Last year around this time, ScriptPhD.com posted Breaking Bad, Chemistry Good, an in-depth article about AMC’s breakout hit Breaking Bad, and its stunningly accurate science content. Walter White, the show’s anti-hero, is a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking and dealing methamphetamine for financial security. In our article, we highlighted several clever uses of chemistry throughout the show’s run that not only integrated brilliantly into the plot but had realistic real-world applications as well. What a difference a year makes! Last week, Editor Jovana Grbić sat down with Breaking Bad‘s delightful Creator and Executive Producer Vince Gilligan to talk about the show’s origins, the science, and some behind-the-scenes secrets that will surprise even dedicated fans. We hope you enjoy reading our interview as much as we enjoyed chatting with him. The secrets of Breaking Bad, under the “continued reading” cut.
I must preface this next post with a little truth in advertising. I’m a chemist. True blue, to my very core. College degree in physical chemistry, PhD in chemistry. So when I heard about a cable show on AMC whose whole premise rested on a chemistry teacher manufacturing meth, I must say, I was slightly skeptical. The propensity for letdown was huge, both in plot and in science. Well, let me assure you that Breaking Bad broke good. A “Break”out hit in its second season, the show has managed to layer complex serialized storytelling with compelling characters and stories, and even better science. In fact, chemistry itself can very well be considered a recurring character on this show and we’ll highlight some of the best moments in a bit.
ScriptPhD Grade: A+
If the pilot episode doesn’t get your attention in the first five minutes, then I don’t know what will. A man wearing nothing but his skivvies and a gas mask careens a Winnebago in the New Mexico desert, a passed out body beside him, two more dead in the back, and a toxic sludge of chemicals seeping on the floor. With impending sirens approaching, he videotapes a final goodbye and apology to his family. Through flashbacks, we come to find out that the man is Walter White, an unassuming chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, NM. While on his humiliating moonlighting shift as a car wash attendant, because we pay our public school teachers so well, Walt collapses. The culprit? Lung cancer. Terminal. Inoperable. He decides to infuse some excitement into his life on a bust ride with his brother-in-law, a DEA agent. Only instead of discouraging Walt, the bust shows him how much money can be made. While pondering the possibility of leaving his family financially secure after his passing, he spots an old flunky student, Jesse Pinkman, fleeing the scene. “You know the business, I know the chemistry,” he proposes to Jesse. An idea is born, and the metamorphosis of Walter White begins. Back to the original scene, the sirens turn out to be fire trucks, one of the many hair-raising escapes to come, and Walt and Jesse live to sell meth another day.
In addition to Walt (played by the talented Bryan Cranston), and Jesse (dazzling newcomer Aaron Paul), we meet Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walt’s supportive but perplexed wife, who grows to be very suspicious of him as he has a harder time curtailing his clandestine activities, and Walt, Jr., a teenager with Cerebral Palsy, sensitively portrayed by RJ Mitte. The relationships serve as a centerpiece of the show are unraveled like the plot, in layers and tantalizingly. As Walt’s own family unit faces turmoil, Jesse, too, is disowned by his for his drug use. What started out as a business transaction between a teacher and former student blossoms into a tender father-son relationship. Meanwhile, while Walt’s well-meaning DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) closes in on the hottest new meth dealer in town, Walt and Jesse face a series of personal and professional setbacks. For every two steps forward, for every dollar made, there is a new foe, a new nemesis, or new unintended collateral. All of the action culminates in an electrifying Season 2 finale sure to generate buzz and anticipation for Season 3.
Science on Breaking Bad is given the red carpet treatment: it’s sleek, sexy, geek-chic, tongue-in-cheek and everywhere. The show revels in delightful touches such as the title credits interspersing elements from the periodic table. Walt’s classes brim with interesting blink-or-you-miss-it factoids, such as H. Tracy Hall inventing the first reproducible process for making diamonds. To a stupefied, gun-happy Jesse, he makes the suggestion of killing a drug lord with castor beans, the source of the protein toxin ricin. And let’s not mention the two separate synthetic methods he comes up with to cook and crystallize the best meth the New Mexico DEA has ever seen. The darkly comedic highlights of the show are Walt and Jesse’s interactions in their “laboratory”, a beaten-down Winnebago camper. Shocked by Jesse’s sloppy street cooking, Walt pilfers glassware and equipment from his classroom—gas masks, round bottom flasks, reflux condensers, crystallization dishes—to build a setup worthy of Pfizer. Along the way, Jesse gets some remedial chemistry that he failed back in high school. I mean, sure, they’re making a devastating and highly illegal narcotic, but at least it’s via a proper Grignard reagent amination of a Schiff base!
On a more serious note, Breaking Bad also strives for a VERY candid and unrelenting portrayal of both cancer and the ramifications of the modern-day drug trade. Often whitewashed in entertainment, Walt’s cancer, and the side effects are shown in a brutal way, but the stark realism also underscores his desperation as the illness unfolds. Easily on par with David Simon’s brilliant The Wire on HBO, in the world of Breaking Bad no one is absolved from the intertwining effects of drugs—the rising body count, both from use and dealing, the strain on law enforcement, and families torn apart. In an astute opening TRULY ripped from the headlines, a Season 2 Breaking Bad episode starts with an original narcocorrido, a Mexican drug ballad evolved from its folk music tradition that is often used to chronicle the drug trade and escalating violence over the last two decades. Take a look:
Bottom line: the science is white-hot, the writing is red-hot, the meth is blue and the humor is black, so why aren’t you watching?
Breaking Bad has been the recipient of a number of recent awards and critical acclaim. They won a 2009 Peabody Award for excellence in television achievement. Bryan Cranston won the 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Dramatic Series. Series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan won a Writers Guild of America award for the Pilot episode. Many more achievements are sure to come for their outstanding sophomore effort!