What do TV execs do with chemists? Barium

Most TV watchers are pretty used to the stereotype of the socially challenged, gawky supergeek of _The Big Bang Theory_ or the frenzied, somewhat unhinged scientists in the form of _Heroes_’ Mohinder Suresh, _Dollhouse’s_ Topher Brink and any vaguely intelligent Brit in a lead role on prime-time BBC One (_Doctor Who_ and _Sherlock_ anyone?). Perhaps more relevant to this article, Mickey Doyle, the unabashedly loco manufacturer of fake liqueur on the renown, awards resplendent _Boardwalk Empire_ is heralded as TV’s new archetypal ‘mad scientist’. His character comes complete with all of the mad scientist cartoon elements that you know and love: the staccato giggles, twitching and creepy hints at necrophilia. Maybe this stereotype exists because TV producers hold the misconceived notion that scientists don’t make very relatable characters, or at least feel that they have to be caricatured to some degree in order to make them more accessible. They are more often than not exaggerated devices to accentuate other main characters and their more ‘standard’ brain power and social comportment than characters necessarily in their own right. But never fear, for luckily there is one show out there that bucks this trend. _Breaking Bad_ dares to subvert the stereotype in a refreshing portrayal of an ordinary person who just so happens to specialise in chemistry. Phew!

The premise of _Breaking Bad_ runs thus: Walter White (Bryan Cranston), already working two jobs as a high school teacher and at a car wash, discovers that he has terminal lung cancer. Struggling with the prospect of healthcare expenses and leaving his wife and kids destitute, the only viable solution that he devises is to ‘break bad’, turning to manufacturing methamphetamine. He partners up with a former student-turned-slacker, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), in order to set the wheels in motion. Needless to say, this plan doesn’t exactly go swimmingly for him.

Just like my other favourite TV show of the moment, _Mad Men_, not only does _Breaking Bad_ consider the murky reality of the American dream and the nature of marriage and family within a volatile political, economic and social climate, but it also explores the art and creativity behind concepts that are often deemed shady, untrustworthy or immoral. _Mad Men_ seeks to show the imagination involved in corporate advertising (the poignant episode ‘The Wheel’ [S1E13], perfectly encapsulates the nature of advertising as an outlet for intense artistic expression). In the same way, _Breaking Bad_ proffers chemistry, chiefly laced with some sort of unlawful intent, as an intricate art. For Walt, science is the one stable aspect of his life that holds true for him while everything else around him falls to pieces. Chemistry is the only thing that can accommodate his own creative expression. His crystal meth, the subject of many rose tinted close-ups, takes on a pristine quality (“This is pure glass. You’re a damn artist!” exclaims Jesse [S1E01], to which Walt merely responds, “Actually, it’s just basic chemistry”); later on, it becomes sky-blue when the chemical process is altered to adopt methylamine. Poetry goes hand in hand with scientific contemplation: Walt Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ is reeled off by Gale (David Costabile), an avid chemist, in Series 3. The scientist is not to be taken for granted – for he/she is also an artist, a poet. We recall Walt’s rather poetic ethos, in his attempt to reach out to his listless high-school class back in the first episode:

“Chemistry is the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels; […] elements combine and change into compounds. It is all of life: the constant, the cycle. Solution, dissolution, over and over and over. Growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating.”

But Walt’s art doesn’t stop at aesthetics. It also finds form in the practical, most notably when he finds himself in predicaments that need creative manoeuvring. _Breaking Bad_ can essentially be seen as an extended MacGyver-esque chemistry lesson, wired into a frenetic series of events fraught with tense action sequences, frequently punctuated with dark humour. For example, in a situation where Walt needs to break a lock, he knows that Thermite can melt through security locks and, needing some at very short notice, also happens to know that there is plenty of Thermite in an Etch-a-Sketch. Chemgasm.

In a TV show where chemical elements are used throughout the opening credits (_‘**B**reaking **B**ad’_, ‘**C**reated by **V**ince Gilligan’), the audience can immediately expect a heavy focus on science. I readily admit that I, like Jesse, am pretty clueless when it comes to anything vaguely scientific, so when I initially saw these credits I recoiled a little bit despite myself, the dusty spectre of my GCSE Chemistry days suddenly looming over me again. But _Breaking Bad_, despite its open celebration of all things scientific, is anything but boring. The show’s approach to chemistry is truly refreshing and captivating, and shows that science should be appreciated in all artistic forms. I’ll leave you with a quotation from Jesse (in S1E07): “So you DO have a plan? Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!”


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