Breaking bad was a groundbreaking series in many ways. For me, the attraction of it was the fact that the central character was a scientist. I cannot think of any other TV show where this was the case.
The story is that Walter White is an overqualified high school chemistry teacher who discovers that he has lung cancer. Wanting to leave behind some money for his family when he dies, in desperation he begins cooking crystal meth.
Spread over six series, we see Walter White go from being an upstanding high school teacher who is racked by guilt about the fact that he is breaking the law, to a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, who on one occasion orders the execution of 10 people in the prison who he thinks may rat on him, and on another occasion he poisons one of his enemies by substituting ricin for her artificial sweetener
In later posts I will discuss some of the science involved, but it seems to me that the first question to be addressed is the ethical and philosophical one. Specifically, did he become bad because he was lured into it and he changed, or was he always this way, and it only needed the opportunity to be presented for this part of his character to be seen?
There is of course no absolute answer to that for the simple reason that the series is entirely fictitious. If we were able to find the same thing happening to a real person then perhaps the question would be worth considering, but in the case of the fictitious Walter White it is a waste of time.
But it gets me thinking about a related issue. Every synthetic poison and every explosive was invented by a chemist. That is, someone with a university education made the decision to set their mind to inventing something that was going to kill people, although I should add a caveat here – in many cases explosives were invented accidentally. That is, when the chemical was invented it was invented for another purpose and it just happened to be explosive. A case in point here is ammonium nitrate – the world’s first synthetic fertiliser (note – I only refer to it as synthetic because it is manufactured in a factory, not because the chemical does not exist in nature, because it does – just not in large enough quantities to be commercially viable). In fact, they only realised how explosive ammonium nitrate was after the Texas city disaster occurred
But poisons are another story. Chemicals used in chemical weapons and biological material used in biological weapons were the work of scientists. I have asked myself many times how an intelligent person could devote their energies to such evil. When you study at tertiary level you are exposed to a higher form thinking. You ought to develop an ethically rounded view of life. You should be the type of person who will place great value on human life. But somehow, someway, these people turned their intelligence to evil.
And I don’t really have an answer as to how or why this occurs. Every scientist I know, myself included, works tirelessly to make the world a better place, whether it be by the development of new drugs, new medical procedures, new assistive technologies, or whether it be just simply telling people how to clean their homes, (as I do).
It is these things that most scientists devote their effort to, because we want to leave a legacy. I used to read the obituaries in the monthly editions of Chemistry in Australia, where the life work of a particular scientist was described in memoriam.
How is it possible, I have often asked myself, to live your life in such a manner that you know that you will leave behind a legacy that you will be ashamed of – that you know that your relatives will disown you and avoid speaking your name.?
It reminds me of the story of Herod Antipas, one of the most hated Roman provincial rulers, who ordered that on the day that he died, 100 people were to be randomly executed. This was so that he could be assured that there would be some people weeping on the day that he died…
The only answer I can come up with as to why intelligent people devote their efforts to evil is that they have swallowed wholesale a perverted view of the world that justifies their actions. An example might be Joseph Mengele, the Nazi doctor of death. No doubt he really believed that Aryans were the master race, and Jews were on to Untermensch (sub humans) and were not worthy of the same dignity as normal humans are.
Once you swallow wholesale that mindset, then anything is possible.Then again, other motivations may simply be money. That was certainly the case in Breaking Bad.
Whatever the reasons, the story of Walter White is a very dark one. And like I think many viewers, you feel yourself being drawn into the dark world in which he lived, driven by a morbid fascination with what was going to happen next. They managed to create this dark suspense which I think was the success of the show, and the reason that it won so many awards.
But it’s not the kind of show where I feel any desire to watch it again…
But of course we now have the prequel on Stan – Better Call Saul (based on the Saul Goodman character in the series). It’s very clever and very funny.
In the next post I’ll start looking at some of the science behind Breaking Bad – just how accurate was it?