Breaking Bad Review: "Dead Freight" (Episode 5.05)
“I’ve been around long enough to know there are two kinds of robberies: the ones that get away with it and the ones that leave witnesses.”
This season of Breaking Bad keeps getting bigger and bolder to match the increasing ego of Walter White. When Mike said Walt was no Jesse James, who would have guessed that Walt would literally take that on as a challenge? “Dead Freight” deals with their methylamine problem, when Lydia suggests that they just directly take it by robbing the train that carries Madrigal’s chemical supplies. This would be a fool’s errand to any criminal who doesn’t want to get caught. Hell, the idea was conceived from the desperation of a woman who was pleading for her life. But to Walt, it’s just another challenge that only he can pull off.
When I first heard that Breaking Bad was going to attempt a train robbery, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s not that the show hasn’t done some over-the-top sequences before; this season opened with Walt and his crew frying a laptop through APD’s evidence room with a magnet car. But Breaking Bad generally shines when it focuses more on character-driven drama rather than action. And when there is action, it’s generally kept intimate, portrayed with realism and taken over by the slow intensity of the scene. “Dead Freight” had all of this, and more. It was an agonizingly intense heist that was smart, and at its center it was about how far someone would go to not get caught.
The heist scene worked so well because it wasn’t about them storming a train and gunning it up. Instead, it was thought-out, and it all came down to execution and risk. Madrigal uses a train to carry the chemical supplies, and Lydia knows the exact route and manifest of the train as she is in charge of the company’s shipping. She also knows that the train passes in a dead signal area and plots out where they will rob it. Given that the DEA is now bugging the warehouse, it would have been insane to just steal the chemicals. If they just ambushed the train and killed the conductors and took the methylamine, the deaths and the stolen chemicals would have sent the DEA and FBI all over it. And given that they are already hunting for Heisenberg and are running a massive investigation into Gus’ operation, it would have been pretty clear that someone at Madrigal is still working for Heisenberg after Gus’ death. How else would they know about the exact spot to hit a train used to carry Madrigal’s supplies? This would lead back to Lydia, the only person that would have that information, and who already had barrels go missing from her warehouse. Seeing as Lydia gets extremely nervous and dodgy, the last thing they would want to do is have the DEA be all over her.
Jesse’s plan to swap out the methylamine for water is motivated by his desire to make sure there are no casualties. But the plan takes on other benefits as well, as it also insures that the company doesn’t notice any of the missing methylamine. They even figure in the difference in weight between water and methylamine so the train has the same weight when delivering its load. I liked when Walt explains to Todd that “they will just blame it on China, for a marginally weaker batch." Because the batch will just be combined with the other methylamine in the factory, it won’t be noticed.
The plan itself was still extremely risky. It all came down to a diversion and getting a makeshift crew together to quickly siphon the methylamine into the containers they dug underground while replacing them with the water. But this is also why it was so intense. Breaking Bad has always excelled at being able to capture an unnerving tension when the plot gets ramped up. And here, there was always a sense that it could all go extremely wrong at any moment. Some criticisms might be leveled at the heist because of how big it was. The bigger an action sequence, the more plausibility issues you run into. Breaking Bad has done some big things before, but this takes the cake. However, considering the scope of what they were doing, they did a fine job making it feel like it fit into the Breaking Bad ethos. They also covered all the bases rather efficiently. Lydia had given Walt the cargo manifest the night before, so they knew exactly where the methylamine sat on the train. They also knew the train type, and measured the distance from the front to where the cargo sat. They then went out the next morning to the intersection where the train would be stopped (as a result of their car blocking it) and measured the distance, also taking into consideration brake distance. Yes, it’s convenient that where they measured it, there happened to be an area where they could dig under the train. But the fact that they had all this information beforehand also means they could have abandoned the heist if it didn’t work out logistically.
Children have always been used thematically on the show to really reinforce the negative consequences of the drug world. In Season 2, Jesse was tasked with getting the meth back that some tweakers stole from one of their dealers. He then got sidelined when he realized that they had a son who was being neglected because of their addiction. The filth he had to live in while his parents were shooting up in the other room was gut-wrenching. It was perhaps the closest the show has examined the actual negative effects of the drug our protagonists cook for profit. In Season 4 it was a child’s death that was the center point to Walt’s end plan with Gus. For Jesse, it was the reason to consider killing Walt, and subsequently why he agreed that Gus had to die. But I always found it interesting that we never found out if Gus actually put a hit on Brock’s cousin. He told his dealers to no longer use children, and they killed him. But how do we know Gus told them to kill the boy? In fact, when Walt threw this back into Gus’ face and accused him of this, Gus had a genuine look of disgust. And considering Gus was a man who didn’t often show emotion, I always found it interesting that Gus would so vehemently deny this claim. So when Walt chose to poison Brock in Season 4, he was going a step lower than Gus to try to beat him. Here in “Dead Freight” the child in the episode’s opening ends up seeing the robbery when riding around on his dirt bike. He’s a witness to the crime, and without hesitation, Todd waves, then pulls out a gun and shoots him.
This is going to have huge ramifications on the plot, depending on how they deal with this. Jesse is going to be extremely upset about this and demand they do something with Todd, because their business has now been tainted by the murder of an innocent child—the very reason that Walt and he agreed was why Gus needed to die. But who’s to say that Walt didn’t value what Todd did? Walt might not approve of killing children, but he’s certainly proven that he’s willing to do anything when it becomes him vs. someone else. And here, Todd proves that he’s even willing to kill a kid without hesitation if it means not getting caught. While I wouldn’t say Walt is capable of straight-up killing a child, it’s still a common drive for survival at any cost that Walt and Todd now share.
Depending on how Walt deals with this, Jesse might start seeing Walt in a different light. If Walt sides with Todd or brushes this off as an unfortunate casualty, this will conflict with his stance that Gus was a monster for allowing an innocent child to die. It also should be noted that Todd’s perception of Walt and Jesse is probably drastically different from reality. He knows nothing about them, and his assumption is probably that they are ruthless kingpins (which is what Walt actually wants). Remember, Jesse and Walt stressed to him that no one but their group could know about this operation, so if he’s trying to impress them and get involved in their operation, his decision to shoot the kid might be heavily influenced by how he perceives them.
But it’s also clear that at this point, we are seeing a shift in these characters and how far they are willing to go. Jesse still hangs on to his humanity, while Walt is quickly drifting away from it. When Lydia quips at them earlier in the episode about being professionals, it brings up a good point. Can you really be in this kind of business without getting your hands dirty? The answer is becoming increasingly clear, as Jesse’s morality is almost now seen as naïve.
The scenes with Walt’s family reaffirm that the family is quickly heading towards destruction. Walter Jr. has taken up using the name Flynn again, a moniker when he doesn’t want to be associated with his family. He’s also aware on some level, that his parents are being very deceptive about something, and his anger brings a new dynamic to the already volatile situation. Skyler’s plan to keep the kids over at Hank and Marie’s house is understandable, but unrealistic. But it’s a move in desperation. It also means that her plan to keep faking all of this is going to crumble sooner rather than later. And again, Walt’s failure to deal with this problem is a massive oversight.
An interesting tidbit: while Jr. is over at his uncle’s place, Hank asks him if he wants to watch the movie Heat, which has a plot about a heist that goes sideways when the robbers bring a new guy to help with the job. Given how the episode ends, this was a great foreshadow. The most interesting scene out of these was when Walt went to Hank’s new office to bug his phone. When Walt broke down in tears about how his wife no longer loves him, it was meant as a diversion. In a later scene, the camera pans over to Walt’s hand, and he is no longer wearing his wedding ring. This all shows that on some level, that Walt really is aware that his marriage has fallen apart. And despite Walt’s claims that Skyler will come around, I wonder how much he really believes it.
The episode’s ending is abrupt and powerful. In an absolutely disturbing sequence, an innocent child is senselessly slayed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the main reasons the heist was so methodically complex was to avoid any innocent causalities, and in the end none of that mattered. In an extremely clever set-up, “Dead Freight” begins with Mike ready to kill Lydia because he knows she faked the bug on the barrels. But it turns out, it was in fact shoddy work from the DEA. Lydia had actually helped them by checking the barrels before sending one of the tracked ones to them. They almost killed someone innocent, all based on a hunch. The episode comes full-circle when an innocent person is actually killed, and it’s because of the risk Walt took to continue cooking.
This is Breaking Bad delivering on a very big episode—an exceptionally structured episode with high stakes, where the tension drives the drama rather than the action. Some might not like the bigger scope that Vince Gilligan and his writers have taken with this episode. But they’ve taken this head-on and done it in their style. And damn if any other show has ever been able pull off something this big with so much emotional punch the way Breaking Bad has. Criticisms of realism aside, this was an exceptional hour of television.