"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In which Our Hero learns that: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain / For promis’d joy! / “ Or something.”
The gob it is smacked.
“Dead Freight” is not only one of the most problematic and flawed episodes of “Breaking Bad,” it also contains the single most devastating sucker punch in a series known for throwing them.
For 47 of these 48 minutes, I was worried. With all due respect to “Shark Week,” I’m certain that I saw a fin in the water for “Breaking Bad.”
In order to adequately describe this episode, I am going to take it as presented, and not reinterpret it through the filter of that last minute. Although what happens then changes everything, it still does not excuse the previous 47. Nits will be picked, but “Breaking Bad” has always demanded close attention, for better, and in this case, for worse.
“Dead Freight” was written and directed by George Mastras, who has given us many emblematic series moments. In Season 1’s “Crazy Hand Full of Nothin’,” Walter White blows up Tuco with a packet of mercury fulminate, and officially comes up with the name Heisenberg. In Season 2, Tuco is served a ricin-laced burrito accompanied to the score of Hector Salamanca’s dinging bell. And who can forget Season 3’s “I.F.D” where Skyler “F”d her smarmy boss Ted? We should have been in good hands.
But this episode seemed to go off the rails almost immediately. From a confusing teaser where a young boy on a dirt bike harvests a tarantula as a train approaches, we then witness what seemed to be a “very special episode of MacGyver.” One of the many strengths of “Breaking Bad” is the way they sweat the details. Procedure and the scientific process are important, and things always happen for a defined reason, no matter how demented they may seem in hindsight. But in “Dead Freight,” one implausible setup after another is on display, in a bewildering series of scams and schemes both presented too quickly and, at the same time, bogged down by way too much “let-me-explain-for-those-playing-at-home” exposition.
Let’s start with the planting of the bug in Hank’s office. What seems to be an honest moment of Walter’s emotional confession turns into a ploy that would only work if Hank left his office, for just long enough. What if Hank had not decided to draw his blinds? What if Hank had already had a cup of coffee? Couldn’t Walter have at least asked Hank to get him a cup while he composed himself? Sloppy. Walter knows better, has known better and we know better that he knows better (whew), and there is always a method to his madness. This method relied on far too many coincidences.
Then, the Three Amigos’ abduction and psychological torture road trip to Houston. We are supposed to just buy into the fact that they could grab the paranoid Lydia off the street or in her goldfish-bowl office, take her to a conveniently isolated and dark (and pre-scouted) totally secure warehouse, and then, count on the world’s most unreliable hysterical person to play phone tag with a canny and already suspicious DEA agent – all with a literal gun held to her head? Well, perhaps, but again, so many unnecessary moving parts.
And then. The Great Methylamine Train Robbery.
This might be the most plot-holed, contrived scheme in “Breaking Bad” history. Let us count the ways. First, Lydia just happens to have an absolutely intimate knowledge of every single mile of the rural rail system from Long Beach to Houston? Including that dark three-mile stretch that just happens to be in New Mexico? Really? That’s a part of her Madrigal job description? And there are staffing issues. Our Amigos can instantly rope-in three more henchmen to help execute this long shot, each one vowing to remain silent at the same time Mike desperately tries to pay off nine former colleagues in prison? Although it is always a pleasure to see Kuby, our old friend the faux EPA inspector and the cerebral muscle who frightened Ted into literal paralysis, what exactly was his deal this time? Wasn’t he Saul’s guy? And Young Matt Damon the Vamonos Pest guy? He is now a trusted member of the inner circle? More on YMD/Todd later.
And then, there is the contrived implementation of the plan. “Dead Freight” insults our intelligence at the same time that it elevates Jesse’s. It was one thing for our favorite slacker to come up with “yo, magnets,” but conceiving a scheme that requires intimate knowledge of how freight train cars transport and pump their chemical loads is completely implausible, and worse, out of character. Yes, it is a brilliant scheme, but not coming from a chemistry-class dropout who thinks that “wire” is an element. And Jesse figuring it out while looking at his drink straw is just too convenient. And then, logistics. We have to believe that our heroes knew exactly what car the chemicals would be on along the locomotive food chain, would be able to map the exact number of cars of that train in advance, and would be certain that the car in question would stop at the right bend in the three-mile stretch with easy out-of-sight access to their pre-buried tanks. Yes, I can hear you say, Lydia could have given them that information — but her inquiry just might set off some internal Madrigal, or worse, Homeland Security alarms. At the same time she knows she is under DEA scrutiny – and has just reminded the new ASAC that she is still lurking about. Again, sloppy. The “Curiosity” landing on Mars had fewer moving parts. This is about where I began to see that submerged shark fin.
Every contrived plan must have its implausible execution. Synchronized Olympic swimming seems a chaotic shambles next to the precision of this heist’s execution. The train stops just where it should. The target tanker car as well. With no practice, at least, any that we saw, our team knows exactly what screws to twist, what tools needed to twist them, and what hose they need to connect what to where. Of course, the freight car in question doesn’t have any rusty or stuck valves that might throw off their timing. Of course, the operation goes off with scarcely a hitch. One thousand gallons out, 920 gallons of water in, as part of a process that I am sure makes perfect scientific sense, but also seemed designed to provide another contrived moment of drama in an episode filled with too many of them. There is no logical reason why Walter would risk everything to exactly extract those 1,000 gallons. Yes, we know he is now driven by his ego, but he is also brilliantly calculating, he does not like messes, and great, boring expositional pains were taken to establish that a few lost gallons either way was no biggie. Yet, Walter does so anyway. In spite of all that, what a surprise, the train leaves the temporary station with the perfect crime pulled off to perfection.
Just when I was completely exasperated, and resigned to report that my beloved “Breaking Bad” had joined the Fonz on water skis, the boy with the tarantula reappears. Young Matt Damon fires the shot that changes everything.
George Mastras wrote the second-season episode “Mandala,” where Jesse’s occasional girlfriend’s 11-year-old brother becomes an executioner. This time, roles reverse. With this one horrific act, everything that has happened across four and a third seasons has been irrevocably altered. One act of transgressional violence changes how our characters see themselves, and how we will see them for the next 11 episodes. And Jesse may have set off this chain reaction. It was he who told Young Matt Damon that no one must ever know about the theft. This truth will change all consequences, in a series that revolves around them. The contrived 47 minutes are erased, and (partially) forgiven. The fin in the water submerges and is lost to sight. The creators of “Breaking Bad” do know what they are doing, and we cannot get off this dark ride, no matter where it is going.
But as much as this horrific, game-changing scene shocks, it still feels unmoored from the rest of the series. Vince Gilligan has made it clear that “Breaking Bad” is about where Walter White’s head is right now. But this moment in “Dead Freight” does not happen due to any specific act of Walter’s. Had somehow his hubris-filled stalling when filling that 1,000 gallon tank led directly to Young Matt Damon’s shot, that internal rule would have been followed. But Tarantula Boy could have been watching for a while. And this was Jesse’s scheme to begin with, and, as I mentioned, he was the one who told YMD that no one must ever know. We can be charitable and say that Walter not being responsible for this horrific act is in fact the dramatic point, and that this act is what is needed to de-couple Jesse from the Walter train, but, who knows? Gilligan is clear that he likes to surprise viewers as well. Consider me surprised. In any event, Young Matt Damon is going to have some ‘splainin’ to do, and very soon.
Random notes and observations.
* Hank Schrader’s chronic inability to confront emotion makes it almost plausible that Walter could count on it in his bugging scheme. Almost. Perfectly played, as always, by Dean Norris.
*“Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head.” The wit and wisdom of Chairman Mike as Lydia sings for her survival. And now we can add horrible foster “group homes” along with being raped by prison guards as Lydia’s worst nightmare.
* Walter refuses to swear an oath on the lives of his children, even if it means swimming in an “ocean of methylamine.”
* “There are two kinds of heists. Those that get away with it. And those that leave witnesses.” Another great epigram from Mike. Perhaps he should get a Twitter account.
* “Can you say ASAC Schrader?” Hank dandling Baby Holly, whilst Marie threatens to beat him with a shoe.
* Walter Junior is calling himself “Flynn” again. Never a good sign. And he doesn’t even want to watch “Heat” on BluRay. My fave “Manhunter,” perhaps?
* “I’m not your wife. I am your hostage.” Bad line, in an episode filled with clunky exposition. In fact, every scene between Walter and Skyler in “Dead Freight” seemed determined to exactly spell out what we already knew about their doomed relationship.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)