Braking Bad gained something of a cult status in our family, along with Amadeus and Groundhog Day. Lines spoken by the main characters are quoted in casual conversation as if referring to the classics, while all five seasons of the show have been watched several times – first linearly, from the first to last season, then backwards, from last to first, then randomly, and finally a selection of the favourites. And though it might not be the smartest choice of content in pop culture while bringing up a teenager (violence-drugs-sex), it caused an unexpected side effect: a 13-year old boy became so interested in chemistry that he even hung the Periodical Table on the wall, acing the subject at school.
This is hardly the case just with my family. Many individuals, repulsed by the sciences or even scientific knowledge in general before the show, acquired a different perspective on all the possible uses of chemical formulas and the natural processes they reflect after watching the show. Yes, chemistry can be utilized towards drug production or to discretely get rid of dead bodies but also to solve more banal and yet crucial life problems, such as how to jump start an empty van battery in the middle of the desert or clean a clogged toilet with the correct acid.
Generations of people imagine the typical scientist as an authoritative figure in a white lab coat, predominantly male and white, just like Walter White, the leading character in the show. Stereotypical presentations of scientists are still dominant in commercials for medical or cosmetic products, while their appearance is believed to gain the viewers’ trust – usually scientifically illiterate. The exact field of specialty isn’t really important – the scientist, not unlike a renaissance man, is expected to understand everything. Consequently, in the first episode of the second season, Tuco, a drug lord, expects Walt to perform first aid on an unconscious gang member. “Do something! You’re smart, right”? he yells, as if Walt was not only a chemist but also a doctor.
Impossible that Tuco would all of a sudden trust anyone. And yet, people usually presume (incorrectly, of course) that someone with a degree in sciences would know everything about the human body and the laws of nature. They seem to neglect the fact that intimate knowledge on how to survive in severe conditions, whether they be natural or social, could potentially be more valuable than any scientific information. Quite absurdly, Walt’s skills seem to be more valued in the underground and by drug lords than by mainstream society, a society in which he struggles to earn a living as a high school chemistry teacher. The reason, in fact, for being forced to produce methamphetamine – leaving his family, wife and two children, with some savings should the recently diagnosed lung cancer prove fatal.
The character of the young, and, at least at first quite dorky character of Jesse Pinkman, turns out to be the ideal associate. Walt and Jesse create a mentor-student relationship, i.e. a master and his apprentice. Things seem to take a bad turn at first – Jesse disdains Walt’s formal scientific approach, fails to follow through on his directions, interpreting them as a quirky and perfectionist, not as a necessity. Once he gains self-confidence around handling test tubes and beakers, he argues how his crystal meth producing method is an “art”, thereby creating a distance from the formal “scientific” process. Jesse insists on adding chilli powder to the recipe as a personal signature, thus becoming more comparable to a protoscientific approach in drug production rather than a chemical one, as some sort of an alchemist. Yet, despite the gap, formal and “street” science do reconcile in the show. Both Walt and Jesse understand the dangers of handling toxic chemicals, rejecting the idea of setting up a lab at their own homes, and using the van instead. Cooking meth together brings them closer, makes them connect over the feeling of creating a quality product on par with the best stuff on the market. At the same time, Jesse treats his mischievous associates – local drug dealers as rigorously as Walt treats him, all of a sudden demanding stricter code of conduct, especially in the lab.
It’s no wonder that, in addition to action and thriller elements, the show gained such popularity because top science was connected to a world which usually had nothing to do with science – the world of drugs, drug dealers, users and drug crime. The connection relativizes rationality in scientists’ behaviour in their professional and private life. In the specific example, this is true for the usually highly rational Walt. Little by little, his behaviour becomes impulsive, led by the blatant desire for bigger power. In the classroom he is absent-minded, the place where he used to have complete control, which perhaps reflects our growing insecurity in respect to science and technology in the past few decades, but particularly now, in the current pandemic.
Movie history abounds with the character of the “crazy” and often vicious scientists/sociopaths: Emmet “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future; Tony Stark from Iron Man; Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lambs or Doctor Jekyll from Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What makes Walter White different is that he starts of as just an ordinary middle-class American, who due to a sudden turn of events turns into a criminal superhero or an antihero simply because of his ability to apply science in the most practical ways, almost as coming up with the most efficient stain-removing washing detergent in the market. The fact that instead of a detergent he invents a mass destruction substance in the form of a powerful drug is only a warning that physics and chemistry can help launch human beings into space but also create an atomic bomb with the potential to erase humanity from the face of Earth.
Jakimovska is a professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, St. Cyril and Methodius University. She has been editing and writing the culture section at the off.net portal for a decade.