Monday, March 25, 2013

Meth Monday: "Dead Freight" (5.04)

Hello Readers Mine! We're almost through the thirty day push to get the episode guides for Seasons 1 - 5A to the folks at ECW Press, and that means I've been spending a good deal of time rewatching, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on one of Season 5A's most memorable episodes. Hope you enjoy!

Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) in "Dead Freight" (5.04).

Season 5 has seen Breaking Bad return to a focus on family, and widen the lens to include several different kinds of family. Walt still insists that everything he has done over the past four seasons has all be for his own family, while Hank and Marie are discovering that they enjoy being parents, and are working hard to help Skyler and Walt sort things out. Skyler, on the other hand, has no intention of working things out with Walt, but is willing to do anything to protect her children. However, Gilligan & Co. have quietly developed several other families which now at least in part guide the actions of the central characters. Mike only agrees to go into business with Walt in order to keep his men in prison quiet by getting the money they need to take care of their families. Mike himself is putting all of his “hazard pay” into a massive trust fund for his much loved granddaughter Kaylee. Jesse continues to support Andrea and Brock even after he and Andrea have split up, because they’ve become his “instant family.” Finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, Lydia continues to reveal a truly fierce loyalty and love for her daughter, becoming most distraught when contemplating her little girl being left alone in the world. The ties binding these people together are intricate and dangerous, and go to show that, in Breaking Bad, there are no free agents, no one who can go down without hurting “innocents.” In fact, everything the central characters do winds up hurting someone, somewhere.

Despite a daring train robbery presented with all of the skill and suspenseful drama of The Italian Job or The Thomas Crown Affair, at the heart of “Dead Freight” is the truth that, no matter how good they are, no matter how pure their intentions, no matter how much control they are able to exercise, what Walt, Jesse, and Mike do kills people, and there is no avoiding it. The boy on the dirt-bike is a classic example, and his brief arc is carefully crafted down to the smallest details. Sound is vital in this episode. The roar of the kid’s bike blocks out everything else, particularly through his protective helmet. It is only because he saw and stopped to capture a tarantula that he dismounts, takes off his helmet, and lets his bike idle at a much quieter rate. This in turn stops him just long enough and makes things just quiet enough, that he hears the train-whistle in the distance. The careful attention to sound effects in the cold open is mirrored in the final scene of the episode, where, the theft of 1000 gallons of methylamine successfully completed, Walt, Jesse, and Todd hoot, holler, and celebrate before turning off the motor to the water-pump only to hear a softer but similar sound in the idling of the kid’s bike.

What follows is a brilliant use of what TV scholars call intertextuality, when an actor well known for a particular role carries the audience’s memory of that role over into a new one. Here Jesse Plemons, best known for his role as Landry Clarke on Friday Night Lights, a lovable, loyal, truly good young man, is seen to gun down a young kid. Though the viewer is well aware that Plemons is playing a different character in Todd, seeing an actor associated so strongly with a good guy do something so unforgivable heinous makes the murder of the boy even more shocking. Within the narrative, this is Jesse’s worst nightmare come true, for it was he who told Todd that absolutely no one could ever know about the robbery, which Todd understandably interpreted as instructions to ensure that no one would ever know. Like Gus Fring telling his street-dealers “No more children” in “Half Measures” (3.12), Jesse’s unthinking words have led directly to the death of a child. Jesse is suddenly much further on the road to becoming that which he hates, and thus to breaking bad completely.

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