The [Biased] Chemistry of Breaking Bad

BB, all in the chemistry2
[A prefacing note or two:  Having finished a “’Breaking Bad’ binge” on Netflix [last “Fat Tuesday,” no less!], I’ve found my way into Blake Atwood’s Gospel According to Breaking Bad – referenced in my last post.  “Cinematic Contemplative” that I am, I’d fully agree with Atwood: that Breaking Bad (BB) offers a lot of food for reflection and prayer.  Up there with the Godfather trilogy, it may be one of the most compelling [contemporary] treatments of sin-pride there is – with a portrayal of the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that they [sin and pride] can suck us in and down.  While it is not overtly Christian (nor does it want or try to be), BB is, with a lot of other great shows and movies, highly spiritual – ripe for deeper and fuller discussions in which Jesus and the Gospels have a real place and value.  Do I condone the language and the violence and the promiscuity which fill BB and so many other cultural “hits”?  Of course not!  No more, in fact, than I condone the violence and promiscuity that fill so many Biblical passages!  In both cases (Biblical and non-Biblical), we have to look at and through and beyond these scenes of degradation and depravity to see truth and redemption – indeed, to see our own lives and living!  Of course, “it’s different strokes for different folks!”  I’ll fully understand my more sensitive readers not agreeing with me (e.g., about watching BB, about valuing it as fodder for spiritual reflection and discussion, etc.) – even as I hope they’ll afford me that same courtesy.  What I do hope (in writing here and perhaps elsewhere about BB [and other such works]) is that I can and will offer something for all – even those who chose not to binge with me!]

Of all the scenes in Breaking Bad, perhaps the most revealing to me are those classroom scenes (early on, obviously… before he fully “breaks” down) in which High School teacher, Walter White, lectures on chemistry.  In many respects (both obvious and not so obvious), an understanding of the core themes and agendas of Breaking Bad is “all in the chemistry.” For embedded in Walter’s lectures are insights into the chemistry of the show… and the chemistry of his personality and its evolution/dissolution.

There are his words in the pilot episode. They are, we’ll see, fitting words for one who will change, dissolve, decay before our eyes – being transformed into a wholly different (and fascinating) character:

Chemistry is, well technically chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well that’s … that’s all of life, right? It’s just …   It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.

You can watch the scene here:

Or, again, even more revealing and powerful are his words in the second episode.   Here, we are given a central and crucial metaphor for the mutation of Walter White into his chiral opposite, Heisenberg:

So the term “chiral” derives from the Greek word “hand” — being that just as your left hand and your right hand are mirror images of one another; well, so, too, organic compounds can exist as mirror-image forms of one another all the way down at the molecular level.  But although they may look the same, they don’t always behave the same.

For instance…  Thalidomide.  The right-handed isomer of the drug thalidomide is a perfectly fine, good medicine to give to a pregnant woman –to prevent morning sickness.  But make the mistake of giving that same pregnant woman the left-handed isomer of the drug thalidomide and her child will be born with horrible birth defects.  Which is precisely what happened in the 1950s.

So chiral, chirality, mirrored images, right?  Active, inactive, good, bad.

The use of thalidomide as an example makes the chemical metaphor complete and perfect–hinting at and foreshadowing, as it does, Walter’s  “horrible” and defecting potential as the chiral (viral?) Heisenberg.

Or finally, there’s his classroom lecture in episode 6 of Season 1–a lecture whose purpose is two-fold:  1) it sets up the use of fulminated mercury in Walter’s explosive showdown (at episode’s end) with the drug lord, Tocu and 2) it foreshadows the volatility and fallout embedded in Walt’s radical and rapid change.

Chemical reactions involve change on two levels: matter and energy. When a reaction is gradual, the change in energy is slight. I mean, you don’t even notice the reaction is happening. For example, when rust collects on the underside of a car. But if a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can interact in a way that generates enormous bursts of energy. Who can give me an example of rapid chemical reaction?  [“Like an explosion?,” a student interjects.]  Yes, good, explosions. Explosions are the result of chemical reactions happening almost instantaneously. And the faster reactions (i.e. explosions, and fulminated mercury is a prime example of that)…  the faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion. Explosions. Okay why don’t you start reading on your own from the top of chapter seven, alright?

What’s interesting to me is a fourth class lecture scene which was deleted by BB’s Producer, Vince Gilligan, and his editors–a scene I stumbled across on youtube:

[In the event that the youtube video is inaccessible, I have created a mock script of the scene.  Click here to see pdf.]

Of course, we’ll never know why the scene was deleted.  (Who knows if Gilligan and his crew can even fully say!)  Some argue that it was cut because it displays poor chemistry–something anathema to the laboratory purist which is Walter White.  Hence, for example, one post on reddit: “That’s why it was deleted…. A chemistry instructor would kick anyone who ingested chemicals out of the lab. Damn lack of realism.”  Still others argue that it was cut for time constraints.  When you have 47 minutes per episode, every scene has to count.

Yes, every scene has to count!  Which brings me to my own theory about why the scene was deleted.  In a nutshell: “Walt’s Demonstration” works against the explosive and disintegrating chemistry of those scenes, referenced above, which did make it past the cut – scenes which are more congruent with the destination Gilligan and gang have in mind, scenes which feed a plot more attractive to viewership and ratings.  To speak of emulsifiers that work to reconcile the un-mixable is to present a possibility for Walter that works against the flow and tenor of the story’s ultimate, published plot line:  “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.”  (That is Gilligan’s clearly published intent- – as conveyed in a host of articles out there.  See this CNN article as one example.)  To posit that there is some way that Walter [the right-handed, oily Mr. Chips] and Heisenberg [the left-handed, vinegary Scarface] might be “reconciled” to one another — and, thereby/therein, be “redeemed” — does not make for good explosions and cliffhangers.  Better to have chiral opposites in which there’s destructive,  explosive, and irreconcilable conflict between black and white!  In this case, “gray matter” does not get the ratings.  In this case, 12-Steps that work do not create nearly the tantalizing and provocative and compelling scenes and storylines of 12-Steppers gone wild.  (Not to mention that it’s a lot harder to convey the emulsification of Chips and Scarface into one whole than it is to portray a personality totally falling apart and breaking bad.  Yes, there are possibilities for developing that storyline in/with Jesse Pinkman.  Sadly, though, that possibility is never fully pursued or established.)

Jung would argue that, in the process of individuation, there’s a greater integration of conscious and unconscious – so that, at least, one part of what ego accepts and acknowledges and learns to live with is the “shadows” within.  (At least, that’s how I read and am beginning to understand Jung and his writings.)  Christianity adds that Christ is a key “emulsifier” in this individuation and integration process – this “reconciliation” not just to God and the world but to ourselves.

In its own way, “emulsification” points to possibilities and promises of the reconciliation,  redemption, and authenticity I ache for in life and living – and which I seek to dance with in this blog.  It hints at a third component which can enter into our seemingly immiscible lives – transforming, integrating, reconciling, healing.

In its own way, by leaving this notion of emulsification on the cutting floor, Gilligan and Breaking Bad underscore how, too often, our culture can be more attracted to tragic stories of humans falling apart than the good news of humans coming together.  If BB is any indication, ours is a culture more fascinated by the extremes of breaking bad than by the possibilities of breaking good.

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2 Responses to The [Biased] Chemistry of Breaking Bad

  1. wendycrom says:

    I have not watched Breaking Bad, but it did not hinder my appreciation of your analysis of the chemistry lesson with the plot of the show. I also, not being a good student of science, had never thought about the purpose of an emulsifier and applying its action to that of Christ in our lives. Thanks so much for letting me in on your thoughts.


    • Jim Reiter says:

      Thank you, Lois… It’s nice to hear that I might have hit my goal: sharing something of value — even for those who have not or do not want to engage Breaking Bad!

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