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'Breaking Bad'

Novel TV show features chemist making crystal meth

by Jyllian Kemsley
March 3, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 9

Pressure Cooker
Credit: Doug Hyun/Sony Pictures Television
"I can't go home smelling like a meth lab," Walt says, as he strips down and dons a lab apron.
Credit: Doug Hyun/Sony Pictures Television
"I can't go home smelling like a meth lab," Walt says, as he strips down and dons a lab apron.

Chemistry is the study of change, lectures Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, N.M. Electrons change their energy levels, molecules change their bonds, and elements combine and form into compounds. That's the cycle of chemical life. "It is growth, then decay, then transformation," he says.

So says the brainchild of Vince Gilligan, creator, writer, and producer of a new television series, "Breaking Bad," on the AMC cable network. In the show, 50-year-old Walter-Walt to his friends—discovers he has inoperable lung cancer and is given two years to live. He turns to making methamphetamine to finance his family's future, partnering with a former student and setting up shop in a recreational vehicle.

Walt is a chemist to his core. His approach to problem solving, from how to dispose of a body to how to break a lock, frequently involves the explicit application of chemistry.

The show is a black comedy. Walt makes "a terrible decision," Gilligan says, noting that crystal meth addiction can destroy entire towns. The show features beatings and a few deaths. But at the same time, an astute observer can enjoy plenty of laughs. In the second episode, for example, Walt provides a confined meth dealer—his neck chained to a basement post with a bicycle lock—with water and a sandwich, along with a bucket, toilet paper, and, last but not least, hand sanitizer.

The idea for "Breaking Bad" came to Gilligan during a phone call with a friend, during which they joked that if their writing abilities ever dried up, they'd get an RV and convert it into a mobile meth lab. During the phone call, Gilligan recalls: "This character who ultimately became Walt kind of popped into my head. That usually doesn't happen to me. When I come up with a story, usually it's a much more laborious process."

Walt is a complex, sympathetic character. He has a good family life-he appears to have a strong relationship with his wife, and his teenage son clearly likes him. You feel for him as he tries to keep his students' attention in class.

Actor Bryan Cranston plays the role of Walt in the show. When he first read the script, Cranston recalls, "I was taken in by the story and allowed myself to be swayed into actually liking this man and understanding him and feeling for him and his dilemma."

Notably, Walt isn't your average high school science teacher. He has a chemistry Ph.D., and viewers find out in the pilot episode that he contributed to Nobel Prize-winning research. In the fifth episode, the show reveals that his former graduate school lab partner is now a millionaire, raising the question of why Walt ended up where he did. "I don't want to imply that there's anything wrong with being a high school chemistry teacher," Gilligan says, "but this is a guy who was on a fast track to do a lot more with his career."

When a person is told he can do anything he wants and is surrounded by people with high expectations, he can get either empowered to succeed or fearful of failure, Cranston notes. "Walt got afraid," he says of the character, and turned to teaching instead of pursuing a high-powered science career. "Anyone else would assume that was his calling, but he knew better, and he's lived with that decision ever since."

Exploring just why Walt made the choices he did will be the subject of future seasons of the show, but Gilligan says he doesn't have a master plan in place. "I know that he is going to transform himself from who he is in the pilot to who he will become," Gilligan says, adding that he finds that his characters tell him where they want to go. He says it's important "to listen to that character's voice" and to try not to steer a character in an artificial direction.

Structure of Methamphetamine

In this first season, however, it's clear that the cancer diagnosis, in a way, allows Walt to pursue his dream again. "You and I will not make garbage," he says to his former student and newfound partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul). "We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised." Walt has pride in the meth he produces but clearly struggles with feelings of exhilaration and guilt. He ventures full-throttle into the world of meth, Cranston says, noting in particular that Walt has a skill for making meth but is completely ignorant of how to deal or distribute the drug and how to interact with people who do. "It's terribly exciting to play a character accomplished in one area but not in another," Cranston tells C&EN.

Chemistry is not only Walt's strength but his passion. After Walt scavenges lab supplies from the school stockroom, he goes through them with Jesse with more than a little reverence. "Look at this, a Kjeldahl-style recovery flask, 800 mL, very rare. ... But the piÈce de résistance—a round-bottom boiling flask, 5,000 mL," he exults.

Then, in short order, he gets exasperated with Jesse, in true impatient-teacher-to-former-student form: "You wouldn't apply heat to a volumetric flask! That's what a boiling flask is for. Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?" Walt rants.

"No," Jesse responds. "You flunked me, remember?"

"Walt truly loves chemistry," comments Gilligan. "It's one of the few things that have kept him sane for his whole life. There's so much slipping from his fingertips and falling apart at the seams, but chemistry is always there."

In addition to scenes of meth synthesis, chemistry is front and center in other parts of the show. In the second episode, Walt has Jesse dispose of the body of a deceased meth dealer by dissolving it in hydrofluoric acid. Jesse, unfortunately, ignores Walt's orders to use a polyethylene container and instead puts the body in a second-floor bathtub. The acid eats away the tub and floor, raining body parts and gore below. In the sixth episode, Walt substitutes crystals of fulminated mercury for meth, then uses them to create an explosion. The display encourages a drug distributor to agree to Walt's terms.

A self-described science groupie and reader of Popular Science and Discover, Gilligan says getting the science details correct is important to him. The idea for using fulminated mercury stemmed from the 1955 movie Mister Roberts, in which one of the characters uses the substance to alleviate boredom by setting off explosions on a U.S. Navy ship. Gilligan and his fellow "Breaking Bad" writers determined that fulminated mercury makes crystals somewhat similar to crystal meth, so they'd pass as a substitute. "Hopefully this is correct," Gilligan says, noting that a lot of the science information in the show was researched on the Internet because the show's budget didn't allow for a paid chemistry adviser. He welcomes constructive comments from a chemically inclined audience, he adds.

The show did seek out advice from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). An Albuquerque agent advised how to set up a raid on a residential meth lab in the pilot episode, and senior chemist Victor Bravenec of DEA's South Central Laboratory, in Dallas, helped set up the RV meth lab. "What they wanted was not how a regular person would make methamphetamine, but if I were to make meth, how would I do it? How would a chemist do it?" Bravenec tells C&EN.

Bravenec's contributions show in the glassware choice and apparatus setup as well as in how pseudoephedrine is ground and solvents are poured. He also worked with the special effects and art departments to help ensure that solutions and glassware stains looked real. Bravenec notes that Gilligan was very sensitive about not making the show a "how to" video for cooking meth, so key components are left out.

Making A Scene
Credit: Doug Hyun/Sony Pictures Television
Cranston (left) and Gilligan rehearse a classroom lecture scene.
Credit: Doug Hyun/Sony Pictures Television
Cranston (left) and Gilligan rehearse a classroom lecture scene.

Scientific accuracy aside, the "Breaking Bad" cast is, of course, not actually cooking meth or setting off explosions with fulminated mercury. The task of the special effects department is to make it look like they are, within certain parameters. "We cannot go outside the boundaries defined by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and common sense," says special effects coordinator Dennis Petersen. In one scene, Walt poisons two meth dealers by dumping red phosphorus into hot water, ostensibly making phosphine gas. "I had many, many problems with that, trying to come up with something that would give a red tinge to it, make a flash, and not be harmful to the set," Peterson tells C&EN. In the end, he used synthetic gunpowder along with a red "Spectrasmoke" product made by Tri-Ess Sciences. The meth crystals used in the show were a clear silicone rubber often used in special effects to mimic chunks of tempered glass when a window is broken.

For Cranston, playing a chemist was a challenge. "It was daunting," he says. "I was not a student who excelled in chemistry and so it was an effort and continues to be so." Early on, he sought expert advice and spent an afternoon with Michael Quinlan, the general chemistry lab coordinator at the University of Southern California.

They went over the script for the pilot episode, and then Cranston got a glassware tutorial as well as a tour of the general and organic chemistry teaching labs. "I never thought that somebody would work this hard at background," says Quinlan of Cranston.

Cranston says he finds the chemistry parts of the show fascinating, noting specifically a lecture Walt gives on chirality and the history of thalidomide. When Cranston gets a script, he reads it, sees what he needs to learn, and goes online to find out more. "I'm learning as I go. It's almost like night school," he says. He believes his interest in the technical aspects not only makes it easier for him to memorize his parts but also gives more spark to his performance.

Cranston is also attracted to the interplay between science and art and in some ways feels a kinship with Walt the chemist. Walt's first batch of meth yields crystals 2 to 3 inches long. "You're a damn artist," Jesse tells him. Walt replies that it's just basic chemistry.

"It's always intrigued me whether my character actually believes that or not," Cranston says. "It seems to me that there may be an artistry among scientists. I think it's the artistic mind that questions what else is possible." To find out what else happens to Walt the chemist and artist, tune in to the show.


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