Review: ‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Dead Freight’

A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as my niece’s first words are “ASAC”…

“The point is, no one, other than us, can ever know that this robbery went down. Nobody. Got it?” -Jesse
“Yeah, absolutely.” -Todd
“Are you sure?” -Walt
“Yes, sir.” -Todd

Over the years, I have steadfastly insisted that anyone watching “Friday Night Lights” for the first time is better off suffering through the show’s giant misfire of a second season than skipping it, not only because of a handful of strong individual moments, but because if they don’t watch it, then they don’t get to make jokes about Landry Clarke killing people. And one of the unexpected joys of my TV fan life of the last five years has been telling many, many, many jokes about Landry as a serial killer, Landry on a 12-state murder spree, Jesse Plemons killing someone no matter what new role he’s been signed to play.

After the final scene of “Dead Freight,” I think I have to retire that joke.

It’s not just that for once, Plemons plays another character who actually does kill someone. It’s who he kills, and the circumstance under which he does it. It’s all fun and games when Lance is running around the country killing rapists, aliens, plumbing contractors, etc., and quite another when he’s gunning down some kid on a dirtbike who had the terrible fortune to be looking for spiders to add to his collection in the absolute wrong place and time.

That’s not funny. That’s as tragic and horrifying as the “Breaking Bad” creative team intended.

Similarly, Todd’s act at the end completely changes everything we think about “Dead Freight,” which to that point is practically a “Breaking Bad” romp. Though there’s some tension early on as the guys debate what to do with/to Lydia, and the usual frostiness between Walt and Skyler, the overwhelming emotion I felt throughout this one was giddiness.

Even more than the season premiere, this was a good old-fashioned caper story – a train robbery, for goodness’ sake, on a show that’s always had some Western roots – and in my running diary of the episode, I kept noting that longtime “Breaking Bad” writer George Mastras must have felt like a kid in a candy store (or a train store) when he got this as his first directing assignment ever. Once again, Walt and Jesse (and now Mike) are faced with an impossible problem – at least an impossible one if they wanted to avoid killing the two engineers – and once again, they figure out a way to solve it through brainpower. Cue gorgeous, Western-tinged cinematography (including Walt in his Heisenberg hat looking every bit the cowboy villain as he stands on the train tracks). Cue fun set-up montages. Cue tense but not dread-filled heist sequence, including the return of Bill Burr as Saul’s occasional errand boy Kuby. Cue Jesse, Walt and Todd gleefully celebrating, with Jesse only seconds away from letting off another “YEAH, SCIENCE!”

Cue Todd putting a bullet into a kid.

No, that’s not fun at all. And at this late stage of the series, that’s the point.

For a series with a reasonably high body count, “Breaking Bad” has always treated murder very seriously. Walt and Jesse tried for a very long time to avoid killing anyone who wasn’t a direct threat to them like Tuco; look at the hoops they jumped through in “Better Call Saul” just to keep from murdering Badger, when that’s the obvious play for any traditional drug crew. They’ve tried to rationalize their work, to separate themselves from the end user of their product (and when Jesse couldn’t, in an episode like “Peekaboo,” he at least made himself feel better by knowing the cops and social services are about to take the kid out of that environment). They make drugs, but they do not kill people, and when people have died – even if they were in some way tied to the drug game like Combo, Andrea’s little brother Tomas, Gale or even Jane – it hasn’t been quickly forgotten, but has given Walt pause, and emotionally devastated Jesse. But even those deaths could eventually be moved beyond. Combo was a drug dealer, as was Tomas (and Tomas killed Combo, to boot). Jane was a junkie. Gale cooked meth. They knew on some level what they were getting into.

Spider boy? Spider boy was just a little kid with horrible luck, and he’s dead, in part because Walt and Jesse made it abundantly clear to Todd that there could be no witnesses to this particular crime.

Walt and Jesse can act like they’re some morally-superior class of criminal, but crime is crime. When you tell a professional thief like Todd, who’s made it clear he’s trying to impress you, that no one can know about this robbery, what do you expect to happen if a kid on a dirtbike tools up?

I don’t know that this murder affects the current Walt/Jesse/Mike business model. As Walt said last week – before he knew how ironic those words would sound – “Nothing stops this train. Nothing.” But every now and then, Walt and Jesse have to have their illusions about their chosen profession shattered, and though the kid is someone they don’t know (and whom we only met briefly in what seemed at the time like a very odd pre-credits sequence), he’s still a kid. You don’t shrug that off lightly. You may go right back to cooking meth and divvying up the cash, but you don’t get to pretend you’re anything other than what you are.

We’ve been looking at the back of Walt’s head a lot this season, which on the one hand is a trademark of that other AMC show that wins a lot of Emmys, but which also is often used to introduce a major villain (Blofeld, Marcellus Wallace).

We may like Walt and Jesse to varying degrees because the actors and writers have done such a good job of making us understand them. And we may have gotten many thrills out of the many ways they’ve cheated death, defied the odds, and/or pulled off some incredible scheme. But we can’t pretend they’re something other than what they are. I’m reminded of the following exchange that Jesse and Walt had in the season 3 premiere:

“You either run from things, or you face them, Mr. White.”
“And what exactly does that mean?”
“I learned it in rehab. It’s all about accepting who you really are. I accept who I am.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m the bad guy.”

Great, great episode. So much fun, and then such a devastating but not unfair gut punch at the end.

Some other thoughts:

* I mentioned it briefly earlier, but this is one of the prettiest episodes the show has ever done, up there with the likes of “4 Days Out.” I’m tempted to watch it again with the sound off just so I can admire the train sequence some more.

* Though the hour is largely focused on the heist, we still get to see plenty of fallout from last week’s birthday fight between Skyler and Walt. Walter Jr. is confused and angry to be shut out of his own home, Marie and Hank aren’t sure what to do (but are enjoying having Holly around), and Skyler actually manages to get through to Walt for once by forcing him to realize that his career really does place the kids in danger. For the most part this season, Walt’s megalomania has blinded him to any potential blowback from his actions, so good on Skyler for piercing through his defenses and getting to think of himself as something other than the omnipotent Heisenberg.

* It’s also interesting to contrast the completely honest Walt/Skyler scene with Walt’s earlier visit to Hank’s office, where his tears and vulnerability are largely calculated to give Walt a few minutes alone with the computer, but where there’s just enough truth there to make the lie convincing. Walt isn’t pleased that his wife no longer loves him and has sent his kids away, but he’s never going to show Hank how he really feels about that. Some of Cranston’s best moments throughout the series involve Walt augmenting some elaborate lie with a splash of emotional truth.

* It took several episodes, but Lydia finally adds some value to the team by assisting with the train heist. She’s still a jittery mess, but who wouldn’t be if Mike was constantly threatening to shoot them in the head? I also laughed very hard at Lydia’s hiss of “asshole” when they discovered that it was the DEA, and not her, who put the GPS tracker on the barrel(s). Also, Lydia’s demand that Walt swear on the lives of his children suggests she watches too much “Survivor.”

* Back to Walter Jr., how long has it been since anyone last called him Flynn? I like the idea that Marie and Skyler revert to that nickname when he’s mad at his father – and it should be noted that Walt still insists on referring to his son as Junior.

* We get our second Pacino movie reference of the season, as Hank tries to get Flynn to watch “Heat” with him. It’s very easy to imagine Mike as the DeNiro character from that movie, who’s too smart and experienced to work with the likes of Walt and Jesse, but can’t help himself and is doomed as a result.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at