I find myself prompted prompted by Matt Yglesias’s moonlighting as a TV critic to post some thoughts on Breaking Bad, partially in hopes of pushback or counter-speculation from Walt-infatuated friends. I typically meet moving pictures with something like an emotional coma, so S5E5 deserves a few words since it goaded me into letting loose a string of expletives and filling my apartment with debates over the episode’s implications—doubly impressive since I live alone.
Director George Mastras opens with a signature Breaking Bad scene: the seemingly innocuous, but symbolic silent shot, this time of a young Clint Eastwood-in-The Gauntlet-wannabe riding his motorbike through the desert before parking to traipse through the parched brush. Whereupon he captures a tarantula in a sealed jar. Abstract, hard-to-follow, but hearken: significant spider is significant.*
Now quick cut to Walt in Hank’s new office for a deep bath of cynicism and false pathos, acted to a point by Cranston. Our villainous hero shrewdly manipulates Hank’s emotions, sobbing about Skylar and the children and forcing a visibly flustered and uncomfortable Hank to leave the room for coffee. Earlier in the series, Walter had already taken moral plunges that effectively ended all questioning of his resolve; nothing should really surprise us after his attempt to poison Brock. But lurking under Walter’s overt brutality is the series’ most constantly poignant subtext: Walt’s continued emasculation in front of Jr. and Hank, the humiliation of which memorably drove him to tell Hank in S4E5 that Gale most likely copied someone’s work. Already, though, S5 has witnessed a dramatic improvement in Walt’s constitution and control of ego: when the news of Gus’s death is televised and Jr. ascribes it to Hank, Walt refrains from saying anything. He completes his personal growth by prostrating himself before Hank. A man able to self-emasculate is infinitely more dangerous, and dangerous in more nefarious ways. Walt deftly ropes in Hank, who trundles like an idiot around his own office consoling and basking in his superiority. (He definitely enjoys the supposed superiority in full later on, swearing to keep the Whites’ baby girl). Who has time these days for a midlife family crisis and elaborate meth-cooking operations? Disinformation mastery by Walter White.
Not content to engage in wildly effective psy-ops against Hank, Walt bugs his brother-in-law’s Ethernet port and picture frame in a tense sequence that only really only rates as anticipatory blue balls in a tension-packed episode. Series regular Mastras clearly aims (twice, counting Lydia’s near-execution) to use a prematurely debilitating climax to lull us into a false sense of security before the episode’s coup de grace. And how! Mastras both wrote and directed this episode—usually only Gilligan is given that power—which significantly improves its clarity and forcefulness.
The third hard cut pans us into an industrial basement that greets us with cacophonies of grating metal. This is where people are tortured and disposed of, the natural environment of the Ehrmantraut. Strongman Mike—increasingly fed up with Lydia’s antics—engineers a simple plan to prove she planted a tracking device on the 55-gallon methylamine barrel in the previous episode. She pleads for her life, Jesse listens and preaches caution. “I don’t know, sound like she’s tellin’ the truth to me,” Jesse exhorts.
“She has a gun to her head, kid! Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head.”
Sayeth Mike, who coolly orders her to repeat his prepared statement in a call to Hank. Her tremulous errors are duly fixed by Mike in a back-and-forth imbued with the humor only a life-or-death scene can provide. Lydia is nervous and unstable, with a look like those people who live in constant fear of a shart.
But Walt and Mike concur—place the call, if she’s guilty, she’s whacked. If you told me Mike and Walt would ever be in such comport again, I’d backhand you in the neck. And, like Herr Ehrmantraut, I would have acted unjustly, because it turns out Lydia’s innocent, as Hank’s tapped phone soon reveals. Two significant lessons going forward. First, Mike has emotions: “She put a hit out on me,” he whines, his voice soaked in disbelief and personal offense. Second: Lydia’s back in the game with a tenuous grasp and disproportionate leverage. Madrigal’s barrels have all been tagged by Hank’s DEA goons and the cooks won’t go back to pharmacy ingredients, but Lydia touts restricted info on a methylamine-toting train through her position as an executive connected to chemical production and transportation industry. 24,000 gallons of methylamine? At least Mastras skipped the scene with Walter in the ICU after an erection lasting longer than four hours. And, as we know: a stiff dick has no conscience. And without a conscience, Walter courts disaster.
While the adults argue, Jesse both skirts deus ex machina status and quietly assumes operational control going forward by suggesting a method to rob the train without fear of eventual detection. After a vigorous debate involving DHS and FBI response times by the staunchly realist Ehrmantraut, they vote 2-1 to carry out the train heist. Because Jesse has no vested interest—no one to support, no one to protect—his analysis is objective, unfettered by distorting grudges or personal problems, allowing his thinking to achieve limpid flights of creativity. As the moderate between two diametrically opposed forces, Jesse arrogates the ability and space to construct their policy.
Mastras next directs a gorgeous scene as Pinkman leads his co-conspirators down the tracks to measure the stopping time for a fully loaded chemical manufacturing train. Jesse explains their plan to replace the container’s methylamine with water while it’s stopped–“It’s all about the weight, yo”—while Mike keeps lookout. They’ve inducted Todd—he of the nanny-cam eagle-eye—and look mighty self-assured after the rookie exclaims, “Wow, you guys thought of everything.”
The central plot point of Dead Freight is Todd’s inclusion in operations. Both he and Lydia embody an outsourcing of confidential and highly skilled work to players beyond the closed circle because the Trio require more adaptability. This creates a wealth of problems, foremost amongst them leaking and unpredictability. The heist goes somewhat according to plan—comedian Bill Burr reprises his guest role, this time as a Mack truck driver who breaks down on the tracks to stop the locomotive. But alas: an ostentatious, but kind pickup driver offers to push the dump truck off its perch. The only real threat is Walter’s greed—Mike’s reticence and caution fall on deaf ears as Todd and Jesse are very nearly killed because Walt refuses to give up 50 gallons when the train reboots.
In their raucous celebration of the siphoning project, the three heisters look up to see dirt-bike boy. He either heard the noise or was simply following his normal route home; either way, not his day. As he stares—and they stare back—Todd pulls out his handgun and fires one lethal round through the kid’s chest. Out of the jean jacket tumbles the imprisoned tarantula–and the show ends with the formidable predator caught inside a glass jar.
One wonders immediately which of the trio best fits the metaphor. One wonders wrong. Neither of the three are trapped and, as of now, are operating with something like impunity and plenty of escape vectors. The brief, early scene with Walt and Skyler is key—she’s increasingly desperate, basically engaging her husband in blackmail and vowing to never update her assessment of him. Their mutually occluding positions leave Skyler a trapped soul, one that grows more fractious by the episode. Hell, last week she attempted suicide simply to send her kids across town, a questionable move given how easy it’d be to link the two families. Walter and Skyler are now locked in; their leverage negates. It got me wondering: with no outside threats, booming business, and a laughably incompetent DEA, the Whites are their own worst enemy. Does either have the will to kill the other?
*(Missed a perfect chance to use Brand New’s “In a Jar.” Sorry about the dickhead wakeboarding. Original isn’t on Youtube.