What would my father, a chemist with frustrations of his own, have thought of Walter White?
Like countless others over the past few years, my family and I have been dealing with a drug habit: an addiction to Breaking Bad, the AMC television series about Walter White, a former high school chemistry teacher who takes up a second career cooking crystal meth after he’s diagnosed with cancer. We’ve often debated exactly why we find the show so compelling -- of course there are the great performances by Bryan Cranston as White and Aaron Paul as his partner (and former student) Jesse Pinkman, the inventive camera work, and writing that’s as clear and sharp as a tray of new-cooked product. For me, at any rate, what really drew me in at the start, and has kept me watching ever since, was the way White’s backstory -- a chemistry genius who had a shot at making millions in a tech startup company, but ended up teaching a roomful of bored high school students -- meshed with his new persona as a dangerous man, a man who can put a bullet through a drug-dealer’s head if he has to. Before his diagnosis, Walt was a man who’d had to swallow his pride, and whittle away his gifts in a job that had become deeply unfulfilling. After his diagnosis, though his body is wracked with cancer, he regains his pride by deliberately, willfully breaking the law in order to provide for his family -- all the while making it a point of pride that his crystal is chemically superior to anything else on the market.
My father grew up in the farm country of western Washington State, picking strawberries and working in a pea cannery to help his family make ends meet. His boyhood hero was Thomas Edison, and he dreamt of a career as an inventor, once alarming his parents when his attempt to build a galvanic cell set fire to the corner of the chicken coop. After graduating from Washington State, he got his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Purdue, and went to work for the one company with the most direct tie to Edison’s genius, General Electric. At their lighting division “campus” at NELA Park in Cleveland, he too cooked crystals -- crystals of gallium arsenide -- in enormous blast furnaces, then passed electrical current through them to make some of the world’s first multi-colored LED lights. And, although his bookshelves at home were laden with the paperweight-size awards that GE gave out to its top inventors, the company -- whose profits increasingly came from its financial-services division -- downsized his laboratory again and again, eventually closing down the entire research department and outsourcing it to a subcontractor who hired Ph.D.’s from Hungary at a tenth of my dad’s old salary. I don’t think he ever forgave GE, and though he tried teaching chemistry for a while, quit in disgust at the low level of motivation among his students. And then, as with Walt, there came an illness -- not cancer in his case, but Parkinson’s disease, which he came to believe might have been triggered by some of the chemicals he’d been exposed to during his years in the lab; in 2004, he died of the disease and its complications.
He certainly had plenty of reasons to feel resentful. But would my dad have sympathized with Walter White?
At first, I didn’t think so. My dad was the kind of guy who would walk out of a movie theatre if there was a scene depicting an adulterous relationship; he was as honest as a boy scout and faithful as an old dog. He never lied on his taxes or went over the speed limit, except once a year when he wanted to “clean the carbon” off the spark-plugs of his blue Oldsmobile Delta 88. But he was proud of his chemical knowledge. A walk through the woods was an occasion for an explanation of osmosis, the process through which the sap ascended to the branches; when I was a kid, he would bring home old beakers (no round-bottom boiling flasks, alas) and once gave me a chunk of metallic sodium so that I could throw it in a pond and watch it explode. If there was a mistake in chemistry on a science show -- or even in a science-fiction movie -- he’d write a strongly worded letter to the producers. And he expected a reply, too.
But lawbreaking? Deliberately making something that made other people addicted, and sick? And, when it seemed necessary, killing those who threatened him or stood in his way? I couldn’t imagine it. And yet, when I saw those duffel-bags full of rolled $100 bills in the early episodes, I thought to myself: wouldn’t my dad have felt satisfied if, after being forced into early retirement by GE, he’d been able to earn that kind of money? If he could finally have bought that fishing shack up in the Cascade mountains where he’d hiked as a boy, gotten a new car, or even started his own lab to make something better and more valuable than he ever had for GE? Wouldn’t he be rooting for Walter White?
My Dad believed in good guys and bad guys; back in the days of old-time radio, his moral sense was honed by the Lone Ranger and the Cisco Kid. He liked a good adventure story, and got a kick out of retro-styled films like Indiana Jones. And he was a very emotional viewer, although you could only see that river when it spilled over its banks. He could be a little unpredictable, but there was never any doubt as to where his sentiments lay. I remember watching the climactic scene of James Cameron’s Titanic with him -- where the elderly Rose drops the “Star of the Ocean” off the bow of the ship -- he sat through all it as stone-faced as Buster Keaton, but when Tom Hanks lost “Wilson” in Cast Away he wept profusely.
But he also had a powerful sense of justice. Back when he was a student at Mount Vernon Junior College, he’d submitted a science essay for a contest. The science teacher disqualified the paper, citing as a mistake a formula my dad knew was absolutely correct. Dad wrote an angry letter to the school’s principal, who refused to overrule the teacher. Years later, when he heard through a friend that his old science teacher had died, he gave a grunt of satisfaction -- “served the bastard right,” he declared -- this from a man who almost never swore.
And, although he had a comfortable middle-class life -- more comfortable than Walt’s -- my dad had his share of money troubles later in life. When my mom suffered a stroke, and his General Electric health policy refused to pay because he hadn’t contacted them for permission before she was admitted to the hospital, Dad went ballistic. He picked up the phone and argued his case for weeks, all the way up to the top -- Jack Welch, a former research chemist himself, was head of GE then -- and got them to change their mind. He was proud of that.
But what if GE hadn’t come through with the money for my mom’s care? What if my dad found he couldn’t provide for his family, despite all his years of hard work? And what if he knew that his knowledge of chemistry could cover all his family’s bills -- would he have used it?
I doubt he would have ever considered the path of Walter White, but I have a feeling that he’d have sympathized with him all the same. I know he’d have been pleased when the show got its chemistry right, and critical when they missed the mark. “Mercury fulminate! That’s much too unstable!” I can almost hear him saying those words, along with a number of explanations of other chemicals mentioned in the show. So I suspect that he would have been just as closely glued to his screen as I am now -- even given Walter White’s increasing lies and deceits -- and I think he’d have been quietly rooting for him. In many ways, he was Walt -- he too had to learn to swallow his pride, to defer his dreams and waste time trying to justify his research to bosses who scarcely understood it. He’d looked out over a lecture hall full of community college students as they chatted, or dozed, instead of listening to his impassioned explanation of the carbon-hydrogen bond.
The anger in Walt’s voice reminds me of my Dad’s anger, his frustration. The way Walt uses chemistry in every one of his plans and devices reminds me of the way my Dad would use it to solve every household problem, from cleaning a stain on the carpet with hydrogen peroxide to graphing the temperature curve of the Thanksgiving turkey to tell when it would be done. There’s a purity about chemistry, a symmetry, a predictable architecture -- that actual life often seems to lack. I think that’s where Walt’s rage comes from -- and it’s a rage he and my father shared. Late in his life, his mind drifting in the mists of Parkinson’s-related dementia, the anger was the one thing he could hold onto. He raged, raged, against the dying of the light.
And in this dark and unpredictable world, where justice is so seldom really served, this is a rage we all can recognize. Maybe that’s why we’re addicted to Breaking Bad.
NB: This is a repost from a few years ago, on the occasion of the final installments of BB.