Eventually, Breaking Bad had to air a fifth season episode that didn't do much for me, and "Dead Freight" is it. Written and directed by series co-producer George Mastras, this account of Walt, Mike, Jesse, and a couple of helpers robbing methylamine from a freight train is a wizardly example of action filmmaking craft, laying out what precisely what needs to happen for the heist to be a success, then bringing in marvelous curveballs, the last of which is a doozy. But all in all, I found this episode unsatisfying because it pushes Breaking Bad deeper into the realm of action fantasy — so deep that at times I felt like I was watching a long-lost episode of Fox's initially promising series Human Target, or maybe MacGyver or something.
Before we go any further, I'll define what I mean by plausible. I'm not saying that this show, or any show, should confine itself solely to depicting events that might conceivably happen in "real life." That would be boring, and Breaking Bad isn't a faux documentary. It has already established itself as a show that takes place in sort of a parallel universe — one in which, during the space of a year, a rogue chemistry teacher could be stricken with cancer, beat it into remission, build up a crystal meth empire, and set off a chain of bloody events that would make a Mexican drug lord read about it on Yahoo News and think, "Wow, the Yankees are really ramping it up."
What I'm saying is that even a show that's built around crime and violence and subterfuge establishes a consistent baseline of plausibility, so that the viewer feels comfortable accepting that certain events could happen within the context of this particular show. I've been willing to buy pretty much every violent event that Breaking Bad has presented thus far, because even if the action was spectacular (the midair collision, which was more an example of chaos theory than a direct result of Walt's shenanigans; Hank's nasty shoot-out with the cousins; Walt blowing up Tuco's office and the nursing home and Gus's lab) the circumstances were somewhat intimate. When I watched Walt, Jesse, Mike, and the gang digging holes in the desert with a steam shovel and somehow getting a freight train to stop exactly where they needed it to stop in order to siphon the chemicals and replace them with water delivered via tanker truck into the middle of friggin' nowhere ... I'm sorry, the more details I list, the sillier the whole thing seems. I think the episode lost me during the scene where the gang studies a map and declares that a particular spot is best for the heist because it's in "dark territory," terrain that can't be accessed by communications. This phrase appeared in the title of a certain Steven Seagal movie. That's not an association that Breaking Bad should willingly invoke. It announces that the show has officially left the realm of the real, as the show defines it, and entered Michael Bayville.
After a characteristically mysterious and foreshadow-y teaser — a boy on a bike ripping through the desert, then catching a tarantula in a jar — the episode tripped my "Seriously?" detector. Walt stops by Hank's office at the DEA to congratulate him on his new supervisory gig, thank Hank and Marie for watching the kids, and have an alleged heart-to-heart talk about Skyler that's really a pretext to bug Hank's office. The wide shot of Hank lowering the blinds was lovely, and Bryan Cranston's dime-switch from agonized tears to poker-face bug-planting was brilliant and funny ("She says I'm a bad influence on the kids … "), but the whole scene felt too sitcom-ish to me, almost like a gambit Don Adams might have tried on Get Smart. ("Um, what are you doing with that picture of me and Marie, Walt?" "Wouldja believe … pining for my lost matrimonial bliss?")
And Lydia, oh Lydia. Can we just agree that her character is a mess — a plot utility with a name? Elsewhere she comes off as a bit of a bumbler, more desperate and brazen than smart. She tries to have her co-workers whacked in a cockamamie murder-for-hire scheme that she seems to have cooked up by watching much dumber TV shows than Breaking Bad. And she's so rattled by the ongoing investigation of Madrigal that she shows up at the office in mismatched shoes. But in this episode she's sharp-witted enough to bluff her way through a scripted phone call with Hank under threat of being shot to death. And in the scene where she and the guys are planning the methylamine heist, she seems as icy-cool as Lee Marvin planning the final assault in The Dirty Dozen. ("I'm telling you, it's the perfect place.") She even volunteers to personally deliver the cargo manifest to verify that Mike, Walt, and Jesse will be robbing the right train.
The train heist itself is, as I said up top, beautifully executed, both narratively and by the characters. We know exactly what needs to be done, and we understand what's happening as the crew executes each step of its plan. Mastras's direction is crystalline. The performances are superb, taking advantage of lively character beats; I was especially fond of the nail-biting end bit where Mike and Jesse want to detach the hose, but Walt keeps telling Jesse to wait until the tank has hit just the right refill point.
But for me, these pleasures didn't balance out the sequence's fundamental ludicrousness. These guys are smart and gutsy, if admittedly a bit too convinced of their own infallibility, but I didn't buy that they would have the technical knowledge to pull off every single thing they pulled off, as deftly as they pulled it off. And they brought in so many ringers, including the water truck driver, the steam shovel operator, the guy who pretends his truck has broken down, and the hothead who shoots the kid at the end, that the whole thing felt like an A-Team plotline. When the water truck pulled up, I half expected Mr. T to step out of it.
The ending was shocking, it'll set up fun complications in future episodes, and it makes for an intriguing if ghastly thought experiment: If you were Walt, who has murdered lots of people and tried to poison a child, and Jesse, who's killed at least one person face-to-face, and your heist was interrupted by some random kid, what would you do? Let him go and hope for the best? Take him hostage and terrorize him into silence? Kill him by gunshot or in some other way that appeared accidental? Alas, Walt and Jesse didn't have to confront any of these eventualities because their red-headed helper took the initiative and killed the witness. This felt like a cop-out. Breaking Bad has always had a great track record of forcing its lead characters to make tough, even reprehensible choices, but here that choice was taken out of their hands. Now the question isn't what to do about the boy, but what to do about his murderer, and the answer seems self-evident: kill him and dispose of both bodies. The shooter is Breaking Bad's version of a red-shirted security guy on the old Star Trek. I bet he won't last ten minutes into the next episode. As is often the case, Jesse will pay the the greatest emotional toll, because he's going to feel responsible for the kill shot, having told the shooter, "No one, other than us, can ever know this robbery went down." But I'm not looking forward to seeing Jesse in another crisis-of-conscience. The sight is always wrenching — Aaron Paul might be the best TV weeper since Claire Danes — but I think the show might already have gone to that well too often. (Maybe he'll be troubled by how untroubled he is; that'd be a nice twist.)
If you loved this episode, I'm sure this recap is making cartoon steam clouds come out of your ears, so go ahead and let me have it in the comments section. I'd love to hear a strong defense of an installment that struck me as beautifully crafted but ultimately a mistake from which the series will be lucky to recover.
Odds and ends
- I liked the tension in this week's Skyler-Walt confrontation, and I laughed at the exchange about Walt's dirty hands. ("Out burying bodies?" "Robbing a train.") But I thought Skyler's monologue setting the parameters of their partnership was as clunkily expository as the dialogue in last week's showdown was precise and unnerving. And when Skyler decreed the kids had to keep living with Hank and Marie in order for her to remain a partner in the drug business, Walt's reply struck me as a screenwriter's tactical blunder. An episode whose main plot requires Mission: Impossible super-competence should not have the hero telling his wife, "You've seen too many movies."
- The Jesse James reference this week was a nifty callback to one of Mike's earlier cutting remarks to Walt: "Just because you shot Jesse James doesn't make you Jesse James." It also felt like a premonition of Walt's downfall — maybe it'll be Jesse who pulls the trigger, while Walt is hanging a picture? Though of course the exact nature of said downfall, if there is a downfall, cannot be predicted by us puny mortals.
- None of the bits with Walt, Marie, and the pissed-off Walt, Jr. worked for me. I just didn't buy a second of any of it. This "send the kids to live with their aunt and uncle" thing is just not working from a plot standpoint. Somehow I just don't believe in it.
- I didn't care for the "stranded" truck driver's insistence that he knew nothing about the mechanics of his own vehicle. It seemed like the sort of subterfuge that would set off the train crew's b.s. detectors anyway, and the actor playing the truck driver didn't do a very good job of convincing me otherwise; some of his ad-libs had a Fletch-like quality.
- Shot-of-the-week (camera shot, that is) came in the scene where Mike and Walt argue about the business. (Mike: "Making less money is better than making nothing." Walt: " ... because of your nine guys in lockup, right?") The slow dolly-in to a close-up of Jesse was a visual callback to his "magnets" epiphany in "Live Free or Die," a scene in which Jesse was likewise placed center-frame in the background, like a dominated son caught (figuratively and visually) between two bad daddies.
- Over the last five seasons, Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston have proved themselves baby whisperers of the highest order, carrying out elaborately choreographed onscreen action while toting very tiny people around as comfortably as real parents might their own offspring. This week Dean Norris stepped up to the plate and hit a "gitchy-gitchy-goo" home run. At least part of this is thanks to the fact that the producers always keep multiple babies on hand for the domestic scenes — which means if one of them is acting up, they can just slot in another — but still, kudos. Like a sense of humor and sex appeal, baby-wrangling ability is something that can't be faked. Ya either got it or ya don't.