The opening teaser on “Breaking Bad” has proved to be one of the most elastic and effective storytelling devices used on the show. First utilized in the pilot, the opening plunged viewers into what appeared to be Walter White’s desperate final moments before spending the rest of the episode going backward to find out exactly how we got there. During the second season, the show used the opening minutes to tease out a season long mystery and most recently, the Season 5 premiere introduced "Walt 52," perhaps the most intriguing glimpse into the future thus far. But there is something special about this week’s enigmatic opening, seemingly unconnected to anything else on the show, where you keep waiting for something to happen and it never does.
We just see a boy riding his dirt bike around in the desert who stops to pick up a tarantula. Without knowing exactly where or when this might be taking place, your mind starts racing to put together the puzzle. (Is this a flashback? Or flashforward? Will he come upon some bit of damning evidence?) But before you can find an answer, it cuts to the opening credits so quickly you’ll completely miss the faint sound of a train whistle in the distance. By the time the episode circles back to the boy, you’ve probably completely forgotten about him. But that doesn’t make his tragic fate any less of a punch to the gut. This is the genius of “Breaking Bad.”
Like the Season Premiere, “Dead Freight” also centers around a heist. This time Walt, Jesse, Mike and (because an extra man is needed) Jesse Plemons' Todd must lift a large quantity of methylamine off of a stopped train without the train ever knowing it was robbed. But as rules of heists go, no matter how much you plan, something unexpected will always come up to throw a wrench into the mix. Who wants to see a heist that goes exactly to plan anyway? As if on cue, as the crew are siphoning the methylamine, a good samaritan stops by to help things along. As the train begins to pull away, Walt ignores Mike’s requests to abort the mission, once again asserting his determination for finishing the job at all costs.
This is the same resolve that led him earlier in the episode to sell out his brother in law by planting a bug in Hank’s office. The brilliant thing is that not only does Hank fall for this routine but so do we. But unlike Hank, we should know better by now. We’ve seen Walt lie and manipulate time and time again but when he comes crying to Hank about marital troubles, we still want to believe him. Hank almost walks in on Walt planting a listening device in a picture frame on his desk — which means he’s sure to put the pieces together later on when that device is discovered — but Walt still pulls it off.
As it turns out, Lydia did not plant the tracking device on the methylamine. She may still be up to something but for now we have to believe that she’s smart enough to know that fucking with Mike was not a good idea. She gets to live, for now. The other female on the show who poses a threat to Walt currently is Skyler, whose stunt last week temporarily won her the upper hand. This week, Skyler lays it out for Walt. She know’s at this point she’s basically his “hostage” and offers, “I’ll be whatever you want me to be,” in exchange for his promise that the kids stay away. Still, even with this deal in place it’s unlikely that Skyler will be able to keep up her end of the bargain for long.
Walt may be thinking a few steps ahead of those closest to him but his actions are becoming increasingly careless. He wants to be (if not caught then at least) recognized for his work. His recklessness during the train heist put both Jesse and Todd in danger but thus far his hubris has been rewarded as the methylamine robbery is pulled off successfully. But the celebration is short-lived as they’re interrupted by the boy on the dirt bike from the show’s opening. At first they stand there stunned, even Walt and Jesse aren’t sure exactly how to proceed, but before they can speak up Todd takes action and shoots him. It feels like a punch in the gut to both the audience and Jesse, whose expert planning may have saved the lives of the train conductors but couldn’t save this boy from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
During Todd’s introduction we wondered exactly what his role would be on the show, since you don’t cast a recognizable face like Jesse Plemons and just stick him in the background. So knowing that he’s going to impact the core group somehow, we wondered if he might have been an undercover agent working with the DEA but this obviously puts those suspicions to rest. Now we wonder if he might be Jesse’s undoing. Jesse is burdened with a conscience that Todd doesn’t seem to have. It seems possible that Walt may find the do-whatever-is-necessary Todd to be a more suitable partner. Might Todd be called on to take care of Jesse if he becomes a problem down the line? It wouldn’t surprise us.
Every week, Vince Gilligan and co. have to figure out how to outsmart an audience that gets savvier with each passing episode. Once you’ve caught on to a particular storytelling trick, you can usually start to spot one before the writers might intend, so credit the writers here for continually staying ahead of their viewers without ever losing a grasp on the characters. As a fan of “Lost,” I could always weather the dangling mysteries but could never stomach when the characters suddenly did something for the sake of story that seemed completely not in their character. Thankfully that has never been the case here. Gilligan has an infallible understanding of his characters and is determined to follow them for better or worse. [A-]