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‘Breaking Bad’ recap: It’s so much fun ... until it’s not

I love “Breaking Bad” most when it’s telling stories of the ways that Walt’s decision to cook meth has corroded everything and everyone around him, even if they’re unaware of what he’s done. But I also love that the show occasionally presents a puzzle for the characters to solve, one that seems utterly impossible, then shows how Walter, Jesse, and company find a way out of that pickle. “Dead Freight” offers up both of these particular versions of the show in grand style. Outside of a few minor plausibility concerns, it’s some of the most pure “fun” this season has offered so far.

It feels odd to call “Breaking Bad” fun, of course. It’s a show about people doing terrible things to each other, people who are driven to those ends by sheer desperation. Yet “Breaking Bad” is one of the most propulsive shows on TV when it’s on its game. It’s so much fun to watch Walter and Jesse get away with their crimes that the show manages to stop you from thinking about the ultimate evils of those crimes. Then, at its best, it reorients everything with a gut punch at the end, a moment that makes you realize that nobody gets out of this life clean. “Dead Freight” fits that description in almost every way. It’s so much fun, until it’s not, and you realize that everything is about to come crashing down.

But let’s start with the quibbles. The particulars of the heist of the methylamine from the train are so note perfect that it feels a little crotchety to complain too much. But I found myself thinking it a little convenient that the one car the guys needed to rob was the car that ended up right where they needed it to be to rob it. I suppose one could argue that Lydia waited until a train came along where the car would be in just the right position, but that seems like it would have taken far longer than the show’s time line would suggest. Similarly, I found myself surprised at the size of the operation, and with how quickly Walter, Jesse and Mike were able to pull it together. (Then again, Mike is an organizational wizard.) And on the purely nit-picky level, I wondered just why the train crew didn’t hear the loud motors whirring away under 1,000 feet away from them. Sure, it’s a fair distance, but those suckers are loud.

While we’re at it on that regard, I wasn’t as big of a fan of the scenes featuring Skyler and Walter sniping this week, because they seemed to merely repeat the events of last week’s phenomenal episode, rather than breaking new ground. Similarly, the scene in which Hank and Marie discussed Walter Jr. had the feeling of catching folks at home up on stuff we should already know, and I’m not sure Lydia makes a lot of sense as a character, rather than a plot device. The way she launched into the spiel about the train cargo and the dark territory felt a little too perfect. I can get fantasizing about pulling off the perfect crime on a long, boring day at work, but this was too much.

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That said, it’s hard to quibble too much when something is this fun. Series writer George Mastras takes a turn in the director’s chair in this episode (in addition to providing the script), and he gives the heist sequence the feel of an action movie. It feels larger than life, even though everything that happens is rather small-scale, as these things go. The sheer tension that arises when the truck blocking the train from going anywhere is moved off the tracks, even as Walter refuses to pull Jesse and Todd off the train until he reaches the pre-agreed-on level of 1,000 gallons of methylamine (and the slightly smaller amount of water that’s pumped back into the train car to offset that weight), is the show at its best, and watching Jesse lay down and just let the train roll over the top of him is thrilling fun to watch.

But I also like the way the show lets the puzzle-solving reveal itself over time. In the scene in which Todd questions Walter and Jesse on the particulars, the episode lets the answers come with a slow self-assurance. Won’t people notice that the methylamine has been diluted? Sure, but then they’ll just blame it on the source back in China, for sending a less potent sample. Won’t the weight be slightly different between the methylamine and the water? Yeah, but Walter’s accounted for that in his math already. It’s easy to be impressed when Todd whistles about how they’ve figured all of this out, and it’s also easy to imagine the scene in which Walter, Jesse, and Mike hash out the details of the plan, because we’ve seen so many great scenes like that over the course of the show.

Yet you can’t account for everything. In a season in which so much has gone so right for Walter White, often improbably so, the episode ends with a small boy who was out collecting tarantulas for some reason happening on the guys in their moment of celebration. Todd, who was earlier told that no one could ever know what had happened there, returns the boy’s wave, then casually guns him down. On the one hand, this is a bit of a cop-out: Having another character take care of the problem for Walter and Jesse removes one of the show’s biggest strengths, which is forcing the characters into impossible situations, then watching as they’re forced down dark paths. On the other hand, this is the kind of nightmare that arises in these situations, and it’s particularly a nightmare for Jesse, who’s always been sensitive about children getting wrapped into these predicaments.

The moment ultimately works both because it’s such a gut punch and because it gives the lie to everything else that’s happened to Walter this season. The first time through, I wondered if everything involving Hank (who does exactly what Walter hopes he will when Walter begins crying in Hank’s new office, allowing Walter the time to bug the place) wasn’t also a little convenient. The second time through, I realized that everything has to go right on this series to the point of the child’s death, because the series was building to this moment. It’s the necessary balance on the scales. Whatever moral force exists behind the scenes on “Breaking Bad” (and it is there) will grant Walter and company the good fortune they need to make their little plans and gain their fortunes. But then it will exact its toll, and when it comes, it will be awful and mortifying. Everything can go well for a while, but not forever, and now the long spiral downward begins.

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ALSO:

“Breaking Bad” recap: The long, cold war

“Breaking Bad” recap: Way down in the hole

“Breaking Bad” recap: The pride of Walter White

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