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‘Dead Freight’: On ‘Breaking Bad’ and Its Treatment of Children in Trouble

'Dead Freight': On 'Breaking Bad' and Its Treatment of Children in Trouble

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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