10. "Dead Freight" (Season 5, Episode 5)
Director: George Mastras
Writer: George Mastras
Forget a cold open, “Dead Freight” has one of the coldest closes in television history. Cold like the end of the The Shield’s pilot episode multiplied by every parent’s worst nightmare. And it’s plain to see from the opening, which makes it an even more crippling gut-punch when the viewer gets lost in the nerve-jangling drama and forgets about a young boy riding a dirtbike through the desert.... More on that later.
The character work in “Dead Freight” is some of the finest on Breaking Bad, which is to say it’s beyond superlatives. Each scene pops with inspired individual invention and Walter White-level chemistry between the actors. Walt’s tearful confession of marital problems to Hank, expertly played to his macho brother-in-law’s arm’s-length, shoulder-patting uncomfortability around emotion to make him leave on a coffee run and allow for bug-planting! Grizzled Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) repeated matter-of-fact promises to shoot terrified Madrigal exec Lydia (Lara Fraser) in the head if she doesn’t perform a scripted intel-fishing call to the DEA, capped with a twisted schoolteacher’s review: “Where will I shoot you?”! Skyler’s infamous “I’m not your wife, I’m your hostage” jab and ultimatum that she’ll only keep up appearances and launder Walt’s drug money if their kids stay with Hank and Marie (Betsy Brandt), out of harm’s way! Any one of these scenes is a masterclass in writing and acting. Together, with the many others in the episode, they’re an advanced performing arts curriculum. (It’s easy to see why writer-director George Mastras earned an Emmy nomination for penning the episode.)
And then there’s one of the finest set pieces ever, in either film or television. Conductors’ caps off to Mastras for pulling off the elaborate heist plot, to stop a train in the middle of the desert and distract the two-man crew while siphoning out 1,000 gallons of methylamine and simultaneously replacing it with its equal weight in water. Like all of the wilderness scenes on this show, it’s gorgeously shot. It’s also edited to tense perfection, as the aim is to not only make off with the MMA but also to avoid detection. As the elated crew succeeds by the narrowest of margins in the swap, all, including the viewer, exhale. Which is precisely when the episode knocks the wind out of you with a brilliant, sad, and inevitable conclusion—because hubris is just a bitch like that.
Jesse’s ingenious plan and Walt’s careful scientific measurements, which he proudly says will only cause fingers to point at China for sending a weak batch of methylamine, can’t account for the x-factor of chance, a young boy on a dirtbike investigating when a train horn blows in the middle of the desert because the conductor has to stop for a car “stalled” in the middle of the tracks. As everyone frets over the lives of two railroad employees, the murder of a child is the furthest thing from one’s mind. Walt has broken bad to the point of blowing a guy’s face off and poisoning a kid (non-fatally) to manipulate Jesse, but he would never execute an innocent child, right? That’s some Gustavo Fring shit.
But as Walt and Jesse’s celebratory faces go slack upon realizing they’re not alone, everyone’s fate as an accomplice to child murder is already sealed. The kid waves and Todd (Jesse Plemons), the new crew member into whose head they’ve hammered the hard–and–fast rule that nobody can ever know about the job, waves back and puts a bullet in him, snuffing out the kid and whatever shred of humanity remained in the group. The final shot, of the tarantula the boy captured in a jar looking hopelessly confined, says everything about Walt’s criminal descent. No matter how badass he looks sporting a shaved head, goatee, Heisenberg hat, scowl, and power, he’s well and truly trapped by that “glass.” —Justin Monroe