broadcast – I’m hardly indifferent when it comes to Breaking Bad.
But the reason I’m so invested comes from the way the episode sets up those final seconds. Consider those POV shots we get as we see the boy ride through the desert. Ripping through the sands, we get some extreme close-ups through the handlebars and bike pedals. These shots are masterfully echoed as the train approaches in the episode’s third act, as we see it chugging along the tracks. These visual callbacks are not only stunningly executed, but their symmetry ties everything together seamlessly. When we see the poor kid waving to the gang after they celebrate their victory, the payoff is tragically mind-blowing. No extraneous dialogue is needed, no explanations – from the moment we see the kid again, we know what will follow.
Perhaps we’ve become too desensitized to this drug world and the murders necessary for the sake of ‘business’. (Case in point: Lydia’s interrogation/execution session turns out to be the episode’s comic relief). The murder of the dirt bike kid serves as a palate cleanser. In other words: Sh*t just got real.
- The train heist is pretty spectacular. We know something is going to go wrong, as nothing has ever gone 100% smoothly for Walt (foreshadowed ominously by Todd’s kiss-of-death statement during set-up: “You guys have thought of everything!”). From the slowly climbing gallon-meter-ticky-thing (totally a technical term…) to the cross-cutting between the broken-down truck and bumbling Kuby (Bill Burr) constantly making shifty eyes, the suspense is very adequately built throughout the scene.
- Just as Walt couldn’t resist turning up the magnet meter to full power back in ‘Live Free or Die’, he can’t resist taking at least 1000 gallons of methylamine, even after he took pains to tell Jesse that only 920 is needed. Do you think if Walt hadn’t held out for those few extra gallons, the dirt bike kid wouldn’t have discovered them? Unlikely, but we know that Walt’s greed is going to weigh on him (it certainly will for the others).
- It’s easy to point the finger at Todd for pulling the trigger, but make no mistake, everyone’s got blood on their hands. I really hope this doesn’t turn into a “Todd’s a psycho” argument. Of course, I’m looking straight at Jesse who has really become the only one with any kind of moral fibre. Todd may be a psycho, but he was explicitly told by Jesse and Walt that no one could discover the heist.
- Skyler’s (Anna Gunn) seemingly inconsequential statements earlier in the episode again carry significant weight. “Out burying bodies?” she asks after seeing the dirt and sand on Walt’s pants. “Robbing a train,” he curtly responds, not knowing that the two would turn out to be one and the same.
- Skyler also icily states she’ll be “Whatever kind of partner” Walt wants her to be as long as her kids are out of the house. I have no idea what Skyler’s next move is, but Hank (Dean Norris) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) can’t be a viable option for long.
- Walt sheds a few tears in Hank’s office the beginning of the episode, lamenting about how Skyler no longer loves him. Is this a genuine moment or simply a ploy to plant the bug and ghost Hank’s computer? Cranston plays up this moment so ambiguously he’s pretty much locked to get another Emmy nomination for this first half of S5.
- Speaking of that device Walt plants on Hank’s computer – it doesn’t strike me as the smartest of moves. How soon will that be discovered, especially with Walt’s fingerprints all over it? It’s almost as clumsy as putting a GPS on the outside of a methylamine barrel…
- One of the things I love most about these heists are how they read like they’re problems from high school math textbooks. Textbook manufacturers take note – I smell a Breaking Bad cross-promotion business opportunity here!
So what did you think viewers: were you, like me, stuck in a moral quandary after the episode? Were you on the edge of your seat during the train heist? I ask this every week, but do you think Junior will finally figure out what’s going on and end up being the key to Walt’s undoing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 10:00pm EST on AMC