In a somewhat amusing bit of network synergy, AMC managed to have both the premiere of Hell on Wheels and Breaking Bad feature two very different groups of outlaws robbing trains. While the former centers on the railroad – which is, in fact, that program’s lifeblood – the same activity is new territory for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his crew, and yet it manages to make for another fantastically tense and well-paced episode.
As season 5 rolls along, Vince Gilligan continues to tease his audience with the season’s cold open, asking them to double check every image, event and spoken word to hopefully understand just how things can go from empire building to having Jim Beaver deliver a car with a machine gun in the trunk. Meanwhile, the evolution of Walter White progresses as he brazenly manipulates everyone he can in order to achieve his new, all-consuming goal of creating said empire where he assumes the throne.
The latest step includes an unscheduled visit to his brother-in-law’s new office to procure some much needed information regarding the GPS trackers that were found on the bottom of a container of methylamine at the Madrigal warehouse. Walt shuffles in and greets Hank (Dean Norris) with a hangdog expression and – taking his time – goes into increasingly uncomfortable detail about how his marriage to Skyler (Anna Gunn) is falling apart. As Walt eventually breaks down, the look of abject terror on Hank’s face is an early highlight to the episode. It also leads Hank to give Walt a moment alone to collect himself…and bug his office.
With their new inside track into the goings on at the DEA’s office, the next order of business is for Mike (Jonathan Banks) to verify that Lydia (Laura Fraser) was or was not the person responsible for the poorly concealed tracking device on the methylamine. After a brief conversation with Hank, the listening device reveals that his office had nothing to do with tagging the warehouse’s barrels. Mike, who’s been itching to do away with Lydia for a while, seems intent on getting rid of her at that moment. That is, until Hank places a call to another office and finds out the GPS units were indeed the work of some sloppy law enforcement work. With Lydia having earned yet another reprieve, she begins to negotiate by offering knowledge of vast quantities of the chemical Walt’s burgeoning empire so desperately needs.
With the others absent, Walt and Lydia talk details, but she wants assurances that a bullet won’t find its way into her brain once she reveals the location of this supposed “ocean” of methylamine. While they talk, Walt seems as intrigued by the notion of her putting a hit out on Mike as he is pleased to hear Lydia assume he is the brilliant chemist everyone keeps talking about. There’s nothing like a little notoriety to get Walt feeling good about his recent life choices. As it turns out, Lydia’s plan is to rob a train carrying thousands of gallons of methylamine, by using her inside knowledge and going full Under Siege 2: Dark Territory on the train crew. With such a narrow window in which they can work, Mike sees the only way to make such a heist plausible is to kill the two-man crew – an act that doesn’t exactly fill him with excitement.
Murdering innocent civilians seems like the gang’s only option until Jesse (Aaron Paul) devises a risky, but rather crafty solution to the problem that requires they bring in a few extra hands; namely, Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Kuby (Bill Burr). Together they venture out into the desert to plant two tankers: one with water and an empty one to deliver the stolen methylamine into. The plan is to stop the train, take what they need of the chemical and replace it with water. As Walter explains to a very inquisitive Todd, if all goes according to plan, the only ones being blamed will be the Chinese manufacturer for delivering a slightly diluted product.
Back at home, Walt is forced to be the bad parent and insist that Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) go and stay with his aunt and uncle without offering an explanation. Afterward, Skyler makes an appeal to her husband that she will be whatever kind of partner he wants, as long as Walt Jr. and Holly aren’t in the house and, as she sees it, in imminent danger. Walt seems to find these terms acceptable for the moment and even openly admits to his plan for train robbery when Skyler makes a crack about the dirt on his pants. The scenes between Walt and Skyler have been some of this season’s best, as the question of what she will do next is nearly as tantalizing as connecting the dots to the season’s opener. Intriguingly, Gilligan and his writers have managed to make one of the more sympathetic characters in the show also one of the most despised and it will be interesting to gauge reactions to Skyler and Walt as the series draws to a close.
But first, those pesky dots must be connected. The train heist involves little more than some mostly adlibbed subterfuge, but it manages to be an appropriately pressure-filled few minutes in which Jesse and Todd race to complete their tasks while Kuby keeps the train from rolling down the track with a disabled dump truck as an obstruction. Things get even tenser when a Samaritan arrives and essentially takes Kuby out of the equation. Even though the train begins to roll away, Walt won’t settle for anything less than full capacity of the methylamine tanker, pinning Jesse under the train until it passes and forcing Todd to leap off as it picks up steam.
The celebration of a heist well done is short-lived, however, as it becomes apparent they’re playing to an audience of one: a young boy on a dirt bike with a penchant for tarantulas. The kid waives at them just before Todd shoots him in cold blood. Considering the lengths to which the crew went to spare innocent lives, this likely isn’t going to leave Todd in a very good position.
Breaking Bad continues next Sunday with ‘Buyout’ @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview of the episode below: