Breaking Bad season 5 episode 5 review: Dead Freight

Review Paul Martinovic 14 Aug 2012 - 07:45

Breaking Bad delivers another superb episode with the elegantly directed, ever-surprising Dead Freight. Here's Paul's review...

This review contains spoilers.

5.5 Dead Freight

Has there ever been a TV show that has taken such obvious delight in staying one step ahead of us? Obviously all dramatic writing aims to try and eschew all that’s predictable and obvious, but the writers of Breaking Bad execute their twists and surprises with the precision and timing of a bunch of old-timey stage magicians, and with no less amount of flourish. SEE! Walt and Jesse escape a surrounded camper van! MARVEL! At an impromptu craft knife throat-cutting! GASP! As we make this acid and corpse-filled bathtub…DISAPPEAR!

And here we are, deep into this truncated fifth season, and still these ‘rabbit-in-the-hat’ moments, if we’re keeping this tenuous magician analogy alive a bit longer, keep coming at us with what seems to be an ever-increasing ferocity. The biggest twist in Lost (the flash-forwarding conclusion to the third season finale Through The Looking Glass) was famously given the codename ‘the rattlesnake in the mailbox’ – the conclusion of Dead Freight, conversely, gave us a spider in a glass jar, and while it may not ultimately feel quite as much of a ‘game-changer’ for the series, the overall effect was just as deadly.

You have to give it up to the puppet-masters behind the scenes for coming up with such increasingly nasty methods for putting us through the ringer. ‘Calculated’ isn’t usually a word you heard thrown around as a compliment, but the calculation of Breaking Bad really is something to behold – so good, in fact, that it mostly deserves the comparison with Alfred Hitchcock that is so often lazily afforded to anything that’s a bit tense.

Like Hitch’s films, there’s the scope for psychologically rich and powerful character work here too, to say nothing of a remarkably sophisticated use of visual symbolism. But ultimately, both the best of Breaking Bad and the best of Hitchcock live for the visceral reaction– it’s drama made by master manipulators; sick, talented pranksters who aren’t afraid to break the rules if it gets a rise out of you.

With Hitchcock it was rules like “Don’t kill off your lead 30 minutes in”; with Breaking Bad it’s basic TV rules like “Don’t kill kids all the time”. Another doe-eyed pre-teen bit the dust this week, put down in his dirt-biking prime just for having the insanely bad luck to turn up at exactly the time and place that – let’s face it – the only meth-train siphon-robbery in history was taking place.

The amount of violence directed at kids during the course of Breaking Bad by this point is pretty staggering, and I’m pretty convinced now that this is some foreshadowing we should be paying attention to. Walt is now indirectly responsible for the death of two children (Spider Dirt-Bike and Andrea’s cousin, probably killed by Gus as an example in series 3), and was cavalier at best with the life of poor Brock at the end of last season.

You’d have to think Walt’s heading for an almighty chastening, and the only things that can be used as leverage against him are his kids - it’s not like he particularly cares about his own life, and he’s demonstrated a willingness to use every one else in his family as a pawn in his game. Skylar is right to hide Holly and Walt Jr away, even if her character is in danger of sounding like a broken record. Her dialogue this week was a little more on-the-nose and expositionary than is normally the case with Breaking Bad, and was essentially there to remind everyone that Walt has a problem at home that is just as big potentially as the ones at ‘work’. It did however allow for a beautiful exchange where Sklyar sarcastically suggested that the dirt on Walt’s trousers were from burying bodies, only for him to respond with a wonderfully ‘happy-now?’ reading of “robbing a train”. Only in Walt’s hands, and only in this relationship could a cold statement of fact be turned into such a withering put-down.

Oh yeah. There was a train robbery in this episode. After Walt, who has now developed some seriously impressive acting chops (he can cry on cue!), blindsides Hank with one of his most impressive portrayals of a pathetic loser to date (you can’t help but feel Hank draws the office blinds more out of his own embarrassment than Walt’s), he takes the opportunity to bug the hell out of his brother-in-law’s office, with even the family desk photo getting a thorough bugging. It’s through this that the boys find out that Lydia didn’t plant the trackers on the meth barrels after all, which grants her yet another stay of execution and, in turn, leading to the discovery of a train full of methylamine with a couple of security issues. Cue a lot of ears perking up and eyebrows being raised.

(Quick aside: in the scene with Walt and Lydia there seemed to be a seed of a potentially interesting partnership there. Despite her shrieky and annoying front, she displayed some surprising shrewdness: she knew immediately how much Walt’s word is worth – nothing – and was clever enough to appeal to his vanity (“If you’re the master chemist everyone’s been talking about…”). Now that Walt has realized that he has a potential ally against Mike – someone who has actually put a hit out on him – this has opened up another potential avenue for a solution to that pesky hazard pay problem…)

One of the funniest aspects of later series of Breaking Bad is how quickly and eagerly the jaded Walt and Jesse throw themselves into the most incredible situations: no sooner had someone muttered the words “meth train” before Jesse was all: ‘*points at Walt* Elaborate heist? *points at Mike* Elaborate heist?’

Thank god for their gung-ho attitudes, though, because it resulted in one of the best action sequences the show’s ever done. It was suspenseful, exciting, and shot and edited as wonderfully as ever, but the sequence and episode as a whole was lifted to another level by the shocking ending, which pulled off that brilliant trick of seeming to both come from nowhere and be the only possible logical conclusion.

Your experience may have differed, but I found the heist was built up to be so involving that I had forgotten all about the baffling (at the time) cold open, where we saw the ill-fated pre-pubescent playing with a hairy, menacing looking spider in the desert. This, I imagine, was exactly the point – a sublime piece of misdirection by writer and director George Mastras, who made his directorial debut here. I’d say he acquitted himself pretty well (you may have noticed me compare him to Hitchcock a few paragraphs ago), and some of the photography in the desert – particularly the shot of the team walking along the train track – was breathtakingly beautiful.

An even better piece of misdirection came in the form of Todd, the young man introduced in Hazard Pay as a low-level hood with an eye for detail. In his first scene with Walt and Jesse, he comes across as a star-struck, borderline groupie: “Wow! You guys think of everything!” Couple this with the fact that he’s portrayed by Jesse Plemons, one of the most likeable actors around, and someone dear to my heart as Friday Night Lights’ Landry, and the idea that he’s a psychopathic kid-murderer never really entered into my head. To me, he’ll always be an awkward math genius in a Christian rock band - so you can only imagine my surprise at recent events.

It also came out of left-field precisely because Todd is still ultimately a cipher at this point, with the audience being given almost nothing to work with in regard to his motivations, mental state, and so on. This means we can do nothing but speculate at this point as to why he did it – was it just to impress Walt and Jesse, to whom he looks up to as elder, more experienced gangsters? Or does his shoot-first, ask-questions-later instinct suggest a criminal past that would make Walt and Jesse’s exploits look childish by comparison? Either way, he’s another dangerously unstable element that’s just been added to a mixture that’s about to reach boiling point.

Taking a longer view, this is a huge moment for this season, which potentially has massive implications for the rest of the series. Not only is it by some distance the worst crime the team have been involved in thus far, one that’s sure to invite even more attention from the authorities, but the already fragile group dynamic between Walt, Jesse and Mike will take a big hit. Will it become Walt, Jesse, Mike and Todd? Or will they split up into morally-opposed pairs for the mother of all tag-team face offs?

Dead Freight ends on a close-up of that tricksy spider trying to escape its jar, and it’s a typically neat bit of symbolism from the writers. Exactly what it is meant to symbolize is, of course, open to your interpretation, although it’s safe to say the spider doesn’t represent sunshine and happiness. Ditto the jar.

Here’s something to think about, though: Spider Dirt-Bike is a mini thrill-seeker, bombing around the desert with the intention of finding and catching dangerous, potentially lethal spiders. We watch with baited breath as he plays with one, and are relieved when he puts it into a jar unharmed. But minutes later, Spider Dirt-Bike dirt-bikes into the wrong part of town and is dead.

Here’s a parallel story – Walt, by this point a dab hand at pulling off grand capers and extricating himself from impossible situations, is in the middle of an extremely dangerous drug heist, one that could endanger everything he’s worked for. When the heist is interrupted, he refuses to pull out, hanging in their until the very last second, endangering everybody’s lives, endangering the viewers’ nails, before the gang escape by the skin of their teeth. They get an opportunity to celebrate their victory briefly, then Spider Dirt-Bike enters stage left and everybody’s world changes.

The moral of this story is – you can’t harness danger. You can’t escape evil. You can’t escape death. You can try – but there’s only so many times you can laugh in the face of the forces of darkness before they come for you.  These things have a way of working themselves out. The puppet-masters will see to that.

Read Paul's review of last week's episode, Fifty-One, here.

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Thanks again for such a brilliant review of what is the best TV show around, always look forward to reading your take on it after watching. I gotta say that ending had me shocked, never saw that coming at all, even though it was so masterfully set up. I think this is a massive turning point for the show and the fact that Mike wasn't there when it happened will make his reaction interesting to say the least! Also the point where Walt questions Todd's conviction for keeping the heist between them and only them could be seen as a catalyst for what happened...but who knows.

Where are the last 3 episodes of this mini-season going to lead us? I don't think they can put off Hank's discovery of Walt until the last couple of episodes, so I would hazard that in three weeks time we could see fireworks, then 12 months to wait until the last 8 episodes! GRRRRRR! Hank seemed a little lingering on Walt's watch. I don't know, I've given up trying to second-guess this show...

"seeming to both come from nowhere and be the only possible logical conclusion.".....couldn't have said it better

great episode, and insightful review as ever. BUT BUT BUT, who said the kid is dead?? Wouldn't it be even more nail-biting in the next episode if the kid isn't dead? On the scale of Breaking Bad hideously violent crime, this mini-series has been tame so far...(Not really trying to suggest that if the kid isn't dead one of the team would try and finish him off, but.....remember what Mike said about not leaving witnesses)...
Someone (possibly reviewer) mentioned the Hamlet scenario last week - (Hamlet (Walt - or Jessie??) sole survivor in a kingdom of it possible we could get to that by the end of this mini-series? leaving the second mini-series to 'clear-up' with the DEA?

Walt's to Hank : "sorry to come out of the blue..." nice reference to the meth business as well and it's the second time this season, a movie reflects the action of the characters, here "Heat" (Hank rent a DVD) and Scarface (with the BFG in the season opening)...ah...cant wait for the end!

I was watching this episode with a friend who had never seen it before, He wouldnt stop talking as he had no relationship to the characters until they had Lydia in a warehouse and Mike gave it the whole "I will pull out my pistol and shoot you in the head", from then he sat in silence right until they escaped the heist and it was a success, my friend remarked "that was clo" and literally mid sentence the Kid was shot and he looked at me to say "why" i just looked at him and said "Breaking bads f*?ck*!ng awesome"

Those spiders aren't dangerous, but impressive looking. I think we were meant to identify with the care the kid exercised in handling the spider so as not to harm it - no thrill-seeking. We are meant to realise he knows about spiders and respects nature. This goes more to highlighting the shocking ending (we aren't meant to think of the kid as himself a thrill-seeker).

I thought the character of Todd, the whole time I was watching the train robbery scene, was an undercover narc and that this would all be revealed in a later episode... but that theory was shot all to hell as soon as he shockingly shoots the spider-bike kid. Once again Breaking Bad threw me for one hell of thrilling loop!!! Greatest show of all time!!!! And thanks, Paul, for another outstanding review!

The thing that really hit me after the ending was the parallel to Todd's disabling of the nanny cam, how Todd, without even understanding the situation took the initiative. Walt praised him for that, it's the reason he was there in the heist, because he takes the initiative even without understanding the situation. So when a witness comes along, doesn't matter who it is, he takes the initiative.

I also thought Todd was sure to be a narc! The scene where Walt and Jesse explain the whole heist to him seemed to me like they were taking him into their confidences WAYYYY too quick! But then Todd acting without checking with his superiors first... a big no no. Remember what happened to Victor? Wonder if Walt will take a cue from how Gus handled THAT situation... ruh roh.

Skylar asked Walt before he left if he was going to be "burying bodies"....He replied "robbing a train"...nothing to do with mud on his tousers.

I think Walt can be considered as being indirectly responsible for more than two kids deaths. What about the plane crash? A few hundred people died then, children included. (side note: the town's recovered really really quickly from that considering it's less than a year) And as a meth dealer, surely he's killing people every week, many of whom would have children...

I'm glad your friend became a fan of the series, but it is also somewhat of a shame that he saw the show so far into the series without having followed these characters since the beginning, particularly in such a game-changing episode. Nevertheless, I hope it prompts him to get caught up... 4 seasons in 5 days? I'd say doable.

I almost look forward to reading these reviews as much as each upcoming episode. Only the writers for this show could have devised not only a stunningly elaborate heist sequence, but also have built in a shocking plot-twist that I don't think any of us saw coming. I was so concerned about the logistics of the heist, that I didn't realize there was an entirely new (and tragic) piece of the plot waiting to fall into place. I've never been so anxious to see where the story leads, and that's saying a lot when it comes to a show like BB!

In fairness, they don't really show much of the townspeople that often, and it doesn't do the show many favors to dwell on the plane crash anyway. Not to mention, the people of the town weren't actually the ones killed, so although it would certainly be upsetting and disturbing, I find it believable that it wouldn't take long to go back to a fairly normal routine.

I actually thought that Todd was going to be on Walt's sh*t list because Mike had just given that big speech about never talking to Walt and Jesse. When walt asked Todd's name, I thought that was going to be bad news for him. Turns out, this show keeps on surprising me in the best of ways.

I think that I avoided that conclusion subconsciously because it would have been too obvious for a show like this. New guy comes in... they ask if he's going to tell anyone... he says he won't... then he tells someone and they get busted. Lesser shows would have gone down that road, but we are talking about BB here.

Okay I'm going to make a prediction right here and now. Before I do that, last night I watched "Fifty-One" and "Dead Freight" again and at the end of "Fifty-One" Walt makes an interesting comment. After Mike wants to kill Lydia and Walt puts his vote with Jesse's "no," he says something along the lines of: "Nothing is going to stop this train." Nice foreshadowing there of the train heist in the following episode. Okay here's my prediction: Hank is already suspicious of Walt. He's way more intelligent than any one gives him credit for... and he's a stellar cop. He's already suspecting that Walt is Heisenberg, but he cant tell any one this...but with the troubles with Skyler and the cars and the watch, things arent adding up. He suspects even further when Walt show up and puts the act on in his office. He closes the blinds, not because he's embarrassed but because he thinks that's what Walt wants him to do for whatever reason, and gives Walt the alone time that he wants: the cop's instinct in Hank. He sees Walt tinkering with the picture frame when he comes in and...after Walt leaves he finds the bug (revealed in a later episode) and plays along. He gets the cops who supposedly planted the GPS in the meth barrel to say they put it there, when the whole time it was actually Lydia, making Mike's initial assessment that it was her in fact correct. Mike is a great criminal with great instincts, as much as Hank is a great cop. This will all start to unravel towards Walt's undoing in the end: a la "Scarface" for Walt / a la "Heat" for Hank...both movies with Al where Al Pacino's character (the "bad guy") dies in the end, another where his character (the "good guy" / cop) defeats the bad guy.... as much as Walt is brilliant, so is Hank....and it will be a showdown between the two of them.

Godammit when Todd waved back at the kid I laughed at how cute it was then BAM!
One of those sat in silence while the credits roll moments.

And to add to my prediction, Hank will eventually interrogate Beneke at some point, partly to find out if Skyler's infidelities with him is correct, but then he's going to wonder how he's in the state he's in and dig deeper into the truth about Walt.

In addition, I dont think the ticking watch at the end of "Fifty-One" symbolized that Walt is running out of time (even though he most assuredly is), but more of a metaphor that he's a "ticking time-bomb" that will soon Mike suggested in the first episode of Season 5.

The part of the episode that freaked me out most was when Todd shot the kid Walt didn't even flinch. That more than anything else shows how far walt has fallen

I just watched this moment again, but the camera is actually not on Walt after the shot. His facial expression isn't shown, except for him opening his mouth in the split-second before the shot. You must be mistaken, however I can imagine your confusion. I almost fell off my chair when I saw this. :)

However the silence among all three of them preceding the gunshot is uncanny as this is the moment when characters and viewers alike realize that this kid is going to pose big problems.

What happens now is hard to predict. I expect Mike to stand up for Todd because they both fell from the same tree. What Todd did was the only real option for that matter.

No one mentioned the option of this kid surviving up to this point. I think it's not unlikely, there will be more loose ends to tie up.

It may be that there are actually two versions if this episode. If that's the case, my bad. I didn't see Walt's face after the shot in my version anyway. Now I feel like I missed something!

It has everything to do with committing another crime.

I agree. Hank knows. There are a couple of scenes where I can see it in his eyes for a second.

Definitely do-able. I won't divulge how quickly I forced my TV addict brother to catch up in time for the beginning of Season 5, but let's just say it would have probably contravened the Geneva Convention on human rights. There was an IV involved to, for maximum nourishment efficiency. (Just joking...)

Late as usual guys- but i agree with a few other posts, the boys death or survival i think is inconclusive- maybe we find out next week? Anyway this is one of the best eps ever -the second half with the heist was just amazing. the only thing i hate about this episode is now we've seen we'll never get to experience that shock moment ending again. i live for that stuff yo!

Try telling that to the residents of Lockerbie.

As I said, it's not that the event wouldn't have a deep and lasting effect on people. It's that in this fictional story, there's not necessarily a need to show its effects over a long period of time. And who knows, the event could be referenced during this season. The show is known to bring back past plot lines, such as Gray Matter.

It must be a blast for the writers of this show... and also a LOT of pressure to live up to its crazy high expectations. So far, the show has delivered in spades. I would be sad to see Saul die, and I don't think he will. Sure, he's technically a "bad" guy, but he has a heart in there somewhere. I can't wait until Hank somehow finds out. They threw me for a great loop when I thought Marie was going to be the first person to find out. But as always, Walt manages to foil her plan, even if he's not actually there!
Genius show, genius writing. This season is blowing my mind.

why on earth did he feel the need to shoot the kid? It's not like the kid would have a clue that they were even doing anything wrong or feel the need to tell people about what eh saw. Worst case scenario he says "mum I saw some guys working down by the rail roads today" and she replies "that's nice"

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