Jesse plots an elaborate heist in an attempt to fix the methylamine problem; things take a dark turn

By Darren Franich
August 13, 2012 at 03:05 AM EDT
Ursula Coyote/AMC
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There are two main species of Breaking Bad opening sequences. On one hand, you have the non sequitur scenes that build to twist punchlines: Think of the season 3 premiere, with the homicidal cousins crawling on the ground and sticking a picture of Heisenberg on the shrine wall; or think back a few episodes, when German ketchup tasting session unexpectedly climaxed with bathroom electro-shock suicide. On the other hand, there are the sequences which almost play as separate mini-movies, establishing a tone that carries on throughout the episode: Think of last week’s cool-car montage, or season 2’s monochromatic flash-forwards, or the great Heisenberg mariachi number. Sometimes, the opening sequence can feel like a little bit of both: The unexpected sight of Walter celebrating his 52nd birthday, with hair and a new drive’s license, already felt plenty apocalyptic before we saw the gun in the trunk.

The opening scene of last night’s Breaking Bad seemed to be building to a punchline. We saw a kid driving his little motorcycle over the wide open New Mexico landscape. We’d never seen this kid before. He saw something and stopped his bike. (If you’re like me, you were ready for the kid to find anything: blue meth, the decapitated head of a main character, a potted plant helpfully labeled “Lily of the Valley, have a bite!”.) But no. He picked up a tarantula, and put it in a glass jar. In the distance, he heard a train whistle. And he rode away.

It wasn’t the last time we saw that kid, alas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Big things are happening for Big Hank Schrader, who was unpacking in his new office. Walter swung by to congratulate him. “Being boss is it’s own kind of grind,” Hank said — something that Walt, who recently experienced his own promotion, can probably relate to. (Aside: One of the best running jokes of Breaking Bad is how Walt’s ascension in the criminal underworld mirrors Hank’s rise through the ranks at the DEA. That was even true in season 4, when they were both — in their own way — lone voices in the wilderness trying to take down Gus Fring. End of Aside.)

But Walt wasn’t just stopping by to say hello. He needed to talk to Hank, man-to-man. “Skyler doesn’t love me anymore,” said Walt. “She thinks I’m a bad influence on the kids.” The camera lingered on his face as he started crying. I loved the shot of Hank, fumblingly trying to offer advice as he closes the blinds of his office. “I’m gonna get a cup of coffee!” announced Hank. “You want coffee?”

The second Hank walked out of the office, Walt sprung into action. He planted some kind of device on Hank’s computer; he also put a bug in the frame that held a picture of Hank and Marie. Some people might say that Walt was outright faking his emotional outburst, but the way Bryan Cranston brilliantly played it, I think it was a bit more complicated: Walt allowed himself brief access to his genuine emotions (sorrow, guilt, loneliness) and then shut them off when they were no longer necessary.

The bug planted, Walt joined the other two members of the Baldheaded Power Trio for a jaunty interrogation of Lydia. Mike gave Lydia helpful instructions, ending every instruction with the phrase, “If you don’t, I’m going to pull out my pistol and shoot you in the head.” (When he asked Lydia to repeat the warning, she said, “You’re going to pull out your gun and shoot me.” Mike, with the second most hardboiled line of the night: “It’s a pistol. Not a gun.”) Lydia called Hank and asked him about the tracker bug on the methylamine container.

Hank didn’t know about it — which seemed like proof that Lydia planted it. Mike wanted her dead. Jesse wanted her alive. Walt broke the tie for execution…but just then, Hank called those numbskulls in Houston and found out they’d stupidly planted the tracking device. Hank slapped his forehead. Classic Houston move. “Dammit, Houston, you’re out of your element!” he was probably thinking.

Mike still wanted Lydia dead. But Lydia caught Walt’s attention when she offered up some methylamine: “I’m talking about an ocean of the stuff.”

NEXT: Some thoughts about the nature of Lydia

Am I the only one who thinks the show is setting up Lydia as a kind of female counterpoint to Walt? They’re both extremely fastidious, even nervous, when it comes to their criminal lives; but they also both have an intriguing tendency to grandiose declamations. (“An ocean of the stuff.” “There is gold in the streets.”) The way director George Mastras shot them talking to each other felt weighted with tension. When Lydia revealed that Mike was still paying hazard pay to his old accomplices, Walt perked up. And when Lydia called Walt “the master chemist,” you could spot the ghost of a smile on his face — as if he were thinking, “Finally, some recognition!” (Was there something just a little bit romantic in their interaction? That almost seems too straightforward for a show this twisted.)

Lydia told them a little story about a mythic freight train out of Long Beach that carried methylamine from Guangzhou across the country for Lydia’s company. (Yet again, notice just how far up the rungs of American business Walt has climbed: From a mom-and-pop meth truck to a globalized supply chain.) Generally speaking, stopping the train would kickstart a whole host of security initiatives. But not when the train went through Dark Territory — a remote region where there were no alarms, no automated systems, and no cell phone coverage.

But there was just one problem. Even if the boys could stop a moving train, and could execute a Jesse James-worthy robbery, what would they do about the two men onboard? Mike put it very simply, with the most hardboiled line of the night: “There are two kinds of heists: Those where the guys get away with it, and those that leave witnesses.”

(Meanwhile, over at the Schrader household, Hank was playing around with Baby Holly, while Marie looked on adoringly. Junior was being moody — Hank excitedly told him that he bought Heat on Blu-Ray, but Junior refused. I have two questions about this scene: 1. How can anyone possibly refuse to watch Heat, one of the best action movies of the ’90s? 2. Have Hank and Marie ever talked about children — and their lack thereof? I seem to recall Marie pretending to have children back when she was in her realty-phantom phase.)

Walt and Mike were arguing, as usual. Mike wanted to downshift to a more realistic position: Scam some methylamine, make a decent but tiny profit. Walt refused, demanding more more more! Jesse broke the tie with the latest Jesse Pinkman Stroke of Brilliance: “What if we rip off the that train and no one ever knows it got robbed?”

The plan involved a complicated set-up: Finding an area where the train tracks were elevated, digging holes to put hidden containers in the ground underneath a bridge, and organizing a clock-watching three-ring heist. But the idea was very straightforward: Take out 1000 gallons of methylamine, and replace it with the same weight in water — which, as we all know, comes out to about 900.24 gallons, because something something chemistry. Like the magnet heist back in episode one, this was another example of Jesse putting a very basic scientific concept to use. It’s the kind of elaborate plan that Walt used to come up. Is Breaking Bad the story of Jesse turning into Walt? Or is it, perhaps, the story of Jesse and Walt gradually switching places: A criminal becoming a thoughtful man, and a thoughtful man becoming a criminal?

Walt and Jesse explained their plan to the ever-helpful Todd (a.k.a. “Landry,” a.k.a. “the Friday Night Lights cast member who didn’t embarrass himself in Battleship“). Todd thought Walt and Jesse were geniuses. “You guys thought of everything!” he said. Walt and Jesse looked at each other, and nodded their heads, and flashed each other a thumbs up. FREEZE FRAME!

NEXT: I love it when a plan comes togetherJunior came home to the White household and locked himself in his room. Skyler tried talking to him, but he refused. So Walt talked to Junior and told him — in no uncertain terms — that he had to go back to Uncle Hank’s. Skyler wasn’t impressed. “I will not change my mind about you,” she said. “I’m not your wife. I’m your hostage.” But Skyler had a deal for Walt. If he agreed that the kids would never live with them, then she would be “whatever kind of partner you want me to be.”

(Aside: There’s one part of the Skyler subplot that is getting on my nerves. All along, the show has built Skyler up as someone who is an ace at planning ahead. Like her husband, she can see several steps ahead — hence the White Family Carwash. So something about the “send the kids to leave with Hank and Marie” plan doesn’t entirely ring true to me. Like, does she really think her sister and husband will just agree to raise her children? Surely that looks more suspicious than anything? Or maybe that’s the point — she’s waiting for Walt to get spooked and re-divorce her? End of Aside.)

Like all great heist scenes, the train robbery was a portrait of a carefully ordered plan suddenly descending into chaos. It was Hitchcockian in the best sense.  (Hitchcock loved him some train scenes.) It was also an example of Breaking Bad going Full Western. At one point, the camera craned down from a POV on the tracks to show us Walt, Jesse, and Todd under the bridge — a shot that would make Sam Peckinpah positively inebriated with pride.

Up at the crossing, The Great Bill Burr was pretending to be the world’s most unlucky trucker. The train conductors got off and tried to help him with his engine. Back at the bridge, Jesse and Todd swung into action. Todd poured the water in; Jesse took the Methylamine out. Water goes in, methylamine comes out: That’s what Osaka Seafood Concern is all about!

Just one problem: A helpful dude with a helpfully huge car stopped at the crossing and offered to push The Great Bill Burr’s truck away from the railroad. “No, no, you don’t wanna dent your bumper!” said The Great Bill Burr, improvving like crazy. But the truck was pushed off the tracks, and the conductors got back on. Walter refused to call it off, though, until it hit that magic number. Todd jumped off the train while it was moving; Jesse watched the train pass over his head.

Success! We did it! Walt patted Jesse on the back, and Jesse hugged Todd, and Todd shook Walter’s hand, and everyone nodded at each other and smiled and flashed a thumbs up, FREEZE FRAME! Just then, though, Walter saw something. A flaw in the perfect plan. A variable they didn’t foresee. The Opening Sequence Boy was sitting there on his bike, under the bridge. He held up his hand. He waved.

Cut back to the criminal trio. Jesse and Walt looked dumbstruck. Todd, though, held up his hand and returned the wave. Then he walked forward and reached back. “No! No!” said Jesse. But it was inevitable: Todd shot the child. (Sorry, let me say this in words that a TV fan will understand: “LANDRY KILLED AN ADORABLE LITTLE BOY!“) And the tarantula crawled around inside its glass cage, trapped.

The descent of Walter White has resulted in a lot of collateral damages: The trash heaps of Albuquerque are overflowing with the melted-down bio-mass of people Walt has killed, either directly or indirectly. But the senselessly random aspect of this shooting is a new level of depravity. Three episodes left before this half-season concludes: How much worse can it get?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

Episode Recaps

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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