Monday, 13 August 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Dead Freight' review

I've been reading through pages and pages of internet commenters nit-picking 'Dead Freight' for liberties it may or may not have taken in the sequence when Walter White and co. robbed the freight train. Honestly, it baffles me. Not that the train drivers never thought to glance behind them, or that a car didn't turn up sooner, or that no-one spotted the digger during the preparatory phase, or that there weren't biologists out exploring the desert (seriously). What baffles me is that even when faced with a sequence so suspenseful, intense and masterfully directed - right down to the train chugging along in time with the soundtrack - all people can do is complain. Yes, it's the internet, and complaining is at least twenty percent of what people do here (with the remaining eighty given over to social media and porn), but as a writer and someone who loves good writing, it's a habit which bothers me.

One person even said they were 'willing' to give the show 'a pass this time'. Well, that's generous. Breaking Bad has delivered four plus seasons of among the greatest drama ever televised, and that's just enough to earn a single 'pass' for not living up to some ridiculous standards of what passes for realism? Here's something complainant out there should know: realism is boring. Maybe it would be possible in the real world for a train robbery to take place, but showing all the steps needed to mitigate the various security measures and possible worst case scenarios which could happen would take up most of the episode, be unspeakable dull, and all to satisfy a handful of grumblers who want to feel clever despite openly displaying their inability to grasp the concept of fiction. Yes, shortcuts were taken, but when they make the ride this much more thrilling, there's no justification for moaning.
That's not to say every plot hole in every form of storytelling should be ignored. If a sequence of events makes no logical sense, or outright breaks the rules or reality, or relies upon a turn of events so completely implausible that there is no way the actions taking place could succeed in any conceivable fashion without the writer's forced hand, it's the duty of every viewer, reader or player to voice their dissatisfaction. Lord knows I do it enough. Yet when the actions in question involve nothing more than reality being bent slightly for the sake of streamlining - I'm sure the writers could have come up with a reason for the road not being too busy, or for the train drivers not to look back, or for frickin' biologists to be roaming the desert as they are supposedly so wont to do - frankly, if that's too much to ask, turn off the TV and go back to staring out the window. Your life must be hella exciting anyway if you think Breaking Bad deserves to be moaned at for needing to take tiny liberties in its depiction of a train heist.

The most ridiculous thing is that many of the things people were moaning about happened anyway. A car did turn up at an inopportune moment. The heist was interrupted by someone mucking around in the desert, even if it was a boy on a dirtbike rather than a biologist hunting for specimens. As for the digger, well, the average person isn't as suspicious as the internet likes to think: you see a digger by the side of a road, near train tracks, you assume it's a legitimate operation and keep on driving. Who among us has ever stopped next to roadworks and asked to see proof that it isn't a front for an elaborate robbery? Well, apart from you, Lers. As for why the train drivers didn't turn their back or a car didn't turn up sooner... well, they didn't. Move on.

Point made, 'Dead Freight' was a pretty fabulous episode from start to finish, which changed the pace for the series by moving it into something close to Ocean's Eleven territory. The heist episode is one plenty of shows have done before, but is such a flexible and entertaining concept that it's welcome every time, especially in series as unexpected as Mad Men, where the third season finale used all the elements of a team putting a plan into action and executing it to perfection, even if a literal heist was not needed as part of SCDP's creation. It works because it's simple: establish the near-impossible stakes, find out how our heroes are going to make the most of that 'near', then watch them be unmitigated bad-asses pulling it off and overcoming the inevitable complications or moments when we're led to assume the situation has slipped out of control, even though it hasn't.

The build-up in 'Dead Freight' was brilliantly done, because whilst the episode focused on keeping its viewers gripped with the main conundrum of what Jesse's plan was, a second event was being foreshadowed in the background, waiting to put the blackest of black twists into the long-awaited moment of victory. The cold open laid out front and centre what was about to happen, right down to the boy being distracted by the sound of an arriving train, then used the main plotline as a distraction before the literal trigger was pulled. The viewers were the ones subject to the real con: like the train drivers, the situation on-screen was attention grabbing enough to distract from was happening elsewhere, even though we had all been told it was coming. Anyone who didn't see the ending coming can't complain about the drivers not turning their heads.

Even after the cold open established the literal facts, the motif of children in danger persisted as a subplot where Skylar continued to push for Walt Jr and Holly to be keep out of the house, and out of danger. The conversation between her and Walt, in a house so dark it could only be foreshadowing death, was worded with pinpoint precision, from Skylar's fear that one day, someone would come knocking on the door of the house and endanger the children if they were there - implicating Walt, the one who knocks, as someone who poses a threat to children - to her offhand remark about her husband going away to 'bury bodies', to which he (with total cool) tells her he's actually off to rob a train. He thinks he's doing one thing, when actually about to be doing another. He's never been capable of predicting or understanding the consequences of his actions, a fact subtly reinforced and paid off in two lines of seemingly quippy dialogue.

Jesse's despair as Todd pulls out a gun and goes Henry Fonda on the boy was also earlier foreshadowed through his agreement that no-one could know what happened other than those involved. Todd had his orders and he carried them out. Jesse, so thrilled with his plan, never considered how his words might be interpreted, and now his work has led to another dead child. Not to mention how, once the methylamine reaches its destination and the impurity detected, someone is bound to put two and two together if news breaks out that there was a murder very shortly after the train was stopped, right beneath one of the tanks. Yes, they'll probably move the body and cover up the blood, but it's a deep crack in what was assumed to be a foolproof operation, as has been a recurring motif this season.

A boy's death isn't going to go unnoticed no matter how well the gang covers their tracks, and attention on their activities will escalate, especially if a link is made to a methylamine robbery and therefore, almost certainly Heisenberg. With Hank's newfound love for the adorable baby Holly, he could make it his personal quest to bring the people responsible to justice, and as the police expert on all things Heisenberg, that would be bad news for the man who recently bugged his brother-in-law's office, leaving some possibly incriminating fingerprints behind along with a suspicion he's spending money he doesn't have and marital problems severe enough to require displacing the children from their family home. Eleven episodes to go.



Anonymous said...

Love it, bring those miserable Internet trolls down a peg or two, just watch and enjoy!! Of course there is going to be inplausability, it's a tv show!!

I adore breaking bad and I love your critic, thanks Xander!!

Xander Markham said...

Thanks! I don't think my blog gets enough readers for said trolls to notice, but it's a relief to vent every now and again!