"Our children are not in danger."—Walter White
"Our children are not in danger."—Walter White (emphasis added)
We kill children in our entertainment with increasing frequency. At least, that's how it feels to me. Maybe it's because I'm a new father that I'm noticing it more; maybe it's because we do it so often in real life that I'm primed to detect it in make-believe. Or maybe the makers of make-believe, from cultural touchstones that address it seriously like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games to expensive trash that uses it as a glorified special effect like True Blood and The Walking Dead, sense that the slaughter of the innocents needs to be discussed in fiction because we can hardly bring ourselves to face it, to face the forces that lead to it, to face our complicity in those forces, in fact.
So in a way, the murder of a child in this episode of Breaking Bad, "Dead Freight," was not the episode's most taboo act. Not in and of itself, anyway. No, it wasn't what happened that made this the most disturbing episode of television I've ever seen. It was when it happened.
A heist story is a contract with the audience. (Even when, as was the case in sister show Mad Men's heist episode, the heist was about breaking contracts.) You learn about the problem that can't be solved any other way. There were many fits and starts in which the dire straits of the characters are driven home – in the torture-porn palette of the warehouse where Walt, Jesse and Mike interrogate Lydia and by the total absence of music from the tense and methodical center section of the episode. Also, by the images of bald men calmly discussing whether or not to end the lives of total strangers who are completely unaware their lives are in someone else's hands, a scene playing out right this moment in government offices around the world. All this combines to help you figure out the so-crazy-it-just-might-work of it all. You assemble the team. You tell the audience, via Tell Me Again exposition, enough of the plan for them to understand what's happening and recognize when it's going wrong. You hold your breath and take the plunge and set the heist in motion. You throw some good-Samaritan, beat-the-clock, abort-abort curveballs. Then, when everyone's cranking out adrenaline like blue meth, you do the dismount. The crooks get away, or they don't. You either get an "Oh no!" feeling that's weirdly fun when you realize you were rooting for criminals or a euphoric high that's fun for the same reason. That's the deal. That's the contract.
When you make it look like We Won, right up to the moment when the unexpected eyewitness looks like he can be brushed off by returning a timid but friendly wave hello, then have some miserable rotten fuck shoot a little boy to death, you break that contract. The devastating crash from joy to abject horror is unbearable and unforgettable.
That's not to say that writer-director George Mastras didn't foreshadow this moment like a motherfucker. The episode opened with a frenetically filmed wild ride through the desert, echoing the show's very first scene and thereby sending the message that Something Important was going to happen. It contained one of the show's trademark bits of editing irony, cutting directly from something profoundly awful – in this case, Lydia berating Walt, Jesse and Mike for not having the stones to kill two innocent people – to the cherubic face of Walt's baby daughter Holly. (I still get upset thinking about the time they cut to her from a shot of Jane's dad picking out the dress he would bury her in.) The physical safety of Holly and Walt Jr. was the sole topic of discussion between Walt and Skyler, while their emotional health was the main focus of Hank and Marie. Step back a few layers and Jesse's genuine, heartfelt concern for the safety and welfare of children has been his uncrossable line for season after season; it was Walt's willingness to cross that line by poisoning Brock that signaled his move to the dark side. The entire heist was predicated on the crew's ability to stop a train, even as Walt's metaphorical declaration that "nothing stops this train, nothing" still rang in our ears from last episode, carrying the sound of impending doom with it. Speaking of which, that opening scene ends with the boy riding off toward the sound of the train. We knew his train was coming.
And it didn't even have to! Practiced liars like Walt, Mike, Jesse and even Kuby, Saul Goodman's on-staff Richie Cunningham who drove the truck, could easily come up with a cover story good enough to fool a little kid. After all, it's not like his first thought upon seeing a bunch of guys with machinery hooked up to a freight train is going to be, "Gee, I bet they're a drug ring that just stole a crucial supply of methylamine." He even waved at them, indicating that while he might not have known exactly what it was he was looking at, he didn't suspect that they were engaged in any kind of criminal activity it would be dangerous to know about. If they'd stopped standing there, staring at the kid, and started exchanging workingman's banter, throwing around a lot of jargon about pressurization and asking each other if they'd caught the game last night, the kid would most likely have driven away none the wiser. Even the excessive celebration he witnessed could be explained away with some BS about getting the job done in record time or whatever.
Instead, this amoral idiot Todd, played with terrifying innocuousness by Jesse Plemons, murdered an innocent little boy, an act not just grotesque but enormously stupid. He's now drafted the entire crew into an inevitable cover-up of the murder of an innocent bystander, a child at that, and brought down God-knows-how-much law enforcement on the area for the inevitable search and rescue effort – the exact outcome the "no witnesses" policy he swore he understood was designed to avoid. Like the boy and his tarantula, Walt thought he'd contained the danger, never realizing it would come from someplace else entirely.
The feeling's disturbingly familiar. Not saying that any of us are murderers, of course. But I'm guessing few among us are lucky enough not to know that "please, please, let me just take that one moment back" feeling – the moment when you say or do something, or you get caught having said or done something, that completely changes the life you had the second before it happened to a new, irrevocably worse life the second after it happened. There are mistakes you can never fix, never take back, never make up for – and this is one of them. Worse than Jane, worse than the plane crash, worse than Gale, worse than Brock, worse than Walt's manipulation and endangerment of Skyler and Hank and the kids, it taints the adventures of Walt and Jesse forever. All their riveting black-comedy mishaps and adrenaline-rush kill-or-be-killed thrills lead to some asshole murdering a little boy in the desert. Maybe they'll rush him to Gus Fring's former field hospital on the border, but would it even matter?
This will crush Jesse, we know that much. It'll be the hardest thing yet for Walt to rationalize, and the hardest thing yet for Mike to stomach. And it will haunt me. God, will it haunt me. Harrowing, heartbreaking, magnificent television.