Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Five (Part 1)

by PopMatters Staff

15 August 2013

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/AMC 

Dead Freight


S5E5 Dead Freight

The black-and-white shots of a stuffed animal floating in the White family’s pool that opened all of the Season Two episodes caused a stir in the fan community. For some, the reveal in the Season Two finale, that all of the police cars amidst the wreckage were not caused by some meth lab incident by Walt but instead by two planes colliding in the sky, is a huge cop-out. Others, this writer included, find that while it may be a “sucker punch,” it is a tastefully executed sucker punch.

Part of what makes the finale so gut wrenching is that it demonstrates how cause and effect’s wide reach spans even the most tertiary of events. In this case, a simple version of the chain goes something like this: Walt’s desire to cook meth leads him to Jesse, Jesse meets Jane Margolis, they get high together, she chokes on her own vomit in her drug-induced sleep (which Walt sees but does not prevent), and finally, Jane’s father, an air traffic controller, loses focus at work, resulting in an occasion as rare as a mid-air collision. Walt’s myopic view of the harms of his drug business is countered masterfully with this season-long story arc.

“Dead Freight”, easily one of the finest hours of this broadcast, takes that type of causal chain and compresses it into a single hour. Like many Breaking Bad episodes, this one begins with a tease: a young boy rides out into the New Mexico wilderness on a dirt bike, enjoying the thrill of the high desert and all of its creatures, namely a tarantula he stumbles upon. This boy has never been seen in any Breaking Bad episode prior; is this a new character being introduced? This show being the corpse-littered universe that it is, one shouldn’t get their hopes up. By the time the heist of the titular train comes to its almost-perfect end, the young biker boy has a bullet in his chest.

Most would point out that it’s at minimum deeply improbable that a boy’s choice to go biking out in the middle of nowhere would result in his death. They are right. As with nearly everything in Breaking Bad, some explaining is in order.

Once it is discovered that their source of methylamine is being bugged, Jesse, Mike, and Walt take swift action. Walt’s mind immediately runs to the DEA, who had just taken a look through Lydia Rodarte-Quayle’s warehouses. Mike believes Lydia planted a fake bug so as to spook the three away and no longer be associated with them. A thoroughly terrifying interrogation of Lydia, aided in part by Walt’s bugging of Hank’s office, immediately follows, which brings out some of the best in Mike’s bone-dry sense of humor. After demanding that she call the DEA to ask Hank if the bugs were planted by his men—which would then prove her innocence—Mike makes himself nothing less than clear as a certain blue crystal. If she fails to follow their instructions, he tells her, “I will pull out my gun, and I will shoot you in the head.” He repeats this twice more. He then makes her repeat it verbatim, including and especially the part about “in the head.”

Lydia, as they say, wises up. She divulges to the recently formed meth triumvirate that there is a way to get the methylamine they need to fuel their enterprise. Having just found out through the bugs in Hank’s office that it was the DEA surveilling Lydia’s warehouse, necessity demands that the trio find a new avenue for their List 1 needs. A train carrying “an ocean,” to use Lydia’s words, of methylamine passes through New Mexico on the way to Texas; Lydia’s company has unique access to its cargo manifest.

During this route it reaches a three-mile stretch called a “dead zone,” where all channels of communication, including the TSA alerts that go off when a train is stopped out of schedule, go cold. If Jesse, Mike, and Walt were able to stop the train, they could siphon off an enormous amount of methylamine. And, as Walt tells their underling Todd, so long as they fill the tanker they steal the methylamine from with a proportionate amount of water, when the cargo arrives at its final destination, the owners of the chemical will presume they were delivered a watered-down batch.

So far, so good. The crucial element of the heist is variable control, and on this matter the trio is covered. The heist being executed in a dead zone out in open desert means that, in terms of probability—which is all one has to work with in a location as open-ended as this—they aren’t likely to run into anyone. The water-for-methylamine replacement is backed up by Walter’s extensive chemistry knowledge. And even though their plan hits an unexpected snag when the truck they use to block the railway is helped off the tracks by a kind trucker, which shortens the timeframe to siphon off the chemical, they manage to get all 1000 gallons without catching notice of the train conductor or engineer. By most measures, their heist was a success.

But then come those last fateful seconds.

Early in the episode, when concerns are raised about the viability of the heist, Mike says, “I have done this long enough to know there are two kinds of heists: one where the guys get away with it, and those that leave witnesses.” This is the first principle of the “Dead Freight Heist.” The second is a line first uttered by Walt, which is then repeated multiple times by Jesse to Todd: “No one can ever know this happened.” Each of these principles is a solid one to adopt when undertaking a robbery as risky as this one, but what is missed by Jesse, Walt, Mike and Todd is that once these rules are adopted as the foundation for the theft, one cannot control all the potential outcomes they elicit. What happens in “Dead Freight”‘s final moments is the logical extension of the “leave no witnesses” mantra, as well as the fulfillment of Jesse and Walt’s insistence that “no one can know it ever happened.”

The thrill that comes from watching the quartet pull off the heist by the skin of their necks is palpable. Trying to oust scenes like the finale of “Crawl Space” and the face-melting of Gus Fring was undoubtedly a difficult challenge for the writing staff of Breaking Bad, but they set the bar high and vaulted it by leaps and bounds. Nothing, however, comes close to the jaw-dropping horror that comes right before the end credits kick in. The aforementioned young boy rides up on his dirt bike right as the heist reaches its conclusion. He waves at Jesse, Todd, and Walt. Todd waves back. Then Todd pulls out a gun and shoots him. Cut to black.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.” The plane collision that brings Season Two to its end and Todd’s rash decision to shoot the boy are two sides of the same coin. Cause and effect is a beast much like the hydra; with every one head that one chops off, thinking it will do the trick, another two will emerge, proving that there is no such thing as avoiding divergent paths in a plan.

For all of the time Mike, Jesse, and Walt put into devising a latticework of controlled variables, there was always going to be the possibility of a flaw that could threaten to undo it all. But the even simpler fact is that just as Walt’s devotion to the principle of the need to provide for his family led him to the logical extreme of selling methamphetamine, the creation of this heist meant holding fast to the principles of its preservation, one of which is leaving no witnesses. No one can know. In this case, “No one” just happens to be an innocent little boy, out to take in the rays of the sun while feeling the dirt kick up around his feet. Brice Ezell

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