Breaking Bad is a narrative obsessed with process. In the show’s first episode Walter White introduces the subject of chemistry to his classes. “Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change,” Walt reveals; this is, perhaps, the cleanest capture of Breaking Bad’s thematic arc. Vince Gilligan’s cinematic attention to the processes of change merges the show’s narrative and visual elements together, meditating on the values those processes illuminate.
Cooking methamphetamine is the uber-process of the show, beginning with the selection of equipment from Walter’s high school storeroom and the introduction of the RV lab, Fring’s super lab, and the Vamanos Pest partnership. But a host of other ordered processes are explained and/or visualized on the show: Saul’s explanation of nail-salon-money-laundering, Walt's cancer scans, Jesse's midnight street dealing, the the distribution of “hazard pay” into safety deposit boxes, and the jailhouse executions. Walt's annual birthday breakfast is an important process that changes over time. Skyler performs it willingly at 50 and bitterly at 51. Walter must enact the ritual himself, alone, in a diner on his 52nd birthday.
In the first season Walt assembles the pieces of a broken plate to learn that Krazy 8, who is restrained in the basement, has fashioned himself a weapon. In season five, Walt’s crew spends two wordless, haunting minutes disassembling and dissolving the motorbike of an adolescent they killed in the desert. Both of these process are central to the escalating tension of Breaking Bad, revealing the ever-present threat of death that accompanies their meth enterprise. More importantly, though, they demonstrate a larger realization. The plate assembly and the vehicle dissassembly, and countless physical processes between them, are indicative of Walter’s moral evolution.
In the study of chemistry, matter is a value-neutral entity worthy of study in all of its properties. The results of Walt’s five season long chemistry project, embedded as they are within questions of criminal justice, labor, and rhetoric, cannot remain value-neutral. As gleeful as Jesse’s frequent outbursts (“Yeah! Science, bitch!”) are, Breaking Bad’s visual depictions of physical processes require us to consider their degraded psychic analog: how the inner lives of the show’s characters undergo revision in ways that are connected to the manipulation of chemicals, currency, cars, medical equipment, and motorbikes.