“Breaking Bad” – Dead Freight episode review 11

Jesse, Walt and Todd (Jesse Plemons) await the signal before they begin their great train robbery.

★★★★★

I should have known when Jesse Plemons showed up, someone had to die.

For those not those not in the know, Jesse Plemons—the actor who plays the resourceful, loyal, and now ROYALLY STUPID Todd—has a history of murder. His character, Landry, on another classic drama, Friday Night Lights, had a regrettable plot thread where he beat an assailant to death with a pipe while trying to fend him off from raping his crush, Tyra. It’s widely regarded as a blemish on a nearly pristine record of heartfelt, genuinely depicted, small-town charm in Dillon, Texas. Many just discount the second season in which this storyline appeared altogether. There were a couple other clunkers in terms of subplots, so some choose to erase that whole stretch of episodes from their recollections. In the fond memories of those diehards, Friday Night Lights has four indelible seasons—1,3,4 and 5.

I’m telling you this because Vince Gilligan has played the ultimate cosmic joke on this reviewer. I joked to myself when Plemons first appeared on “Breaking Bad,” that I wonder how many episodes would follow before he starts killing folks. I humbly stand before you, readers, wishing wholeheartedly that I was wrong.

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After that enigmatic cold open, I should have known. Looking back, all the signs were there. For starters, at the end of the open, you could hear a faint train whistle. The concern over leaving witnesses was emphasized mightily by Mike, and by Walt and Jesse. Mike spoke about its import in the planning stages, and when they recruited Todd, Walt and Jesse drilled into him how vital is was that nobody else knew about the robbery. And lastly, no heist perpetrated by Heisenberg ever goes off without a hitch. Even Operation Magnets (Bitch) had the unintended consequence of uncovering the money trail. Hell, they even threw out a red herring (not a racial remark, I swear) of the Native American in the pickup.  When he helped push the dump truck off the tracks, I had horrible inklings he’d be a casualty. When he left unscathed, my guard went down. I was wrapped up in triumph after they stole all 1,000 gallons of methylamine undetected. But dammit, I forgot about the dirt bike kid with a tarantula in a jar.

The implication of innocents getting caught in the crossfire permeated throughout the episode. Lydia begged and pleaded profusely that Mike not execute her, citing that her daughter would suffer in a group home (poor group homes didn’t have a chance to defend themselves). Skylar reiterated her position about keeping the kids out of their home. Everyone surrounding Walt’s empire is worried about whether he’s considered how his actions could endanger innocents. Lydia, Skyler, Jesse, they’re all corrupted. They’ve all chosen to enable the rise of Heisenberg, but give the kids a chance. It’s a depressing worldview—our generation is too overrun with violence and greed to be saved. The children, however, are a ray of light in the distance, a chance for a brighter future.

As I rattle off plot points in my head, I shake my head at Gilligan’s mastery. Remember the train metaphor Walt used when Mike suggested they ramp down? “Nothing stops this train.” Nothing is left astray. Every word, every scene, every step is meaningful. When I saw that kid jumping mounds of sand in his dirt bike, collecting a tarantula, I didn’t blink. I had no clue how to integrate what I’d seen into the bigger picture, but I trusted when “Breaking Bad” would pan out, I’d see the gears, the levers, all the inner workings, and still marvel at this contraption. Held up by string, somehow, there are no loose ends.

We’ve covered that intriguing beginning enough. How about we head to Hank’s office. New ASAC Schrader is arranging his belongings on his boss’s desk when Gomie announces Walt’s arrival. Surprised, Hank lets him in. He informs his brother-in-law that Skyler has gone back to work at the car wash. This is a good sign. Hank asks if she’s seen Marie’s rock star shrink, Dave. His ringing endorsement—”Come in like zombies, out like larks.” Walt has found Peter…Last name to be determined. He mentions wanting to come by to see his kids, and he turns on the waterworks. Whether Walt can manage a drug ring remains to be seen, but he’s proven time after time that he can manipulate everyone into feeling sorry for him. “Skyler doesn’t love me anymore,” he moans. “She says I’m a bad influence on the kids…She thinks I’m a bad father.” Bravo, Walt. He spins the truth into another chance for his family to take his side. Does he think somehow that if Hank and Marie discover his true nature, they’ll give him a pass?

Hank shuts the blinds, and assures Walt he is a provider, a role model, and an inspiration for how he has staved off cancer. He gives him a minute to gather himself while grabbing coffee. Walt promptly wipes his eyes as the door closes. He had another motive besides his sentimental puppetry. Thus begins an episode immersed in adventure and technical wizardry. Even if I wasn’t sold on “Breaking Bad” and its direction at first, I was fascinated with its incorporation of science, and its proficiency in simplifying its mechanics. Back to the scene, Walt inserts a receiver into Hank’s ethernet, then afterwards put a listening device in Hank’s photo of him and Marie. Slyly, as Hank renters he doesn’t panic. He just nonchalantly turns over the picture frame, transitioning into a remark on how good they are together. I really can’t wait until Hank finds out. He will feel so stupid, so incensed and betrayed. The personal drama will boil over into something unprecedented and fiery. Hank channels Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight with “Take it from me, it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Poor Hank, it’s going to get much darker.

Abrupt cut to a dingy basement in Houston. Mike cuffs Lydia to a table. It’s time she answer for her GPS on the barrel stunt. Walt and Jesse are present as Mike gruffly hands her a script. She’ll call Hank, and ask him why her barrels are being tracked. if she tips him off, panics, cries, or makes him suspicious, he’s gonna pull out his pistol and shoot her in the head. He makes her repeat it back to him in another shining moment for Jonathan Banks, the most frightening funnyman of all time. I was astounded by how swift this episode was. With all the complex scheming, I never felt overburdened by exposition. There was no need to explain how they would monitor the call, we saw that already. Quite an adept and smooth integration of the two scenes while tonally remaining distinct.

Lydia plays along and ask about the “device” on the methylamine canister. Is it a part of a law operation or sting? He says he’ll look into it, and they overhear him ask Gomie if his team planted anything. When he says no, Mike immediately jumps to remove Lydia from the equation. It has to be her. She insists it isn’t what it looks like. Mike, Walt and Jesse form the most sinister of huddles and Mike bets Hank will suspect a local crew trying to pull a heist. They’ll wire the place up the wazoo. They’ll use Lydia’s security code to break in and beat the DEA to the barrels. Mike says he’s gonna dispose of Lydia while they boost the barrels. Jesse still has his reservations though. He is weak when it comes to women and children. Admirable, obviously, but still a chink in his armor as a drug dealer. Mike reasons with him: “She has a gun to her head. Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head. Walt says the vote is two against one.

Just then, they overhear Hank phoning the Houston office. They bashfully admit to tagging them all. While Lydia is off the hook, Mike still thinks she’s a loose cannon. She did, after all, put out a hit on him. I chuckled when Jesse responded confused, “What, like the Mafia?” With terror in her eyes she leverages her life by claiming she is sitting on “an ocean of the stuff.” Walt sits down with her. She wants him to swear on his kids she won’t be harmed, but Walt breezes past this manipulative gesture—he’s the master. He doesn’t fall for theatrics like Jesse, because well, Jesse has a soul left. Lydia confesses she put out the hit, but appeals to Walt’s paranoia stating that it was only because he wouldn’t put down “the nine.”

He allows her to continue, and she pulls out a map. 24,000 gallons are shipped on a industrial chemical train from Long Beach, on a Wednesday. It passes through New Mexico in a deserted three-mile stretch where it’s a communication dead zone. The triumvirate seems perplexed. She proposes they rob it, like Jesse James. No more gangster allusions, Vince Gilligan is moving on to westerns. Mike is characteristically weary of post-9/11 security on domestic transportation. She says if they stop it at this remote location, they’re safe. She knows all this from tracking her buyer’s shipments. Walt wonders how they can be sure they’re holding up the right car, but she gets the manifest uploaded to her company’s server six hours before it arrives in New Mexico.

FINALLY! Lydia has proven her worth! While she’s still teetering on the edge of a colossal malfunction, she’s connected. She’s savvy about how businesses operate, which will undoubtedly prove appealing for the ambitious manager in Walter White. For now, my chief concern with this season—Lydia’s necessity—has been assuaged.

Mike says they’ll have to off the two-man train crew because they’re two kinds of heists—one where the guys get away with it, and the ones that leave witnesses. He’s a bit of a wet blanket, truthfully, saying they should just resort to scrounging up cold pills like in Heisenberg’s early days of pseudo-cooks. Walt resents this regression and opens old wounds. He accuses Mike of only being eager since he needs to pay off his guys. “You break it, you buy it!” Mike barks back. Jesse is deep in thought as his surrogate parents bicker. It’s the same look as when he arrived at the magnet solution. Is Jesse the brains of the operation now? Like when last season he discovered he could cook without Walt, he’s increasingly catching up to Walt’s chemical creativity. His mentor is getting so bogged down in the details of day-to-day maintenance he’s lost his touch. Jesse is picking up the scientific slack. He interrupts, “What if we can rob the train, and no one knows it got robbed?”

As they plot, Hank is enjoying his scrumptious baby niece, Holly, trying to teach her “ASAC” and “boss man.” He asks Marie about “Emo McGee,”who apparently has been holed up his room. He briefly comes out for food, and they try and coax him out, but he wants no part in their bribery—Heat on Blu-ray! Marie calls him Flynn. Is it just me, or has it been a while since Junior has been referred to by that name? It was the ONLY thing that took me out of this enthralling episode.

While Walt dons the Heisenberg hat, Jesse measures the distance from a crossing to a trestle. As an audience we still aren’t privy to their plan. We watch as a backhoe digs a huge hole underneath the trestle, but I was lost. Then, they explain the master thievery about to take place to Todd, whose assisting them. Just want to point out for posterity—I definitely said back in my “Hazard Pay” review that after showing initiative with the nanny cam, Jesse and Walt would go to him if they needed an extra hand.

The essence of the extraction method is that while the train is stopped, they while simultaneously drain the methylamine into the tank, while replacing the amount they take with water. Genius, right? And they have thought of everything, as helper Todd points out. They will be taking 1,000 gallons of methylamine, so they will replace it with about 920 gallons of water (water weighs slightly more). The whole tanker car carries about 24,000 gallons, so as long as the weight remains the same, they won’t notice. But what about whoever purchases the methylmaine, won’t they notice? Right you are, voice from the ether. BUT, they’ll blame China, the supplier, for giving them a much weaker product. They’ve covered all the bases. This is an even more captivating caper than the evidence room sabotage of the premiere.

Back at the home front, Flynn (Ew.) has barricaded himself in his real room and Skyler is distraught. “You got what you wanted,” she snaps at Walt. He pounds on the door, demanding to speak to Junior. The angsty teen whines, “You haven’t explained jack shit…I want one good reason.” And how does the in-command Walt answer him? “Because we’re your parents and you’re our child. That’s reason enough. Now do as I ask. Now.” Message received. Their son leaves, but Sky is adamant. “I will never change my mind about you…I’m not your wife, I’m your hostage.” HARSH. But she’s willing to compromise, a bit. She won’t budge from her no kids in this house stance, but if he agrees to that she’ll be whatever kind of partner he wants her to be. Sounds like a sweet deal for the power-hungry husband, and Skyler is clearly picking and choosing principles in desperation, like she’s negotiating with a terrorist. Actually, that’s exactly what that is! Walt takes the deal.

Sky is still not convinced someone won’t come to the house and point a gun at any them like he bragged about last week, referring to Jesse. She accurately interprets that statement as a “point of pride.” Walt does indeed see his survival as not a blessing, but something he has earned in a game of cat and mouse. By wanting to keep playing as long as he’s winning, he’s ignoring all the many precious things he could lose. He updates her on their latest ruse—she’s seeing a therapist named Peter…whatever you want for the last name. Then she notices his dirtied knees. “Burying bodies?” she quips. “Robbing a train,” he boasts. She wanted transparency, she’s getting it.

After Lydia gets the email heads-up, we’re treated to breathtaking shots of the train chugging down the track. It shows many different angles, and elevates the level of danger heavily. The wait is grueling as the whistle shrieks. Saul’s man, Kuby (played by Bill Burr) flags down the train—Kuby was last seen forcing Ted Beneke to sign a huge check to the IRS. He has a dump track stuck on the tracks with a fake busted engine. Meanwhile, Walt, Jesse and Todd scramble to hook up the hoses. Watching Todd use a pneumatic drill to pop open the fill access point, and Jesse wrenching open the drain, was as thrilling an action sequence as I’ve seen. Instead of martial arts and gunfire, it’s high stakes plumbing against the clock! Kuby does his best to stall, but as they push to no avail, a lone pickup approaches. That Native American good samaritan nudges the dump truck across the tracks and the engineer and conductor are ready to leave. Walt doesn’t flinch as the meter ticks to 1,000 and they rush to reassemble. The wheels start turning and Jesse lays flat on the track while Todd leaps off the top. “Yeah, bitch!” Jesse typically exclaims. But their celebrations is halted. That kid is staring at them.

Todd waves, pulls his gun from his back and shoots at the unsuspecting dirt biker. Jesse shouts in horror. He hates seeing kids killed. Hell, that is the essential thread that is keeping him from wasting Walt. He has no idea it was Walt who poisoned Brock. If he did, Heiseberg would be dissolving in acid right now.

Like magicians, the writers duped me. I had totally forgotten about the open. too trusting that it’s significance would come up again to notice how it might fit into this episode. How do you clean up this mess? I mean, according to a graphic a fan posted on Facebook, the yield on 1,000 gallons is 74,000 pounds of meth. They are set for a while. But will Jesse be accommodating after they’ve murdered a boy? Will Todd be eliminated? I doubt they can since he’s employed with Vamonos Pest. Cover up should prove simple enough, but sadly, it isn’t the loss of the child that carries the most weight. It’s the bursting of the bubble. Walt has his fingerprints on many civilian deaths, but now that’s he a “boss man,” he HAS to take responsibility. Rogue employees, casualties, and loss prevention all fall under his authority. How will he compensate for this? All that seemed certain, isn’t. Who else could catch a bullet because Walt isn’t completely in control.

With three episodes remaining in the first half of the final season, Vince Gilligan and his team are already breaching excellence. By combining all the elements I love—the escape artistry, the science, the teamwork between Walt, Mike, and Jesse, the intense relationship conflicts and the daring shocker endings—he has crafted one of my all-time favorite episodes. Can he stick the landing? I mean, how can he top the illusion of safety he created in “Dead Freight?” Walt doesn’t cook in a vacuum, as much as may think that he’s isolated from surprises in his plastic tent. Even Skyler would like to think that with Hank and Marie, the children are separated from being hunted. But as the deceased explorer showed us, there’s no telling what you might find if you keep your eyes open to all that’s around you. Walt, like that tarantula in the jar, is still poisonous even when contained.