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by Alison Willmore
August 13, 2012 9:53 AM
17 Comments
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'Dead Freight': On 'Breaking Bad' and Its Treatment of Children in Trouble

Aaron Paul, Bryan Cranston and Jesse Plemons in 'Breaking Bad' Ursula Coyote/AMC
There's no way the train job in "Dead Freight," last night's episode of "Breaking Bad," was going to go as planned. Nothing on the show ever goes just as planned, and once Vaminos Pest employee Todd (Jesse Plemons) admiringly told a preening Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) that "You guys thought of everything," the situation was absolutely doomed to go to shit somehow. There's the idea as they sketched it out on paper, and then there's what actually unfolds in the unpredictable world, and if you're lucky, the two will roughly resemble one another. And what Walt, Jesse and Mike (Jonathan Banks) managed was, despite their track obstruction getting cleared ahead of schedule, pretty close to what they intended when they scripted.

Well, except for that dead kid.

I'm of two minds when it comes to how "Breaking Bad" uses child endangerment as an emotive battering ram, its top gear in terms of terrible consequences. It's effective -- of course it is, it's brutal -- but it's also a well to which the show goes fairly often, from the neglected offspring of the two addicts in "Peekaboo" to the unseen owner of the teddy bear floating in Walt's pool after the plane collision in season two, from the 11-year-old gang recruit Tomas to Brock's getting poisoned as part of Walt's plan to get Jesse back to his side.

As Steven Spielberg knows well, the threat of harm coming to a child is an easy shortcut to emotional high stakes, but it's also potentially manipulative as all hell, shameless button-pushing. Then again, the use of children, of undeniable, vulnerable innocents as stand-ins for the masses just off camera who are affected by Walt's dealings makes any rationalization on the character's part clearly just that. It's never only been the people who choose to use meth who get ground up by the business.

In some ways, "Breaking Bad" has been about engaging with and knocking down the idea of children as untouchable things that everyone can agree need to be protected, or at least the idea of what that protection means. Some of the show's worst or most regrettable behavior has been in the name of sheltering and providing for kids, a theoretical positive that has foremost guided Walt's descent into meth production and violence for the sake of, as he's so eager to point out, his family.

Skyler (Anna Gunn) has gotten trapped -- "I'm not your wife, I'm your hostage," she says to Walt in this episode -- by her desire to keep Walter Jr. from finding out that his dad's a criminal. Even Mike had been stockpiling money in that account in the Caymans under his granddaughter's name, though when given the chance to flip in order to save some of that cash for her, he still thought it better to walk away.

And the terrible Lydia (Laura Fraser) told Mike back in "Madrigal" that she'd rather her young daughter find her murdered body than possibly think her mother abandoned her -- whatever Lydia's backstory and host of evident issues, it's a sentiment that's in her own warped interests rather than anything that could be for the good of the little girl. In this episode Lydia talks about the horror of possibly having her "daughter raised in some horrible group home," as if, should it come to that, she'd be better off just dead. The show has a remarkable capacity for making child-rearing, at least when it comes to Walt and Lydia, look in its heart to be a selfish act, a mirror in which these characters see only themselves and their own need to be loved.

So the nameless boy we see riding his dirt bike out in the desert and collecting a tarantula in the cold open has the misfortune of coming across Team Vamanos Pest as they're finishing up their deed, one that needed to remain secret in order for them to preserve the lives of the guys on the train. Todd shoots him (and there's something particularly rough about seeing Landry from "Friday Night Lights" unhesitatingly kill a kid) because he's been told no one can know about what happened, and because he's eager to prove himself a valuable member of the crew. While Jesse's impulse was to try to stop him, if Todd hadn't done it, someone else might have had to -- maybe Mike, maybe Walt, because their whole ungainly plan was centered on staying undiscovered, and it's all too easy to see how the situation could have turned into a kidnapping, a prolonged argument over what to do next and an even more painfully premeditated murder -- Gale times one thousand.

"Dead Freight," which was the directorial debut of the show's writer/producer George Mastras, was the weakest of what's so far been a very strong season. The train heist, while exciting, also went far more smoothly than is characteristic for Walt and Jesse, even with Mike's help. They're bunglers, not criminal prodigies able to familiarize themselves so easily with the workings of a tank car, and the whole enterprise rang a little false.

But that dead child promises a world of knotty complications to come in the series, another symbolic sacrifice on the altar of the drug business and one that could potentially drive Jesse away. And as we saw again in this episode, he's the necessary stabilizing factor for Walt and Mike to work together -- they need to keep him, but he has the least reason to stay, and he's not going to like this at all.

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17 Comments

  • SB | February 8, 2014 3:18 AMReply

    Why should TV / film not depict uncomfortable subjects?

  • Robert Smith | August 22, 2013 8:26 AMReply

    I stopped watching this show when they used the cold blooded murder of an innocent child riding his bike because of shock addictive writers. It is ashamed when writers use shock therapy just to enhance a weak plot. It is despicable when it includes young children. What is next? Will one of the characters kill a new born?

  • - | June 29, 2013 11:26 AMReply

    ""Dead Freight," which was the directorial debut of the show's writer/producer George Mastras, was the weakest of what's so far been a very strong season."
    What? I'd have thought the 2nd episode is the worst, easily. (not that the season had any bad episodes) Sure, it might have been a little far-fetched, but the heist was so fucking brilliantly done (honestly one of the most well-executed heist scenes that I've ever seen in TV or film) that it doesn't really matter.

  • Cheryl | August 25, 2012 7:38 PMReply

    I didn't mind the ease of the robbery -- i just assume that lots of research was done that we didnt see, and that's okay. But I loved the ending. Hated it, but loved it. I mean it was horrible and cruel and I -- the mother of a boy almost that age -- broke down crying immediately, thinking of the wasted life and the poor parents who I knew would most likely never know what happened to him. And the fact that kids have been killed like that just makes me miserable. Boy, that got to me. But what I loved about it was the same thing I liked about the Sopranos -- the directors are reminding us that even though we may find ourselves rooting for the "heroes", we shouldn't. These are not good people. And it reminds us that even though we might watch this and think "I could do this and make millions", it is a violent criminal life and there are lots of innocent victims. So when they all get theirs in the end -- and I hope they do -- we won't be mournful.

  • TripleSeq | August 15, 2012 11:37 PMReply

    Are you nuts? An incredible episode for the cinemetography alone - Stanley Kubrick would be jealous.

  • Astrid | August 15, 2012 7:00 PMReply

    What I find most disgusting about this episode is how commenters below me keep claiming that the ending scene was great because it was so oh unexpected. Guys, here we are talking about the murder of a kid.

    There are many shows which deal with this topic, but what infuriated me is how gratuitous this one death was. It was absolutely avoidable, and it would have actually been more interesting to see how the trio was going to work out how not to make the kid talk.

    But no, the writer decided that we needed more stupid adrenaline than that. So yes, let's gratuitously kill an innocent child on screen. It's the kind of thing the testosterone-full, gun-provided American audience really wants to see. In a country where mass shooting happen without given reason from the culprit, it's normal to needlessly kill children in fiction as well.

    Repulsive.

  • John | November 30, 2012 12:12 AM

    You're a fucking idiot, Astrid

  • Henry | August 17, 2012 3:10 PM

    Despite agreeing with you, partially. I am not sure that you quite understand the world of drug dealing.
    These aren't assassins with a set of rules on who can be killed and who can't. These are desperate dealers, particularly Walter, who have been corrupted by fortune and will not let anything get in the way of making it crumble.

    Think back an episode at how upset Walter got when all those cash cuts have been made. You can just see the fire and rage building up, despite how much money he was still keeping.

    Greed is the number one killer and I believe that is why they showed that scene, rather than the cheesy route of keeping the child and creating more problems.

    No, you see in the real world, people in the same shoes would do the same thing.
    We are people, we are all scum. Plain and simple. This is what most "good" people spend there whole life fighting against. These are the types of acts we hide from and create moral values to set barriers.

    When push comes to shove though, no matter what you will fight to save yourself. All rules are out and you will murder the bastard if thats what it gets to. This is essentially the situation they faced. They were pushed, unfortunately, and they fought.

    No time in there business to add on even more b.s. To their plates, like kidknapping the child or setting him free. "No witnesses"--they showed just how clear and ready they are for anything that will be coming their way.

  • Brian | August 15, 2012 7:30 AMReply

    I think the parallels to Scarface dating back to Steven Bauer playing Don Eladio in season 4 cannot be ignored and much like Scarface,Tony will kill Manny before going down in a blaze of glory.

  • John | August 14, 2012 7:31 PMReply

    Dude how can this be the worst episode? There was so much going on here and it is leading to some forshadowing. Best episode this season. For the record "Fly" is my favorite episode from Breaking Bad.

  • flynn | August 14, 2012 1:38 PMReply

    I don't know what this guy was watching but this was the best episode so far....

  • John | August 14, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    I am pretty sure Jesse will lose his mind or commit suicide before the end of the series, especially after being an accomplice in the murder of the poor boy who witnessed the train heist.

  • chris | August 14, 2012 2:59 AMReply

    I thought it was the best episode of the season so far. The ending was a total punch to the gut and completely out of the blue.
    And I love Skylar & Marie's characters! Perfect antagonists.

  • superstan | August 14, 2012 2:17 AMReply

    I thought this episode came close to 'jumping the shark' because the train heist was so unbelievable for these guys to pull off - especially compared to the ways they continually screw up everything else. And to 'The Fly' detractor here - that was one of the best episodes of any show ever.

  • David | August 13, 2012 5:11 PMReply

    This is just my thoughts about the show. First it is one of the best shows to come along in a while. Second, what did you think when we get to see inside of a drug king pin and his down fall only to have Walt take over. The writers does not show us the bad things that happen to the people who buy Walt's produce. I think they are getting us ready for Walt family to come into some bad things and I don't mean Sklyer... Just my thoughts.

  • Ntl | August 13, 2012 3:16 PMReply

    "...was the weakest of what's so far been a very strong season."
    ...I mean, are you joking? Sky in the pool and being a whiner was the WORST episode of almost the entire time I've been watching this show. Worse than the Fly!
    Honestly, I don't know what it is with AMC shows, but Breaking Bad and Walking Dead seriously write women characters that wreck their shows. Sky and Marie in Breaking Bad and Lori in the Walking Dead...Ugh.
    Otherwise, great article. I just completely disagree that this was the worst episode of the season...Not even close.

  • Henry | August 13, 2012 2:07 PMReply

    Good review but just so you know, it's "Vamonos Pest". At any rate, I think there will be two disputes amongst the crew that will affect the remainder of the season. One between Walt and Mike and one between Jesse and Todd.