Rogue Archives: The Chemistry of "Breaking Bad"

The following was originally published on Patheos entertainment blog The Rogue on July 1, 2013.
I’m sitting in front of my television, where I have taken many a late-night mini-vacation while my wife sleeps.  Our tastes in entertainment are somewhat different.  For instance, she’s not a Star Trek fan, so she thought Star Trek Into Darkness was “really, really good”.  And we geeks understand why that’s frustrating.
Because I want to talk about “Breaking Bad.”  When was the last time the science of a show hooked you, even though it was merely a cursory part of the plot?  Chemistry, as Bryan Cranston’s Walter White explains in the series pilot, is the study of matter, but he prefers to see it as the study of change.
Foreshadowing much?
As I sit watching the show’s pilot for the 5th time, I can’t help but consider how similar this episode is to a superhero origin story.  There’s a vulnerability and ruthlessness about Walter that is just as compelling as the typical comic book character.  He’s a man who’s in so far over his head due to desperate circumstances that he can’t see past the immediacy of his decisions.  His transformation begins the moment he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and he immediately looks for a way to provide for his wife, crippled son and yet-to-be-born daughter, after his departure from earth.  After seeing one of his former students (Aaron Paul) flee a meth house during a DEA raid, he blackmails the student into teaching him the business of selling and distributing crystal meth.  He pulls money out of savings to purchase an RV on a whim to create a mobile meth lab.  He assaults a kid who makes fun of his son in a clothing store.
The chemistry of Walter White never stalls throughout the series.  Every decision leads to an unintended or unexpected reaction.  After a few steps in, though, he seems to have control of everything… until he doesn’t.  There is no point in the series where you ever feel safe for him, his partner Jesse, his family, or anyone he comes in contact with.
Another scene in the pilot puts it succinctly: Water is in the mobile lab after completing his first batch of glass-grade meth, and Jesse is lauding him with praise, calling his product “art”.  “Actually,” Walt responds, “it’s just basic chemistry…”

I am already lamenting the day the final “Breaking Bad” episode airs.  The last episodes begin in just a few short weeks, and I’ve never anticipated a series’ return to the screen more, nor have I prematurely lamented its departure, hoping it will remain in limbo so as to give me a little glimmer of hope.  Maybe then, there would at least be a question as to what happens to Walter and his alter ego, Heisenberg, instead of forever closing the door on one of the most creatively insane series to be thrust into our homes.  I would almost prefer the ambiguity.
“Breaking Bad” is an exploration of the descent into the dark side of human nature — the things we do out of desperation, the secrets we carry to protect those we love, the unspeakable acts we’re willing to commit out of self-preservation, and the depths we can sink to when given the chance.  “Breaking Bad” isn’t just great television.  It’s great chemistry.
The final episodes of “Breaking Bad” air on AMC beginning Sunday, August 11th.

There Is No Box. Zach