Breaking Bad season 5 episode 5 review: Dead Freight

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.

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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.

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(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.

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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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