Crystal meth may cure lung cancer! (Breaking Bad)

April 1, 2009

April fool’s, jokers! We all know the only thing crystal meth may cure you of is your complexion and a well-integrated mesolimbic reward pathway.

No, really what I want to do is talk to you about this aMAZing TV show on AMC, called Breaking Bad, which is about a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth – he “breaks bad” – after contracting terminal lung cancer.

And just to make it extra brilliant, Walt (that’s his name) is played by Bryan Cranston, formerly Hal, the dad from Malcolm in the Middle, formerly Tim Watley, Jerry’s dentist on Seinfeld, and who won an Emmy last year for the role.

I've gotta get out of this apron! Blaaaaaaah!

I've gotta get out of this apron! Blaaaaaaah!

What's that you say about some televisions I can sell for crank money?

What's this about some television I can sell for crank money?

Season two started up this past month. I finished season one last night – you can get it on Netflix or illicitly; don’t ruin it for yourself by watching the webisodes. The style wavers between disturbingly graphic and over the top in its depiction of violence, sex and gore. Which for me works, because I see the story as a fantasy of masculine power. (Big shock there.)

Walt is a former research chemist who somehow missed out on his share of a Nobel Prize, which went to his old research partner instead. Now he’s getting sassed by punk kids and bitched out by his boss at his second job, working at a car wash. Because of the writers’ strike, the show’s first season was only seven episodes. In three of those episodes, the climax hinges on a point of chemistry, which is telling. To this guy, chemistry represents power, and it’s his power.

Or it was until something snapped. As a teacher, he seems pretty desperate to convey his sense of awe at chemistry – “it’s about matter and energy!” – to his unimpressed students. In reality, a class would probably love Walt. He squirts spray bottles over a Bunsen burner flame to show them the vapors turning green, blue, red. I keep waiting for him to launch into a discussion of meth synthesis in class to get them fired up.

One of the ironies of the show is how brilliant but limited Walt’s thinking is. He’s got a hard time asking for help – and don’t we all – but specifically, he seems unable to imagine a future in which he can both provide financially for his family – his wife, who’s with child, and their disabled teenage son – and get whatever treatment or palliative care he needs.

Walt has a business buddy in the game of meth, or methamphetamine – aka “crank,” “ice,” “snappy,” “crystal,” “tina,” “glass,” “P,” “shabu,” “tik” or “yaa baa,” although not “speed,” which is technically amphetamine. Jessie is a hapless, unambitious former student of Walt’s who started slingin’ that tik after high school. The link is forged between them when Walt rides along on a meth lab bust with his brother-in-law, a DEA agent - zoing!! – and spots Jessie fleeing the scene. Later, Jessie comes across an old chemistry test from Walt’s class marked with an “F” and the admonishment, “apply yourself!”

All of which brings us to this nerdgasm scene from episode seven – eat it up, you science proselytizers:

As in The Wire, amid the intense applications of game theory, you slowly learn about the meth trade and culture.

The “smurfs” Jessie mentions are flunkies who buy over-the-counter cold medicines a few at a time to collect pseudoephedrine, the scarce starting point for meth synthesis. (I was dimly aware of this growing up because my dad would complain it had become harder to get his favorite allergy pills.*)

In the clip there, Walt is preparing to switch from what I believe is the “red, white and blue” synthesis protocol – flashy but unsophisticated – to the old-school California biker gang method of reductive amination.

Sadly, none of the characters have said “re-up,” “Hamsterdam” or “pandemic,” so apparently the David Simon of Breaking Bad’s universe never left the Baltimore Sun.

 Other points of interest:

  • cameo (I think) by Pedro from Napolean Dynamite as a drug dealer
  • intro music that bites off Joss Whedon’s Serenity
  • fanciful interpretation of how much hot hot sex a guy can have while fighting lung cancer

Now excuse me while I cook up a bowl of season two.

* Ironically, I once got jacked up on pseudo for a few days by popping too many 12- and 24-hour Sudafeds. I had night sweats and shivers – I shit you not. I thought I was spacing them out, I swear! I was trying to write for Popular Science at the time, too. There was much re-editing. Ah, drugs.

2 Responses to “Crystal meth may cure lung cancer! (Breaking Bad)”


  1. [...] But the character stayed true to the show. He also added some sorely needed complexification to the plot. Here’s a review. Here’s my previous post on Breaking Bad. [...]


  2. [...] of personal responsibility can backfire (the masculinist fantasy/fallacy). After hearing several parents explain why they don’t vaccinate, [pediatrician [...]


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