AMC, August 12, 10:56 p.m. ET
Breaking Bad opened the fifth episode of last summer’s shocker of a half-season with a boy on a motorbike, trapping a tarantula in the New Mexico desert. We’d never seen him before, and we didn’t have a reason to care about him, but the show used him to reinforce its most pitiless lesson—in its world, kids die simply for being in the way. After our glimpse of him, the boy exited while the episode turned to a long and complicated train heist, in which the show’s antiheroes, Walt and Jesse, siphon gallons of the chemical they need to cook methamphetamine out of a train they have managed to stop on a pretext. They bring along a third guy named Todd to help them, and when the trio have pulled off their crazy stunt, the action slowed to give them a moment of pure exhilaration. They’ve executed the perfect bloodless crime. And then, interrupting their outlaw glory, the kid pulled up on his bike and waved hello. He wasn’t their conscience, sitting in judgment. He was just a bystander—the accidental witness. For being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he got popped.
As Emily Nussbaum pointed out in a great review in The New Yorker, the shooting wasn’t shocking because it broke with the show’s moral framework. It was shocking because it jolted us into remembering Brock, a 5-year-old boy whom Walt had poisoned the previous season in an elaborate plot designed to win back Jesse. Now here was a second child mowed down by Walt’s ambition. He didn’t pull the trigger—Todd did—but he did nothing to save the boy.
The murder was the show’s fulcrum last summer, at once dividing Jesse and Walt into hand-wringer and predator. Paired with Brock’s poisoning, it forced viewers to ask a question TV shows don’t normally force on them: Why were we still watching? Had we in some measure adopted Walt’s point of view, and given his slide into evil, did that make us, as Nussbaum put it, “not merely fans but enablers?” The kid on the motorbike provoked all those roiling thoughts. And he barely said a word.