“Dead Freight” (05.05, 2012)
Written by George Mastras (“Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.,” “Kafkaesque,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)
Directed by George Mastras (No Previous Episodes)
Longtime Breaking Bad writer George Mastras gets his first shot at directing in this one, and doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the usual directors, but the best that can be said for him is that he shows some restraint. Bryan Cranston has directed some episodes in the past, and they have been characterized by overreach, attempting unusual angles, lighting, etc. just for the sake of drawing attention—they haven’t been so much as to be bad, but they’ve been weaker than the usual episode of this show. Mastras goes in the other direction—he’s a bit too afraid to draw attention to himself, following conventions for the most part and only breaking with them for a penchant for longer shots (I mean in terms of distance, not time). Usually, when Breaking Bad gets itself in visual trouble, it’s by trying to be too cute (Remember Shovel Cam and Roomba Cam last season?), so perhaps it’s good that Mastras didn’t do that, though he shows a bit of a lack of imagination. The episode also misses a bit of an opportunity to play around with some genre conventions—it’s a train robbery, for Pete’s sake!—but keeps itself a bit more serious for that, which is in keeping with the tone that the show has adopted this season.
Some of this episode is really spent spinning its wheels yet again. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that Heisenberg has replaced Walter White, and yet we have a sequence of Heisenberg replacing his once-again-resuscitated (a great comic moment) Aztek and deciding to wear his hat out in broad daylight, even in front of his son and his trusted mechanic. He is Heisenberg now, but we’ve already had that established.
The centerpiece of this episode is Lydia’s continued growth and the unsurprising arrival of Todd as a long-term character. The train robbery is a fun sequence and a rare example of Walt and Jesse’s plan going well (with adrenaline junkie Heisenberg threatening to get everyone in trouble after Mike calls for abortion but in the end not causing any actual problem), as well as the second time this season that Jesse’s insight actually provides the way to do something when Walt and Mike are at an impasse, but it’s the character growth that matters more for the long term, as well as the very end of the episode.
Lydia proves not to have planned what Mike feared she had. However, she also shows just how cold, how smart, how calculating, and how strong she really is by planning the train robbery. Mike reiterates his worries about this second loose cannon, and now we have a bit more to back up his concerns. This is a woman to be reckoned with, whether Walt and Jesse recognize it or not.
Meanwhile, Todd, who was clearly a more important character than the rest of the Vamonos Pest crew from the beginning, rounds out the robbery gang. Like when he saw the danger of a nanny cam earlier (and paying off what was a bit of a heavy-handed moment in a surprising enough fashion that the earlier moment can be forgiven and in fact becomes a far stronger moment now than it was at first), he takes care of the possible danger of a kid who happens upon the robbery without a second thought, pulling out a gun and shooting the kid, thus undermining what had been a successful operation. He’s a cold criminal and clearly has ambition to be a bigger part of the meth business instead of the Vamonos Pest business.
We know how the heartless Heisenberg and the sensitive Jesse will react to this: Heisenberg as though it is just the cost of doing business (or, in Skyler’s words, “shrugg[ing it] off as ‘shit happens’”) and Jesse as yet another death on his own head, particularly since this train robbery was executed according to his own plan. Mike, ever the professional, is likely to react more similarly to Heisenberg, though he will accept Jesse’s self-punishment and not twist it to his own ends the way Heisenberg would. Since Breaking Bad is a show that normally eschews shortcuts, we will have to see it, but hopefully it doesn’t mean more wheel-spinning.
Overall, it’s a decent but uneven episode. For most shows, the train robbery followed by the murder would be an incredible sequence, but for this show it just isn’t quite up to standards.
At this point, it really feels like Vince Gilligan & co. are strained to produce a 16-episode season after building the show on 13-episode seasons. They know where they want to get, but need to fill time getting there, and it’s leading to some issues. It’s still been a good season, just not up to this show’s incredibly lofty standards.