by Alex Greenberger
Wow. Just wow. Those are the kind of heart-stopping sequences I’d been missing from the fifth season of “Breaking Bad” so far, but the final ten minutes of “Dead Freight” really bring the heat.
The revisionist “Great Train Robbery” sequence that occurs at the end of “Dead Freight” is certainly among the show’s finest moments to date. I don’t think I even need to explain why this sequence worked so well. The editing, the acting, the music, you name it—everything clicked together marvelously (and nearly gave your poor reviewer a heart attack!). It’s not that I had forgotten that “Breaking Bad” could do suspense better than any show on TV (though “Homeland” is a close runner-up); it’s just that this fifth season hadn’t shown it to us yet, and I’m as glad as everyone else that it’s back in a big way.
Still, it’s important to note that there’s a ton of set-up that brings “Dead Freight” to its huge finish. George Mastras, the writer/director of this little masterpiece of an episode, laid the tracks for a brilliant closer from the very beginning. The opening sequence with a boy finding what looked like a tarantula in the desert and putting it in a glass bottle seemed oddly symbolic upon first viewing. This would not be the first time “Breaking Bad” has used a scene almost entirely for symbolism—and nailed it too. Like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” can be just as poetic as it is thrilling or entertaining, but it seemed strange that Mastras used it to open the episode without any context.
“Breaking Bad” never leaves any stone unturned though, and such is the case in that scene, which, after the episode’s thrilling climax, comes to an emotional head as Landry shoots the boy. Of course, the spider in the bottle remains potent as an image. To me, it’s a visual way of showing how Walt, Jesse, and Mike are playing with fire by building their little drug empire. The boy seems to pick up the spider, completely aware of the fact that he might become ill from its bite. But he’s curious—he’s fascinated by it, and he wants to keep it, almost like an insidious science experiment. And I really do believe that this is the same process behind Walt’s operation. He knows he’ll get burned eventually, but in the mean time, he’ll continue playing with fire.
Walt is no stranger to particularly dangerous situations; at this point he probably enjoys the thrill of them. We can see this through his interrogation of Lydia in a decrepit factory room, which for nearly a fifth of the episode. The way he asks Lydia questions about the methylamine, how he seems to always want control of the situation, and even his willingness to bug Hank’s office under the worst situations all lead me to believe that Walt seeks adrenaline rushes at this point. For a normal person, that would be ridiculous, but Walt isn’t a normal person, he’s barely even human—as I mentioned last week—so this, of course, is in his character.
As great as this episode was in terms of writing, the cinematography is also extremely fine, as usual. I always get stuck on the formal elements of “Breaking Bad,” which is something I can’t really say with any other show on air, besides “Mad Men.” The crowning shot of “Dead Freight” occurs when the train robbery begins. The camera sits on the rails at ground level, then as the train comes closer, it rises slowly, until almost level with the train, and then the camera peels off to the side where Jesse, Walt, and Landry are beginning to execute their plan. This is all in one uninterrupted shot, and it aired on television. That blows my mind.
“Dead Freight” and other episodes of “Breaking Bad” like it remain the finest proof that television is really at its best. Never before has the typically serialized medium collided with the style of film so brilliantly. “Dead Freight” is one of the finest episodes of the show, and as a result, it’s also one of the finest hours of TV ever made. And to think that there are still eleven episodes left in this season… I’m not even prepared for the new heights this show will get to.
Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.