TV Club

Breaking Bad recap: “Dead Freight”

The train, the kid, this season’s best episode yet.

Breaking Bad still.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston).

Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

What a great hour of TV that was—the best episode of the season and an overall classic. In case we didn’t know it already, Breaking Bad has a lock on the high-wire act of characters who make it up as they go along, and on instant tonal shifts from hokey normal to lethal seriousness.

Let’s take the episode apart, because its structure is worth lingering on. This week opens with the boy on the motorbike, trapping a tarantula. Give me half a point for flashing to Brock in my mind. Next we are in Hank’s new office and Walt is groveling, asking to visit his own kids and for Hank’s reassurance that he’s a good father, contra Skyler. He’s such the bleary-eyed picture of misery that Hank’s split-second of suspicion—“new car, new watch”—is subsumed by his awkward gush of pity. Cue the closed blinds and the offer of coffee. We are wiser than Hank by now, so we’re waiting for Walt’s next move: the tracker on the computer, the bug in the family photo, which Walt has a reason to hold that Hank actually buys. He is pining for a portrait, any portrait, of a happy marriage.

Scene 3 in the basement with Lydia. The Three Musketeers find out their bug works and test Lydia’s explanation for the tracker on the barrel of methylamine. Only Jesse believes Lydia, and he’s right. But for some reason (not a plausible one I could think of), it’s Walt who questions Lydia about how they could tap into the ocean of methylamine she says could replace their boosted barrels. He gets some intel about the nine men Mike is paying off, but that’s the secondary point of the scene. The main event is Lydia’s invocation of Walt’s children. He shies away from swearing on their lives. And then we see Walt’s baby Holly, in a pink hat with cat’s ears, being dandled on Hank’s knee. Sweet, innocent, vulnerable.

Back to Walt, Jesse, and Mike plotting. It’s Jesse who comes through again with the train-robbing scheme that will spare the crew’s lives. Which leads us to the great, zany fun of watching them scout out the spot where they’re going to siphon off 1,000 gallons of methylamine, undetected, and replace it with 920 gallons of water, since that’s the correct trade in weight, as Walt pedantically explains. “You guys thought of everything,” Todd of the pest-extermination team exclaims. He is along for the robbery ride—an opportunity that is payment, I guess, for his heads-up disabling of the nanny cam a few weeks back.

The train heist was so entertaining that I didn’t even want to watch Walt and Skyler pick up the thread of last week’s marital crack-up. June, you mentioned the anti-Skyler camp among the show’s fans: I felt a gust of that this week, and I think the writers’ room was playing me, turning her into Debbie Downer by making me see through Walt’s eyes. Matt, you were on his side last week. Now Skyler has snapped out of her depression, but what did you think of the crazy bargain she offered Walt: I’ll launder your money, I’ll do whatever you want, but the kids stay at Hank and Marie’s? Of course she’s right that he can’t guarantee their safety. That’s the grim lesson we’re about to learn. But I don’t think her proposed trade-off makes any sense. Are we meant to take it at face value, or is it a ruse?

Back to Jesse James. There must be many stop-the-train moments to call up from the movies; I flashed to Stand By Me. From here on out, the episode was pure heart-pumping adrenaline rush. We know something will go wrong; the brilliance of the next minutes of plot is that so many things do. The good Samaritan stops. Walt refuses to abort. The train rolls over Jesse. And I was sure Todd would be sacrificed: the sitting duck on top of the train.

Instead, we get a beat or two of celebration—Todd jumps, Jesse rises, Walt cackles—before they see the child. He waves, Todd waves back, and in that one exchange and the shot that follows is packed the whole brutal punch of this show. You want to cook meth? You better be prepared for child sacrifice. This is the distance Walt has traveled, and now Todd takes Jesse there, too. I’m not sure where any of them go from here. But it’s nowhere good.

They will blame China,