I knew very early on that ‘Dead Freight’ would be one of the most divisive episodes of Breaking Bad in the show’s history. It’s all a question of “reality” and how high the show expects us to suspend our disbelief. I suppose I should say up front that I thought ‘Dead Freight’ was a great episode of television. It’s the kind of episode that comes along only every once in a while; the kind where I can feel while watching it that something special is happening. Could I suspend disbelief? Sure, but not easily, and that’s precisely what the episode was looking for. It’s a gamble, but it’s a gamble that paid off brilliantly, at least for me.
Tonal shifts are difficult to accomplish, but ‘Dead Freight’ goes a step further by also trying to shift audience expectations of its plot. My experience came in roughly four stages: confusion, denial, acceptance and shock. I feel that was by design. Vince Gilligan and George Mastras, the writer-director of the episode, created, in some ways, the ultimate Breaking Bad story. It was about plans. Plans that seem stupid on paper. Plans that end up working far better and going way further than anyone could have expected. And, of course, it’s about plans that end up going horribly wrong.
I feel I need to address the “reality” of the show. I’ve never considered the show realistic. The universe of Breaking Bad has always felt heightened. It’s not The Wire, though in a sense it’s always carried the same approach to reality as Omar’s most outlandish scenes in The Wire, and then often pushing things just a little more. It’s not that the show has necessarily been unrealistic, but that it’s often taken the more heightened, dramatic, stylistic route over sticking with only what we’d see in the real world. I’ve spent whole episodes terrified by a man in a wheelchair who could only communicate by dinging a bell. I saw a bathtub full of disintegrated human remains fall through a floor. I watched Walter White blow up a drug dealer’s building and walk away like it was nothing. There was an underground meth lab run by the owner of a chicken restaurant franchise. A severed head on a turtle that blew up and killed people. I saw a man walk out of an exploded room with only half a face left, straighten his tie and then fall down dead. Forgive me for having mostly accepted the idea that Breaking Bad is not going for any sort of literal realism.
I get it, though. I get how ‘Dead Freight’ took things an extra step farther. It’s not easy to watch the proceedings without doubting. It was basically a mini heist movie. A “great train robbery” featuring some of our favourite characters. The episode began, as I said, by confusing me; first with the cold open, which would only get paid off at the end, and then with the scene in Hank’s office with Walt planting the listening devices. What was going on? What were the writers building towards? Then we got into the main thrust of the plot. Lydia somehow has some pretty detailed information about train shipping routes, which she claims would give the opportunity for a huge heist of methylamine. It’s pretty hard to believe, though I’ve done some checking online and it sounds like everything she says is pretty kosher. It’s just too good to be true. All this information. One perfect spot at one perfect time. Breaking Bad has done several heists in its run, but this is the first time it felt straight out of an Ocean’s 11 sequel. It was a little difficult to accept, and I think this is where the episode probably lost a good chunk of the audience.
I had a bit of a hard time with all the planning for the heist. It was all just a little too slick. I wasn’t sure I could go along with it. That changed, though. Once the heist itself began to take shape I simply forgot about how implausible it all seemed and just went with it. It was having a ton of fun watching everything go down. Of course, knowing the show’s history I was expecting something to go wrong, and plenty did, but the heist essentially worked. It was exciting and invigorating. Then, just as the characters and myself were celebrating, everything went horribly wrong. The child from the cold-open, sitting there on his dirt bike, watching these men. And without enough time to even think what might happen, Todd, the young worker from Vaminos Pest, pulls out a gun and shoots the kid.
It was a shock to the system and a perfect encapsulation of what this show is all about. A chemistry teacher who cooks meth and gets into the drug game? It sounds so ridiculous that I’ve had a lot of difficulty over the years convincing friends to even give the show a try. Then you watch it and see how things play out, getting engaged by the story and the characters, often coming to identify with them and root for them. Except that you can’t really root for them. Certainly not Walt. He may have started off with some good intentions, and sure, it’s pretty impressive how well he’s done for himself, but it’s been at great cost. He’s become a terrible person and he’s done terrible things, and now and then the show likes to remind its audience of just that very fact. ‘Dead Freight’ ran through that whole cycle in one episode. It was confusing and intriguing, somewhat preposterous, but preposterous as it was, it also became tense and thrilling. These men were stealing chemicals to make drugs that are going to destroy people’s lives, but in that moment, just as we see they’ve pulled off the heist, we’re right there with them, celebrating and shouting, “yeah, bitch!” That elation is not allowed to last, though.
It’s an expert bit of writing, though admittedly difficult to swallow. It’s almost too well-designed to provoke a reaction. Where the show goes from here is hard to tell, but clearly Todd has taken things to another level. Even Walt never killed a kid. Sure, he poisoned one, but it always seemed clear to me that he didn’t intend for the kid to die. That said, Todd only followed orders. Walt and Jesse both made it extremely clear that nobody else can know about this train robbery. They both must now confront the fact that even though they are the bosses now, sometimes being the boss means doing some nasty things. Walt shot Jesse James, but now he’s becoming Jesse James, and much like with James, though we can marvel at Walt’s criminal skills, we can’t forget that he’s a bad guy. A really bad guy, responsible for some really bad things.