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Richard B. Woodward

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Breaking Bad: Better Television Through Chemistry

Posted: 07/20/11 01:03 PM ET

Warning: Read no further if you aren't up-to-date on the series.

By now it's clear that Breaking Bad, as audacious in its fourth season debut as it was in the first, is mixing together a couple of familiar genres -- the horror novel and gangster movie -- and that the catalyst for this unique experiment in American television will be the metaphor of chemistry.

The opening credit sequence, in which a portion of the periodic table floats across the screen shadowed by a wisp of smoke, suggests that the frightening power of the physical sciences will be central to the show. Another modern take on the Faust myth, set in the high New Mexico desert, not far from where a team of physicists, chemists, and engineers in the 1940s constructed the first atomic bomb, Breaking Bad promises to follow the once shy and likable Walter White into the alienating pits of hell so that the audience welcomes his downfall, a place where not even The Sopranos dared to go.

Already the radioactive kill-zone spreading out from our hero's decision to "break bad" and turn to a life of crime must be one of the widest in television history.

White was content to be a high school chemistry teacher until he realized that his Ph.D. gave him unexpected leverage over those amateurs without his grasp of a logical but esoteric discipline. His technical chops in the lab have made him the premier crystal meth manufacturer in the Southwest (and maybe the country) because his product is incomparably finer than anything else on the street. As his fellow chemist, the late Gale Boetticher, marveled after analyzing a sample of Walt's blue ice in this week's episode, "his is the best I've ever seen, hands down."

Vince Gilligan, the series creator, and Bryan Cranston, who plays Walt, have imagined a man -- and don't all of us know more than a few? -- whose sense of intellectual superiority is matched by chronic financial insecurity. He has no friends or social skills. All he has going for him is a belief in his own righteousness as a provider who will do anything for his family.

White feels most at home in the lab. He is a different person there, and Cranston nicely embodies this transformation by having his character move among toxic substances and expensive gas diffusers with absolute, fluid authority. At a backyard barbecue with his gregarious brother-in-law, Walt often reverts to an aimless shuffle. Hands in his pocket, he's a stranger in his own house.

That person disappears whenever it's time to do some chemistry. Cooking up a batch of meth -- in an RV, a suburban basement, or in Gus Fring's $8 million superlab -- Walter White knows exactly what to do and thus who he is.

This confidence is not altogether healthy. As evident in his treatment of his lab assistants, the teacher can be an arrogant bully. Under the guise of being a stickler for precision, he's a secret sadist, barking orders when calm instructions would probably be just as effective with his students.

I'm hoping the series will elaborate on the research he did at Cal Tech that helped a team to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. We learned in season two that he resents two former colleagues who founded a New Mexico high-tech company, Gray Matter Technology, and got rich. White believes -- and his colleagues didn't disagree -- that they exploited his research to make their fortune.

These scenes from his past imply that Walt, despite his first-rate brain, has always been insufferable. He's teaching in an Albuquerque high school not as a public service but because he's so thin-skinned and permanently aggrieved that to be around intellectual peers might shatter his fragile self-worth.

The laboratory, crucial to the scientific and industrial revolutions, is also ground zero for dozens of horror novels and movies, including the foundational ones. Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein created his pathetic monster there, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll concocted a potion in his London lab that turned him into the abominable Mr. Hyde.

White is slowly becoming a monster not by ingesting a deadly chemical but by brewing one in his labs that others ingest. He's a killer, indeed a mass murderer. Not only has he strangled, shot, and flattened drug dealers with his Prius (a first for a hybrid in the annals of movies or TV?), he is indirectly responsible for countless other deaths. Who knows how many addicts have ended up in the morgue after smoking or inhaling his irresistible crystal-blue rocks?

We do know that his convenient decision not to rescue Jesse's girlfriend when he found her choking on her own vomit from a heroin overdose indirectly caused (through the girl's heartbroken father) a pair of airliners to crash in midair, killing hundreds. Closer to home, Walt's after-school activities and associates have led to his brother-in-law's becoming a paraplegic.

A trained scientist, White probably has a fairly accurate count in his head of this death toll, but of course he won't calculate his actions in this damning light. Logic and lists are a refuge. The airline disaster was only the 50th worst -- "excuse me, tied for 50th" -- in aviation history, he tells the horrified high school students assembled to mourn their incinerated parents, siblings, friends, and fellow citizens.

As the blood at his feet rises toward his knees, his self-absolving rationalizations will need to be even more circuitous. In this opening episode, even though it was he who ordered Jesse to shoot Gale, Walt tries to pin the execution on his employer, Gus Fring.

"When you make it Gale versus me, or Gale versus Jesse, Gale loses," White shouts in this showdown with his boss. "Gale's death is on your hands, Mr. Fring."

Fring responds by slitting the throat of Victor, his right-hand man, showing Walt and Jesse that he doesn't feel the need to make excuses when he murders someone. He is conveying the same message to his employees that Al Capone relayed to his Chicago tablemates when he beat one of them to death with a baseball bat in The Untouchables: close-contact, one-on-one violence doesn't scare me and that should scare you.

Gilligan and his writers, even as they twist mild-mannered Walter H. White into a ruthless gangster, won't want him to lose his identity as a man of reason. His scientific wits should keep him a few steps ahead of those out to harm him and his family. I can see him devising a potent chemical/biological weapon to hold his foes (and the government) at bay. He has already saved himself once by hurling an explosive ball of mercury fulminate at a drug kingpin.

By the end of the series, I predict "Heisenberg" won't just be hunted by the DEA, he'll be popping up on the screens of Homeland Security as a terrorist threat.

Bromine and barium, the two elements that in the credit sequence spell out the title "BReaking BAd" do not, so far as I know, produce a combustible compound. Barium bromide, on the other hand, is a poison. I can see Walt, as the last act of his stygian journey, drinking a beaker of it or lowering himself as penance into a vat of hydrochloric acid, a molten death like that of Arnold's cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Foreshadowings of such a painful demise are there. At least two dead bodies have already been liquified under Walt's expert supervision. Suicide at an industrial chemical plant would be a fitting end for our nebbishy Cody Jarrett.