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Breaking Bad, Ep. 5.05: “Dead Freight” is a Master Class in Manipulating the Audience

Remember “Live Free or Die,” the fifth-season premiere of Breaking Bad, and its nifty but slight little magnet-powered heist? In retrospect, that was little more than a dry run for ‘Dead Freight,” a tightly wound, nearly-perfectly orchestrated hour that brought the show’s more or less patented “holy shit” factor back in a big way – though not necessarily in the way you might have had in mind.

From the second invocation of Jesse James to Hank’s attempt to tempt Walt Jr. (now, once again, going by “Flynn”) back to the land of the living with the promise of Heat (on Blu-ray!) to Walt’s boast to Skyler that he’s going to rob a train, “Dead Freight” is constantly reminding us that This Is a Heist Episode. and we are about to revel in a bravura display of awesomeness. But of course this is Breaking Bad after all, and we should suspect there’s a little more at work than that. “Freight” pulls off a stunning bit of audience manipulation that might have come off as crass if it weren’t so deftly handled – not to mention so eager to make the audience complicit in its wanton cruelty. (Haneke, eat your heart out.)

It opens in standard cryptic fashion: a youngster rides a dirtbike around the desert, before collecting a tarantula in a jar, while a train whistle hollers in the distance. It’s a seeming non-sequitur of a scene that immediately prompts speculation: just who is this kid? Personally, I was thinking it might be a younger version of one of our characters, perhaps even the new-and-still-mysterious Todd (Jesse Plemons). But the guesswork is just that; there’s nothing in the scene to discern any immediate meaning whatsoever. The rest of the episode is as devoted to single-minded problem-solving as “Live Free or Die” was, only this time, the show careens from one tense scene to another with much less effort. The first comes early, with Walt installing a bug in Hank’s fancy new office while faking an emotional breakdown; this is immediately followed by the ever-skittish Lydia’s attempt to clear her name (with the help of the aforementioned surveillance device). But of course, these are just appetizers; in the midst of Mike and Walt’s latest squabble over cash and their endangered methylamine supply, Jesse once again turns out to be the ideas man – didn’t this used to be Walt? – by coming up with a way to hijack the “ocean” of methylamine proffered by Lydia without any loss of life. Everybody wins!

Only not so much. The heist goes off more or less without a hitch (albeit littered with close calls like Jesse’s near-flattening), leading to much self-congratulation – that is, until the mysterious child from the cold open rides in, jarred spider in hand. There’s a moment of general confusion and anxiety until Todd decides this is the time he really needs to step up, specifically by shooting the young boy dead. (This development nips my only decent bit of speculation about Todd in the bud: no, he’s not an undercover cop of any kind. Clearly.) It’s a sobering reminder of the business we’re witnessing: we may be having a blast watching the caper go off, but don’t forget the inevitable body count. Breaking Bad tends to shy away from the sort of audience contempt of, say, The Sopranos, but it’s hard not to read the entire construction of the episode as anything but a deliberate provocation.

The quieter moments are few and far between, and they mostly involve Skyler, who remains insistent that the only card she has to play is to stick around and try to protect the lives of her two children. With the kids now in the care of the Schraders, her not even considering (or appearing not to consider) an immunity deal is even more problematic than before; that bit of logic defiance is still the biggest sticking point of the season unless Gilligan and co. can find adequate justification. Still, it’s reassuring to see that in this late stretch, the show’s ability to harness the power of a killer setpiece to unexpected ends is far from diminished, and gives us every reason to believe the few hours of the show we have left – only three more this year! – will be just as breathless as the show’s ever been, if not moreso.

Simon Howell

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Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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