'Breaking Bad' review: Robbery, death, and Meryl Streep

This week’s Breaking Bad climaxed with a thrilling heist scene, hatched from a plan so outrageous in conception yet executed with such tightly edited realism that the final-scene horror was — not to be too heartless about this — icing on a beautiful cake. Once again, Jesse came up with the brilliant idea, Mike objected right up until the moment he was overruled and took part in the scheme anyway, and Walt? Well, Walt was, as much as ever, the man who manipulated everyone without seeming to exert himself all that much… which is one measure of a leader in firm control.

The hour, written and directed by supervising producer George Mastras, furthered last week’s discovery of the tracking device found on the methylamine container in the Madrigal storage facility. Under intense coercion by our “heroes” (we have to start putting italics around anything involving Walt now, don’t we?), Lydia told them how the trio could procure “oceans” — 24,000 gallons of the stuff: Easy-peasy — just rob a train tanker car full of the stuff as it made its way through a “dead zone” outside of Flagstaff. (A tip of the hat to Laura Fraser for maintaining that distinctive mixture of fear, anger, craftiness, and irritation as she endured her interrogation and at least momentary respite from being shot in the head by Mike.)

Bad moves at such a swift, assured pace that what, in another show, would seem ludicrously elaborate (getting a Vamanos bug guy to dig two pits with a back hoe alongside the railroad track; exchange the chemical for water to keep anyone from noticing a weight change; stopping the train by having a truck “stall” on the track) — all of this was set in motion so smoothly, staged and shot with such economy and clarity (you always knew where every character was, what he was doing, and when he was doing it), that the heist did indeed seem as though it was the most logical way for Walt and Jesse to be able to continue their bug-bomb-house cooks.

Before this excitement, there were some highly satisfying scenes involving Hank. Any viewer who doubts that Hank is suspicious of Walt had to note this night how quickly he noticed Walt’s new watch (Jesse’s birthday gift), and the studiedly casual way Hank muttered, “new car, new watch… ” Hank’s reactions to Walt’s excuse to visit Hank and bug his office — that Skyler doesn’t love him any more — were (we were free to interpret it either way, or both) either demonstrations of genuine discomfort or, again, cagily feigned discomfort. And the moments with Hank at home, cuddling baby Holly and exasperation with the moodiness of his other house guest, Walt, Jr., were impeccable.

Framing the episode were the scenes involving a young boy on a motorbike. Pre-credits, the kid found what looked like a tarantula as he took a solitary spin through the desert. (You were made to really like this kid for the way he carried a glass jar for the sole purpose of storing his discovery. He was a scientist-in-the-making — is this what Walt was like as a child?) And at the end, the kid reappeared at the site of the heist, and Jesse Plemons’ Todd shot the child without a moment’s hesitation. Even though he hadn’t heard Mike, Todd was carrying out Mike’s philosophy that the heists that fail are the ones that leave witnesses.

The episode, titled “Dead Freight,” continued what I think is the hubristic flaw in Walt’s character by allowing more outsiders to help him achieve his goals (Bill Burr’s truck-driver phony; the Vamanos guys), even as, overall, Breaking Bad increases the poignance of the lives that are being ruined in Walt’s wake, ranging from Skyler and their kids to the boy-innocent left shot dead, just as the tarantula scrambled around in its jar, desperate for escape. If you’re looking for metaphors, I’d say the insect was a good one for Jesse, who can be deadly, who’s certainly resourceful, but who’s also doomed to be trapped.

Breaking points:

• Hank refers to a sullen Walt Jr. as “Emo McGee,” forever affirming my love of Hank.

• Hank tries to soften up Emo McGee by telling him he’s got “Heat on Blu-Ray” for them to watch (see above, Hank, reasons to love), even if the Michael Mann movie this episode more strongly evoked for its heist execution is Thief.

• Skyler, pushed to the margins of this episode, nonetheless uttered a key line: “I’m not your wife, I’m your hostage.”

• But the line of the night went to Mike, when Jesse said he was tempted to believe Lydia was telling the truth: “Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head.”

Your thoughts?

Twitter: @kentucker

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