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How Breaking Bad explores the psyche of the mad scientist

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Over the last four and a half seasons, we've watched Breaking Bad's Walter White transform from milquetoast chemistry teacher to drug kingpin armed with his ambition and an encyclopedic knowledge of chemistry. In that time, the show has succeeding in explaining what drives someone to so thoroughly use science for evil while reminding us to hate the scientist, not the science. Spoilers ahead.

When we first meet Walter White, he is a frustrated chemistry teacher, a man who has so little power over his life that he can't get his students to listen to him and he has to take a second job at a car wash to make ends meet. He's a man who seems bruised but not beaten, though. He has a beautiful wife and charming son he seems to adore. So it's understandable, if not quite admirable, that when he's diagnosed with terminal cancer, he turns to meth manufacture to ensure that he'll leave enough money behind to take care of them.


But Walt doesn't die having martyred his soul for his family's comfort. In fact, thus far, he hasn't died at all. He makes money and loses money and makes far more money than he ever could have dreamed. His cancer goes into remission. And yet he keeps cooking.

In the first few seasons, Breaking Bad could be seen as a condemnation of American greed. Walt and Skyler adjust quickly to their newfound financial comfort. They both enjoy the power the money brings; Walt starts making little upgrades to their lives — fancy cars, an improved water heater — while Skyler sees the cash as a way to solve problems (even if her problem-solving sometimes backfires), but as we get deeper into Season 4, it becomes clear that there's more to Walt's continued meth cooking than money. Well, money is part of it — but a lot of money. Walt wants power. He wants to win.


In this first half of Season 5, Jesse comes to Walt to convince Walt to sell off his share of the chemical methylamine and get out of the meth business for good. After Jesse reminds Walt of the now seemingly paltry amount of money Walt wanted in the beginning, Walt lays everything out for Jesse. Before Walt married Skyler, he started the company Gray Matter Technologies with Elliott Schwartz and Gretchen. After some interpersonal turmoil, Walt sold his share of the company, a company that went on to make billions of dollars and receive a Nobel Prize nomination. Walt tells Jesse, "I sold my potential for $5,000."

In that moment, Walt lays bare the origin of a supervillain. That mistake of his passionate youth planted the seed and his mistreatment at the hands of his students, his boss at the car wash, even the macho taunts of his brother-in-law, Hank, gestated a resentful figure hungry for power. The cancer was the catalyst, but the rest of the ingredients were there.

When we talk about Breaking Bad on io9, we tend to thrill at the "what"s and the "how"s of chemistry, but it's interesting to explore exactly why these characters do science. Walt has a genuine love of chemistry. That's why he's able to cook the perfect batch of meth and how he's able to enact so many narrow escapes worthy of MacGyver. But when he talks about his work at Gray Matter, he doesn't tell Jesse about the important work he missed out on doing, the discoveries he could have contributed to. He talks about the billions of dollars he missed out on. Walter White isn't the classical Victor Frankenstein, the man who wanted to understand the meaning of life but didn't think all the way through the consequences; he's Victor Von Doom, the modern mad scientist who uses science to take over the world (or at least Albuquerque), and the blue meth is his Doombot. When Walt thinks of science, he thinks only about how it can get him ahead in the drug industry or how it can help him survive. He doesn't think about the effect that his chemistry is having on the world; he has little, if any, consideration of the people who use his meth except as happy consumers.


This strange combination, a love of science and a lack of consideration about its place in the world, is evident in no Breaking Bad character as much as in Gale Boetticher, the minion to Walt's burgeoning supervillain. When questioned about his motives for making meth, Gale responds, a little abashed that he considers himself a libertarian, but it's clear that, forgetting politics, his interest in chemistry doesn't extend beyond the aesthetic. Gale has an eye for the finer things in life, for music, for poetry. In his mind, Gale is the scientific equivalent to a highly skilled classical pianist, and Walt's is the composition he wishes to master. Once the meth leaves the superlab, it no longer exists in Gale's mind. It's not that he feels people should have the human right to destroy their own bodies; he simply doesn't care.

We, as a society, were well aware of meth long before Breaking Bad aired. Meth is a product of chemistry, its production made easier thanks to the ready availability of chemicals that treat our illnesses and make our lives easier. By using a scientific evil with which we're already familiar, one that is a byproduct of the good and helpful, Breaking Bad lets us forget about the chemical concoction and focus in on the characters and their individual motivations. In this way, the show is able to tell the story of an evil and amoral chemist without ever making chemistry seem evil. Walt improves upon meth, he murders and hides his crimes through chemistry, but there's no condemnation of the science, only in how he uses it.


Science, Breaking Bad tells us week after week, is powerful. It can kill. It can maim. It can attract money. If used correctly, it can be very difficult to fight. Science is like so many other powerful things — money, fame, political power. In the hands of someone determined to use it for selfish gains, chemistry can bring about evil things. But chemistry is in no way evil.

Too often, fictional scientists are treated as strawmen for the evils of biochemical and technological advancement. Mad scientists who "play God" create monsters; engineers build amazing technologies that are misused by militaries. But by using an example of real-world science, Breaking Bad shows that even if science can create monsters, that isn't necessarily science we should — or can — lock in a box. The same understanding of chemistry that allowed Walt to create the amazing, Nobel-worthy innovations for Gray Matter let him invent the ultimate methamphetamine. Yes, Walt has advanced a chemical technology for a bad end — first his desperation, and then his greed — but it's intrinsically linked to chemical technology with a great power for good. Breaking Bad never asks us whether we should have sacrificed Gray Matter to eliminate blue meth, because it's not even a question. It's everything that Walt went through after his departure from Gray Matter that created Walt the supervillain scientist, and by extension, the blue meth.


And while Breaking Bad shows what happens when a proficient scientist turns evil, it also shows how science can make some people better. Before becoming a competent lab hand, Jesse's life was a drug-addled, irresponsible mess. But by internalizing the careful steps Walt's chemistry requires and coming to realize how an intelligent use of science and planning can solve problems, Jesse is inspired to get his life together, become an adult, and join a family. Perhaps it's a pie-in-the-sky wish, but if I have hopes for any character's ultimate fate in as Breaking Bad comes to its close in the next half season, it's that Jesse finds himself some nice legitimate lab job that allows him to utilize all of the skills and self-confidence he's gained over the years thanks to his improved understanding of proper scientific practice. Since his life has been changed so thoroughly by chemistry, he might have the best chance of ultimately using chemistry for good instead of evil.