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‘Breaking Bad’ Talk: “Dead Freight”

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Welcome to ‘Breaking Bad‘ talk! Each week we’re joined by two critics to discuss the latest episode. In this week’s episode, “Dead Freight,” Walt, Jesse, and newcomer Todd orchestrate a Jesse James-inspired train heist in the most entertaining — and jaw-dropping — episode so far this season.

ScreenCrush editor Britt Hayes is joined this week by Renn Brown and our own Jacob Hall. Renn is a contributing editor at CHUD and you can tweet him @RennBrown. Jacob also writes for Movies.com and you can tweet him @JacobSHall. You can tweet Britt @MissBrittHayes.

Britt: This week’s episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ was the most intense one yet this season, and I want to start by talking about that strange cold open that the rest of the episode worked so hard to make us forget until the jaw-dropping conclusion. These cold opens have become a ‘Breaking Bad’ trademark, and you can always tell you’re in for a special episode when we’re introduced to something or someone we don’t recognize, particularly in a foreign location. How did you guys feel about the opening? Did you forget all about it as the episode progressed like I did?

Jacob: It was always lingering in the back of my mind, mainly because I found myself over-analyzing it over the commercial break. Since the poor kid hears a train whistle and the episode starts to set up a train robbery fifteen minutes later, I knew something was going to happen. Was I expecting ‘Friday Night Lights’’ Landry Clark to gun the kid down in cold blood? Nope. That part hit me like a truck… or a thousand gallon tank of methylamine, if you want a more specific simile.

But seriously: no one does cold opens like ‘Breaking Bad’ and this one, while rather innocuous at first, became one of their all-time best in hindsight.

Renn: I certainly wasn’t as fixated on it as Jacob, but when the cold opening featured nothing of narrative consequence, it was clear there was trouble afoot. That said, I was definitely too wrapped up in the caper to keep the ill-fated kid in mind, especially as the episode developed more into Walter’s Eleven, with Matt Damon’s part filled by that guy who looks kinda like him (Jesse Plemons).

Britt: I was briefly worried about the fate of my favorite nervous neurotic, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, this week when it seemed as though Walt and Mike had outvoted Jesse and she might get shot in the head. Jacob, we spoke last week about who we thought was responsible for the tracking device, and you thought it was Lydia, while I thought it might be a third party, and we were both wrong — it was the cops. Do we think Lydia has an expiration date? How long can she keep the vengeful and determined Mike at bay?

Jacob: I think Lydia is going to be around for awhile, mainly because we’ve seen another unstable, controlling and neurotic character survive for over four seasons now: Walt. Remember when Walt suggested to Jesse that Mike’s time may be running out? Well, Lydia agrees. Even more, Lydia and Walt agree that Mike’s guys in jail need to be taken out of the picture. They’re natural allies. Sure, they may have almost killed her, buy Walt and Lydia are very much on the same page and I think they may be a force to be reckoned with. Mike may be a pro, but pros can’t fight the unpredictable and irrational. Gus Fring learned that the hard way.

If you’ll allow me to switch gears for a moment, I think Renn’s ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ joke is apt. For most of the running time, this episode was just plain fun — a borderline jolly lark after last week’s exercise in grim gut-punching. It was less ‘Heat’ and more ‘The Sting’: a bunch of guys we like going on a criminal misadventure together. And then the ending comes, a kid lies dead in the dirt and we realize that the show has punished us for reveling in and enjoying these (mostly) heartless criminals. What did you guys think of this final reversal? Did you feel guilty for laughing and cheering Jesse’s “Yeah bitch!” from mere moments before? Oh, and insert “Jesse Plemons Kills Again!” joke here.

Britt: I’m totally on board with the need to address Jesse Plemons’ shocking act of violence. And here I had thought that my boy Landry Clark was done with the killing, and then he goes and pulls the trigger on this kid. All it took was Vince Gilligan to make Landry seem evil to me. And you’re right — the train heist was so exhilarating that when Todd pulls his gun out and shoots the kid (in one fluid motion! No hesitation!) it’s that much more shocking and hard to stomach. I immediately gasped when the kid showed up, thinking, how are these guys going to get out of this one? But I shot right up in my seat and my jaw met the floor when Todd pulled out his gun.

And poor Jesse! First that drug-dealing kid gets killed, then Brock almost dies — we know how Jesse feels about the lives of innocent people, especially kids. And we saw how Mike reacted when Lydia played the mom card. I think — or at least, I hope — that this marks a turning point. Maybe now, when Jesse sees how Walt sides with Todd in this situation (because obviously, right?), he’ll understand why Mike is the better role model.

Renn: Walt’s puffed-up facade of villainy this season suggests Jesse may have some competition for Walt’s fatherly affections (which they were sure to dial up in this episode and the last). Mr. White may be less shocked by the violence as impressed by Todd’s unhesitating pragmatism, and someone who fashions himself a criminal emperor definitely needs someone ready for wet work. I foresee a re-splintering of the super-cook partnership, and I think Britt has it right that Jesse and Mike will find themselves on similar sides of a drawn line, perhaps with Walt and his new scrunchy-faced helper on the other.

As for the robbery in general, and the choice to punctuate it so mercilessly. It definitely seems like a natural extension (and pretty brilliant pay-off) to the increased dynamic range of this season. When the show returned it immediately dialed into some exceptionally heavy stuff, setting up a truly untenable dynamic between Walt And Skylar (which this episode partly stabilized) but balancing it with some bigger-scale capers (as Mike so pointedly put it). Twice Jesse James has been name-checked this season and lo and behold, a show about meth manufacturers pulls off a train heist. Mad props are due to Gilligan for dialing up the scale and entertainment value of the show’s set pieces without failing to — as Jacob pointed out — subvert our enjoyment.

It’s interesting — this episode marked me catching on to a pattern of repeated imagery within the show. First we have a kid on a bike (complete with wheel-mounted camera angle) meeting a harsh end with a focus on Jesse’s reaction, we have the second Jesse James reference, and finally we have Jesse’s second — if you’ll forgive a ‘Men In Black’ reference — “Hey! Old guys! Those still work..?” moment.

Britt: Good call on the repetition. I did notice how Mike and Walt were bickering with Jesse in the background quietly coming up with a solution. I half-expected him to shout “MAGNETS, YOU GUYS! MAGNETS!”

And I so enjoy the idea of Mike and Jesse vs. Walt and Todd. Two younger criminal ne’er do wells with their dangerous and bald father figures. Four men enter. I don’t care what happens, as long as Jesse lives. I love that young man too much now.

Jacob: Renn, I will always allow ‘Men in Black’ references in ‘Breaking Bad’ chat. Always. Not sure about Britt, though.

I think you both are right: Todd and Walt are natural born partners. Todd is a natural brown-noser (“You guys thought of everything!”) who will treat Walt like boss, but he also wouldn’t be above dropping poison in Brock’s lemonade (that’s how I always pictured it happening). What’s especially maddening is how easy a natural bulls—ter like Walt could have talked them out of that situation. Tell the kid “We’re engineers and we just fixed the train! Wasn’t that cool!” and he would’ve bought it, hook, line and sinker. Todd’s actions were the kind of thing Tuco would have approved of… and  we’ve come far enough for us to say that Walt will approve, too.

Did anyone else love the return of Saul’s go-to criminal actor? His name is escaping me right now, but we’ve seen him play the “state inspector” at Bogdan’s car wash, the hilariously over-the-top tough guy who accompanied Huell to Ted’s house and now, the least-helpful truck driver of all time. This show could’ve always coasted on Cranston, but instead, it’s built one of the all-time best ensembles around him.

Britt: Kuby! His name is Kuby!

Renn: Bill Burr! He’s magnificent.

Jacob: Outside of the core trio, we have the junkyard gang who can build anything, the pest crew who move and store their lab (and occasionally kill children) and Team Saul, which includes all kinds of professional ne’er do wells. Whatta’ great team.

Britt: That whole train heist scene was incredibly intense and exciting. I loved the camerawork and the different crazy POV shots (Michelle MacLaren again?), but what struck me most during the sequence was Walt’s inability to leave the job incomplete. He endangered the lives of Todd and Jesse, but once again, Jesse doesn’t get it. He’s just happy to have made it out alive and accomplished their goal. Walt’s stubbornness knows no bounds.

Jacob: I love Michelle MacLaren too, but this episode was the directorial debut of longtime show writer George Mastras. It says a lot about how good his work is that you thought it was MacLaren’s! He brought a great western feel to the whole thing (Heisenberg on the tracks pre-heist was epic).

The real tragedy here is that Jesse trusts Walt so much (and Todd wants to be his guy so much) that they’re both willing to overlook his irresponsible tendencies and chalk their survival up to his leadership. Mike is the only one wise enough to see through it.

Renn: I’ve frankly been concerned with Walt’s development this season, as the switch Gus’ death flipped in him has come across so obviously as a facade of badassery. With obvious lines like “because I said so” building Walt up as a guy very much high on his own supply, he was bordering on a cartoon chicken with a puffed up chest waiting for a pin to reach in and deflate him. I like the more subtle approaches to his ruthlessness, as demonstrated by the stubbornness Britt points out and the bugging of Hank’s office — that feels like legitimate, calculated villainy to me. It’s sustainable. Otherwise I’m just waiting for Walt to get his ass inevitably handed to him in every episode. I expect something a bit less broad from these guys.

Britt: I’m thinking Hank is probably going to find that bug in his office.

Renn: Hmm, the DEA stumbling on a clue hidden in a picture frame… That would be another bit of interesting repetition, no?

It would be exceptionally unwise for Walt to leave it there. He’s not only risking Hank finding it — and he will — but he’s risking running off false intelligence, even if Hank doesn’t immediately pin it on Walt.

That said, I get the impression it was a one-off kind of scheme. I expect we’ll see them tune in to Hank at DEA.fm again, but surely they’ve got to come to the conclusion that the bug’s gotta go. Perhaps they’ll allude to ‘The Sopranos’ and have the picture frame be unceremoniously removed from the equation like the downstairs lamp!

Jacob: Interesting that you allude to ‘The Sopranos,’ another ridiculously entertaining show that often paused to rub our noses in our heroes’ despicable behavior.

There’s no way that Hank doesn’t find the bug and I strongly believe that there’s no way Hank sees the final episode. Like Walt, he’s full of bluster, but like Walt, there’s a man in masterful control of his craft underneath the exterior.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for Hank and Marie, but I loved seeing them as temporary parents. And then there’s Hank renting ‘Heat,’ which features a heist that goes wrong when a new guy executes an innocent. Hmm, first ‘Scarface’ and now this? What do you think of these movie choices?

Britt: Good observation with the film choices! I think this stuff always has the potential of being too on the nose, but I like that this season is keen on parallels and repetition, showing us how things have a way of happening again and again. Just like Walt’s cancer, perhaps? I get the feeling this show could possibly end sort of ambiguously — like ‘The Sopranos!’ — with Walt’s cancer playing a role in that.

I really liked Hank and Marie as surrogate parents to Holly, and this week everyone is referring to Walt Jr. as Flynn again, so there’s…. that.

Renn: Good call on the ‘Heat’ parallel. Considering the pitch for the show was Mr. Chips becomes ‘Scarface,’ I had quite a laugh when the latter showed up so explicitly a few episodes ago. These kinds of allusions are more DNA this show shares with ‘The Sopranos,’ as you’ll recall the penultimate episode ending with Tony ascending a staircase, armed with a gun remarkably similar to Tony Montana’s hand-cannon. For much of that show’s run, this ending was actually David Chase’s vision for how the show would end, before coming up with his subversive diner finale. But originally we would have been left with the dark ambiguity of Tony waiting for his inevitable blaze of glory to come find him at the top of a staircase which, when Tony woke up to a peaceful morning, Chase then converted to a comment on how sometimes real life has a way of deflating our personal operas before they really climax. Having pre-ordained Walt to end up across the country, ragged, and purchasing some nasty hardware of his own, I wonder how Gilligan will ultimately put his spin on the death/jail/success crossroads of the classic criminal’s tale…

I don’t yet have a prediction of how the inevitable showdown between Hank and Walt will unfold, but I do know that Mastras took the scene of Hank entertaining Holly behind the middle school and got it pregnant. That was a loaded scene if I’ve ever witnessed one — either some strong misdirection at work or serious foreshadowing of how the Mr. Chips may fall.

Britt: Shifting gears — let’s talk Walt and Skylar, whose at-home life is still in tatters. I almost — almost — felt a pang of sympathy for Walt this week when he broke down in tears, only to discover it was merely a show for Hank. How much of that might have been genuine, though? I keep wanting to believe there’s a human in there somewhere, but I just can’t shake the feeling that he no longer really cares for his family at all. Even his own kids, which is just heartbreaking.

My boyfriend came up with this great theory that Skylar will reach out to Saul for help to get out of her situation. He knows everything there is to know, and if anyone can maneuver Skylar out of Walt’s maze of danger and lies, it might be Saul. I’m inclined to agree.

Jacob: Ooh, what if Skylar uses Walt’s money to change identities like Walt attempted and failed to do in “Crawl Space”? Poetic justice: she blocks him from escape and then uses his method to make herself vanish.

And Walt’s breakdown? Total crocodile tears. I’m not sure if he has a real human emotion left in him at this point. This scene was the spiritual sequel to his poolside speech to Hank and Marie last week.

Renn: I think Walt made ol’ Bobby Oedenkirk soil his pants thoroughly enough that the Saul option is likely closed for Skylar. I think she’s in it for the long haul waiting game, and will take her digs where she can until Walt gets sick again or the business takes him out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her plant breadcrumbs for Hank through Marie in the meantime (next week’s episode preview points to the possibility at least).

At the risk of fixating too much on ‘The Sopranos,’ that show’s ultimate priority was reminding you just how clear cut a psychopath Tony really was, despite our long-invested affection. Here I’m not entirely convinced the show has given up on Walt’s soul. He’s a man who spent most of his life impotent and unrecognized despite his talents, and he’s currently drunk with power. He’s a selfish manipulator to the extreme, but I would be a bit disappointed for the show to entirely burn his humanity to the ground. There’s got to be something in him retaining the accumulated misery of the life he’s wrought for him to feel when the intoxicating dust of victory, money, and power clear.

All that to say I think Walt’s soul is deeply broken, not absent entirely.

Britt: What were your favorite moments this week? Mine was the train sequence because I just can’t get over how brilliantly that was shot, and the writing and direction of this episode was so stellar to make me forget about the kid with the tarantula until he popped up at the end. I also loved how Lydia was referred to as a “loose cannon.” She’s a loose cannon! She’s the only woman for the job!

Jacob: I’ll play the obvious card and just say the final five seconds. Because AAAAAAARGH.

Renn: I was actually most fond of the borderline ‘Saw’-noir of the trio interrogating Lydia in their drippy, hyper-green crime dungeon. It also featured the view from beneath the map, which may be my favorite of the series’ “glass-bottomed” shots, which I often find hit or miss.

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