A Chemical Drama
I freely admit to an obsession with Breaking Bad that hasn’t quite come to an end, despite nearly a year having passed since the final episode aired. I am not the only one, apparently, as a new book written from a media studies perspective, Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series has just come out. While this is no doubt a productive frame to examine Breaking Bad, I am going to argue that Breaking Bad also illustrates key problematics in laboratory studies. If The Wire can become a staple within urban studies, why not Breaking Bad within STS? In what follows, I will sketch a few possible directions, which assume at least a passing familiarity with the plot and characters. WARNING: spoilers ahead!
Allow me a brief, and entirely inadequate, plot synopsis. Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a talented chemist whose life choices have landed him in a high school classroom rather than a corporate board room alongside his PhD classmates. The dramatic arc comes via the transformation of Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, into Heisenberg, a criminal mastermind and the producer, and for a short while distributor, of supremely high-quality methamphetamine. The impetus for this transformation is White’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, which both sets the narrative in motion and supplies a fixed-end point. Almost everything about Walter White changes throughout the course of the show, while only his identity as a talented chemist remains constant. Rare amongst television series is that the chemistry, and the laboratories it is conducted in, play an important role in the plot to the point where the chemistry has been written about in the technical literature.
One approach might examine Breaking Bad from the point of view taken up by Latour and Woolgar (1986) and emphasize the role of heterogeneous networks, which are often made visible in Breaking Bad through violence along the connecting nodes, extending into and out of the laboratory in the construction of both Blue Sky methamphetamine’s purity and Heisenberg’s reputation as a master chemist. Inscription plays a large role in establishing this central fact as the chemists are ranked, in one episode or another, by the purity of their product as established by a mysterious machine that inscribes a “purity” rating when given a sample of methamphetamine. For example, in episode 4:10 “Salud”, Jesse is confronted by Benicio Fuentes, an experienced chemist at a superlab in Mexico, who questions his credentials and inability to synthesize a precursor chemical. Though Jesse lacks the schooling and ensuing credentials of a master chemist, the inscription from the “purity” machine establishes his credit in the eyes of the cartel. Also in play is Walter White’s pursuit of the credit he feels he was denied in the formation of Grey Matter Technologies, a (now) highly successful firm; the stories passed along about both Heisenberg the chemist and the inscriptions of his product’s purity form a connection between the reputation-based world of scientific credit Latour and Woolgar describe and the reputation-based world of methamphetamine production.
Alternatively, one could take up Breaking Bad up from an ethnomethodological perspective emphasizing the just-thisness of local working conditions and the “shop floor” problem inherent in finding yourself working in differing laboratories. In episode 4:1 “Box Cutter”, Walter White gives Gus Fring a laundry list of reasons why Fring’s henchman Victor cannot take over production of methamphetamine in Gus Fring’s superlab, basing his argument on Victor’s inability to account for alterations in the “cooking” process brought on by changes in humidity, or the chemistry of the precursors. Read Walter’s speech as an elucidation of the haecceities of methamphetamine production in this particular laboratory at this particular moment. Blue Sky is made recognizable out of materials which, though appearing identical in formal accounts (and Victor argues thus counter Walter’s assertions), require localization and improvisation to marshal into order (Garfinkel 2007). As Garfinkel theorized in his later work, and as Jordan and Lynch (1998) observed in the localization of the PCR process within molecular biology, there is a gulf between the formal account of a laboratory protocol and the localized performance of those instructions: a gulf large enough to spare Walter and Jesse’s lives.
Yet another tact would be to focus on the career of Walter White, who, in all accounts, was once a well-known chemist in his corner of chemistry and an early partner in Grey Matter. In episode 1:5 “Grey Matter” Walter is introduced at his former partner Elliott’s birthday party as a “master of crystallography,” who made important discoveries which led to the formation of Grey Matter. Credit plays a role in Latour and Woolgar, where the professional system of scientific credit is largely opposed to the market-based system of material reward. However, another path runs through a reexamination Robert Merton’s work on scientific norms. In a 1969 paper “Behavior Patterns of Scientists,” Merton argues that the norms of scientific conduct do not rule out occasionally breaking bad in the pursuit of scientific credit. Merton points to James Watson’s then recent book The Double Helix about the race to uncover the structure of DNA as a recent, and historically mild, example of competition for credit and glory in the scientific community. He further recounts Issac Newton’s battle against Liebnitz for credit over the development of calculus as a rougher example of competition. Merton reminds us of the scientists’ humanity and everything being human entails. Later in the series, in the penultimate episode 5:15 “Granite State”, Walter White witnesses an interview with Gretchen and Elliott by Charlie Rose in which they distance themselves from Walter’s methamphetamine production, but also claim, falsely in Walter’s opinion, that Walter had no meaningful contribution to the science behind Grey Matter, thus propelling Walter into the final action. Pride, hubris, and Machiavellian scheming are as common in scientific life as they are in any human endeavor.
Consider, as well, the apprenticeship of Jesse Pinkman as he moves from high school dropout and small-time methamphetamine producer to a scientist fully capable of Blue Sky methamphetamine production in variety of laboratories. He travels from the periphery of methamphetamine production in episode 1:1 “Pilot” to performing the Sisyphean labor of holding together the empire built on the production and distribution of Blue Sky in the final episode 5:16 “Felinia”. What does Jesse pick up from Walter along the way? Both the substantive and sentimental aspects of life in the laboratory. Not just what to do substantively in the laboratory, but the habits and mores of a laboratory scientist. This aspect of Jesse’s sentimental education is clearly in view in the episode “Salud.” One might ask, following Collins and Evans’ (2002) work on SEE (Studies of Expertise and Experience) within STS, what kind of expertise Jesse Pinkman posses at various points along his journey. As I wrote in a previous post, laboratory preparation is largely a matter of training apprentices: a practice developed in Lieblig’s laboratory and carried froward to the present. The case of Pinkman, and apprenticeship in general, I would argue, complicates the Collins and Evans’ static taxonomy of expertise.
The Fate of Technicians
Finally, what of the many laboratory technicians of Breaking Bad? As Shapin (1989) pointed to, laboratory technicians do not fair as well. They are, for the most part, rendered invisible in public accounts of science until something goes wrong. And when something goes wrong in the world of Breaking Bad, it goes very wrong. While Walter, in the figure of Heisenberg, is lionized as a genius in the romantic mode and meets with an arguably noble end, his laboratory assistants, even Jesse who was taken up as an apprentice, aren’t so lucky. Gretchen, Elliott’s wife and a partner in Grey Matter, was Walter’s lab assistant in grad school, but is never credited in the development of Grey Matter. Gale, Walter’s most accomplished methamphetamine production assistant and the man who assembled Gus Fring’s superlab, meets a sad end. Badger is forced to strike a deal with the DEA and is exiled to Fresno before turning up in the series finale. Todd, a capable technician despite his faults, meets a violent end in the series finale. Per Shapin, laboratory technicians are invisible except when something breaks. In Breaking Bad they are made invisible by the plot which revolves around the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg and his relationship with both the other chemists of the methamphetamine trade and Walter’s former PhD classmate Elliott.
Much as The Wire has been taken up in a variety of contexts, Breaking Bad can be taken up from a variety of perspectives and put to a variety of ends. I only had space to sketch a few centered on laboratory work. But, I leave you with one more observation: as the academic work on The Wire has demonstrated, the bildungsroman has not left us with the decline of the novel but has just migrated into new media. We would do well to take note both in and out of the laboratory.
Lebenswelt Origins of the Sciences: Working out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Human Studies 30(1): 9–56.
Jordan, Kathleen, and Michael Lynch
The Dissemination, Standardization and Routinization of a Molecular Biological Technique.
Social Studies of Science 28(5/6): 773–800.
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar
Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press.
Merton, Robert K.
Behavior Patterns of Scientists. The American Scholar 38(2): 197–225.
The Invisible Technician. American Scientist 77(6): 554–563.
I love this! Wonderful post!
Another thing that strikes me — closely related to your “fate of technicians” point or the gulf between instructions and practice in the laboratory — is that Breaking Bad is perhaps the only show whose entire seasonal arc hinges on the idea of tacit knowledge. Walter’s value to Gus Fring is in that he and he alone knows how to make that blue methamphetamine. And I can’t think of any other show where a character (Gale) is killed because he has somehow imbibed some of Walter White’s tacit knowledge and is now therefore a danger to Walter’s very existence.
The relationship between Gale and Walt might be the most interesting in the show. It certainly provides the most technical plot point in television. Two moments stand out to me. The moment when Walt fires Gale by claiming Gale’s style of chemistry is “jazz” while Walt’s is “classical”, and the counter moment when Gale asks Walt if there is a secret to cleaning the catalyst bed (Gale knowing he will take over the lab). The entire season is held together by what both Walt and Gale know, but can’t quite make explicit.