Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: Train in Vain

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put off watching that DVD of Heat you just picked up and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.

“Swear on your children’s lives.” –Lydia

He does it for the kids. Whatever sins Walter White has committed, whatever compromises he’s made, he’s always, at least, been able to tell himself that he was doing it for his family, and in particular his kids. “Dead Freight,” through the framework of another heist story, forced him more than once to confront that moral question and to face what he’s willing to do when the innocent become obstacles.

Last week, Walt spared Lydia–no innocent herself–not out of mercy but expediency; the cook must not stop. This week, he was just as ready to dispose of her, but first he confronts her, handcuffed, across a table. And he finds someone whose rationalizations are much like his own. Why did she put out the hit on Mike, and try to have all of Mike’s guys killed? Because she’s a single mother with a daughter, and if she went to jail, her little girl would end up in a group home.

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Lydia is no more principled than Walt, if less skilled (but maybe potentially just as dangerous?). But in this one sense, Walt could just as well be looking across that table at a mirror, at someone whose sense of duty and scruple is probably real but very narrow. Above all, she’ll protect her own, and the world can go to hell.

Like many things on Breaking Bad, of course, it’s just an operatic version of moral decisions that people make in little ways every day. Do you acknowledge any duty to your colleagues, to your neighbors, to the world at large, or is every family an island? Walt has made this decision already for himself, clearly, but Lydia proves herself useful again and so lives–for now. (The staging of this scene is fantastic, by the way. Three powerful men, a prisoner, like a dungeon in some totalitarian country—it frames Walt not just as a danger but a full-on gangster villain.)

Everyone in Breaking Bad–everyone, at least, on the criminal end–has to confront some form of this question. (Including Lydia, who, as soon as she gets her reprieve, immediately signs off on killing the train crew: “I thought you guys were professionals.”) It comes up again, overtly, when Jesse hits upon the idea of the methylamine train job and Mike lays it out: for it to work, someone’s gotta die.

Mike, you could argue, is the cruelest and coldest figure on Breaking Bad when it comes to eliminating people in his way. But you could argue that–relative to his criminal peers–his “no half measures” philosophy is about avoiding violence. In a peculiar way, his mindset is more moral, at least in its practical effects. When you have to kill, you kill, and you don’t mince words about it. You don’t debate it, you treat it logically, and you take the sentiment out of it. (The few times he’s shown mercy, he regrets it: “That’s what I get for being a sexist.”)

But in facing the honest truth about who has to die, you also face the problems it can cause, and you look for ways to avoid it. It’s Mike, after all, who would rather pay his guys off than off his guys; he’d rather do a cheap old-school cook than risk a bloody holdup. When Walt and Jesse, finesse guys, try to engineer ways around this bloody math, it often just leads to blood later, and more of it–this, probably what he means when he talks about being exasperated with dealing with amateurs like them. He’s like the general who believes that when you go to war, you do it with overwhelming force–and when you can avoid it, you don’t do it at all. And that’s how Jonathan Banks, masterfully, plays him. He’s not a man who loves killing. He’s a man who KNOWS killing, and thus knows it’s better avoided.

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Not for the first time, no one listens to Mike’s first thought. And the bloodshed does get kicked down the road—just down the road, heartbreakingly, to a kid on a dirt bike. What no one sees coming–well, I didn’t–is the triggerman’s being arguably the one least invested in the outcome of the job, the quiet, yessir-nossir bagman Todd. You probably felt something horrible coming at the end of this job for most of the episode–like, well, a train coming down a track. So the end of “Dead Freight” wasn’t surprising, in that sense, but it was horrifying and stunning.

But I’m a little ambivalent as to how it played out. Breaking Bad has sometimes seemed to take the easy way out when facing Walt and Jesse with horrible moral choices. Earlier in this episode, for instance, they were on the verge of killing Lydia in cold blood when, first the phone-tap and then Jesse’s train-heist plan stayed her execution.

Here, having Todd kill* the kid had a definite surprise-twist value. It also–I’m guessing–set up a conflict among the team. For Jesse, now the moral center of the show (or, at least, of Walt’s team), killing children is inconceivable and unforgivable, as we’ve seen before and as was underlined by his horror at the shooting.

*Or at least shoot the kid; in any case, the decision here was plainly to kill him, even if he somehow survived.

But it also staved off a tougher moral confrontation: if Todd hadn’t drawn, no way Mike and company were not going to have to face that some tough conversation about the only successful heists being those that leave no witnesses. (Though again: we don’t know the kid is dead. If he’s not–and we have to go by the no-head-wound, no-dead-wound rule here–and if he could be saved medically, then there is one hell of a conversation coming up in the next episode.)

There’s another way of looking at it, though, which the show has earned enough goodwill for me to embrace. Breaking Bad has steadily moved Walt up, incrementally, to a certain moral line. He would cook drugs, not kill. He would kill, but only gangsters. He would let a drug user die, but he wouldn’t kill in cold blood. He’d kill in cold blood (well, he’d have Jesse do it), but he wouldn’t harm a child.  He’d harm a child, but he wouldn’t kill one.

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In “Dead Freight,” he added to the list: but he’d benefit from someone else doing it, or at least trying to, in front of his own eyes. There are few remaining moral lines for Walt to cross, or, finally, to refuse to. But if there’s one thing five seasons of Breaking Bad have promised, it’s that those terrible choices are coming, unavoidably, like a train hurtling down a track.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Aaron Paul hasn’t had a real spotlight episode in this half of season 5 so far, but he has been quietly effective making Jesse the fulcrum between Mike and Walt, his wheels spinning desperately to keep them from killing everyone they deal with, or each other. With Todd having shot the boy witness—crossing Jesse’s one firm line—I have to wonder whether Jesse is in play here. (It also reminds me that, I’m sure, we have not heard the last about what happened to Brock.)

* I’m going to write this down to a confused viewing of the scene (because of travel, I haven’t had a chance to re-watch before scheduling this post) but I was a little confused by the scenes at the White homestead, especially vis a vis Jr and Holly. Just last week, we saw Walt refuse–coldly, terrifyingly so–any option that would involve Skyler removing the kids from the house. This week, they have essentially a calmer version of the same discussion about the danger Walt presents, and Walt apparently goes along. As I said, I expect I simply missed something simple that I’ll catch on re-viewing, but feel free to shed some light here.

* And in any case–given the “all for the kids” theme I just wrote about–if Walt is no longer doing what he does to keep his family by his side, what reasons does he have left?

* Breaking Bad Visual of the Week: the cold open was notable not just for all the usual reasons (without dialogue, telling a story by the simple addition of images to the frame) but for a different one—there was no “punchline” cueing you in to the scene’s significance until it dawned terribly in the desert later.

* Again, love how Breaking Bad’s attention to the infrastructure and mechanical processes of modern life. It’s like the Ocean’s Eleven of industrial supply chains, manufacturing equipment and food science.

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* Though, OK, one more question on the methylamine siphoning: isn’t there an extremely low margin of error when it comes to how short the train stops? That overpass isn’t that wide. What happens if the train manages to stop a few hundred feet shy of the intersection?

* Love that “Flynn” is still with us.

* Question on the relocation of the kids to Hank and Marie’s, by the way: if the home of a drug dealer is not a safe place for them, is the home of the principal DEA supervisor investigating that drug dealer a safer place for them? Extra credit: do you think any good can come of this?

* Speaking of Hank: Walt could have gone to his office under any number of pretexts. What I liked about his confessing his problems with Skyler—”She doesn’t love me anymore”—is that it’s not just plausible to Hank but plausible to us. Of course Walt is capable of faking the emotion, but I think it’s just as likely that he’s drawing on someone real, that somewhere down there is a part of him that’s actually hurt by her rejection. Or am I just a sucker?