the best of tv

Breaking Bad’s George Mastras on the Train-Heist Sequence, the Year’s Most Suspenseful Scene

Photo: AMC

A whistle blows. We pan out to see the beautiful, cactus-flecked Southwestern landscape, and follow that with POV shots from a train winding through a canyon, its wheels sweeping miles of sage brush. The camera swoops below the tracks to reveal Walt, Jesse, and Todd huddling together, tensely waiting to boost large quantities of methylamine from the locomotive above — “like soldiers in World War I in the trenches, only holding hoses,” laughs Breaking Bad’s George Mastras, who wrote and directed “Dead Freight,” the Breaking Bad episode in question. Speaking to Vulture, even Mastras agrees that, on paper, Walt’s plan to rob a train sounds as absurd as a comical scheme cooked up by Boris and Natasha (and even more complicated than Operation Magnets): The gang’s mission is to stop a freight train as it is passing through an area where communications don’t work by creating a distraction that provides them with just enough time to siphon off a ton of chemicals and replace those chemicals with water from tanks that the gang had previously buried in the desert ground beneath the train tracks. But somehow Mastras and his Breaking Bad pals turned this potentially shark-jumping scenario into a dread-filled thriller of a sequence that was the most suspenseful TV scene of the past year.

The heist, not surprisingly, had its origins in the Breaking Bad writers room, where it was decided that Walt’s real-world problem in attempting to run a Gus Fring–sized drug empire would be a matter of supply. Ripping off a train car seemed a challenge befitting Walt’s out-of-control ego, Mastras explains, although initially the writers were thinking even bigger. “We thought there might be a helicopter involved,” he says. “I think I even pitched something where they would be driving up on those little ATVs and jumping off onto the moving train.” But with Jesse James on the brain (and a limited TV budget at their disposal), they went for a more straightforward boosting. The scenes were shot over four days outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, along the same private spur line used for the train-hopping scene in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Finding the trestle bridge was an unexpected bonus, and it became a story point. “By serendipity, there it was,” laughs Mastras. “When I originally envisioned the scene, we were burying the tanks for the water and methylamine and putting up tumbleweeds or something to hide them. This worked out better. The perfect trench and an iconic piece of Western imagery.”

To make the scene work as a demonstration of how big Walt’s head had gotten, Mastras had to make sure such a robbery was even remotely plausible, so he and his fellow writers pored over the mechanics of how methylamine is shipped and what would need to happen for someone to snatch it. Much of that was explained in the original script, he says, but some of the dialogue was ultimately cut for time and simplicity. But technically, it could happen!

“Someone like Lydia would have had a special license from the DEA to move the stuff around, and she would have known which car it was in, the kind of gear they’d need, how many feet it was,” Mastras says. “They’d know how far to measure back from the crossing to where they’d need to bury the tanks.” After that, it would be up to Walt to get in his own way. “When Jesse is freaking out because he can feel the train begin to move, and he’s beneath the undercarriage, but Walt’s telling him to wait so they get in the exact amount of water? That’s the whole thing,” he says. “That’s where Walt’s ego is. He lets the train roll right over Jesse!” The crew had some help from digital effects for that, but Mastras notes that “Aaron would also totally have fit under the train.”

To accompany the action, Mastras knew he wanted to hear something rhythmic that built in little peaks of suspense. Series composer Dave Porter wrote a pulsating thirteen-minute piece befitting a wacked-out Western. “There are several near-misses,” he says. “Maybe the train won’t stop? Maybe Jesse gets crushed because Walt’s being an egomaniac? I wanted the music to rise and fall and ultimately crescendo into them pulling this crazy thing off.” He also knew that for the sequence’s gut-punch finale of Todd (Jesse Plemons) killing the kid who stumbles onto them, the music needed to drop out entirely just as the train-robbing trio finished their celebratory howling. “I just wanted that put, put, put of the motorbike,” he said.

Todd’s knee-jerk move to shoot the young kid was hotly debated by the writers. The original plan was for the crime to go off without a hitch — but that didn’t sit well with Mastras. “Our show has always been about consequences,” he says, “so I kept pitching the idea of an innocent dying. Walt’s gonna become Heisenberg — but at what cost? What will happen to them once an innocent is killed? Up until that point, that hadn’t happened yet. It made for a really intense ending.”

The Year’s Most Suspenseful Scene