Process Makes Perfect: Breaking Bad's Visual and Narrative Obsession

Curator's Note

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.      


Hi Pete, thanks for starting off our Breaking Bad week. I'm repeatedly amazed by the show's continuous "ah ha!" moments when we get to see just how all the little pieces of "the process" fit together. I binged watched the first four seasons of the show before catching up and when viewing in that manner seeing how all the puzzle pieces of the narrative fit together is much more evident. I know I am going to have to rewatch 5A and 5B when it's completed to catch all the nuances.

Pete, your post on the concept of matter and its importance to the show's narrative and thematic construction is fascinating. Indeed as in the first season when in a flashback Walt is shown using chemistry and mathematics to deconstruct the human body into its parts Gilligan shows that Walt's adherence to scientific rationale may in some cases be harmful to his ability to exhibit true pathos and humanity. In watching Walt shift from "Mr Chips to Scarface" as Gilligan sold the series what we have also witnessed is how Walt's chemical knowledge can be used to break down matter and society's values especially at a time when the focus is on corporate governance and privatization rather than a communal good.

Great points here. I also think that it is Walt's utterly shrewd, calculated, process-focused outlook that has allowed him to rationalize evil. This seemed even more clear to me during "To'hajiilee" (the most recent episode) when Walt is driving to protect his money barrels and screaming at Jesse on the phone. During this exchange, Walt admits to multiple murders and the calculated poisoning of a child, but tellingly he punctuates the series of statements with his utter frustration that Jesse can't see the pure rationality of it all. This is especially clear when Walt says, "I did all of those things to try to save your life as well as mine, only you're too stupid to know it." Walt's insistence that everything is utterly planned and clearly logical-- that if you could just see it all from his incredibly rational vantage point, you'd understand-- makes him a nuanced, multi-layered anti-hero (or villain?).

Brian, thanks for reminding me of that moment, which also factors beautifully into Walt as master of process. In it we see Walt, before the acid barrels and the ricin capsules, mulling over the idea of "humanity" from a hyper-rational perspective. It reminds a little of Dostoevsky's narrator in "Notes from the Underground," Walt's antithesis, who is so frustrated about the attempts of science to count and evaluate every piece of data while it isn't prepared to handle the complexity of human creativity or empathy. Walt understands the essential building blocks of matter, but only in isolation. The show's attention to matter and process also reminds us that science is its own rhetoric. I've been discussing the show with students for a year or so, and I often frame it as a narrative mostly about science during the first two seasons and mostly about rhetoric in the final three. However, every scientific experiment has a rhetorical motive at its core. We forget that studies, data, statistics, and experiments don't spring from the ground unencumbered by argument. And let's not forget that, in the scene you mention, Walt appears to be wooing or flirting with Gretchen -- one possible rhetorical engine behind the insight of his chemical theory of human (de)composition. Jeff, you're right that all of Walt's scheming is framed in terms of simple mathematical formulas. "If I cook x, poison y, and convince z, then we will have arrived at the most important solution -- that we get to remain alive." At two points in the last several episodes, Walt realizes that just being alive isn't enough, and that the life he's rationalized for himself, though it is very "examined," is not worth living. Maria, assembling those puzzle pieces is such exquisite joy for me. I feel like Gilligan can hear our brains turning to catch up with the problems that have to be solved in the show and, because of that, like Walt, he's able to stay one step ahead of us. And while we're on the topic of science, did anyone catch that ringtone on Todd's phone in "To'hajiilee" (the latest episode)? Yes, that was Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Scienc" (1982), a song that probably pre-dates Todd's birth by about a decade. On another show that might seem anachronistic, but on Breaking Bad that just seems like a knowing tip of the fedora. Thanks for your feedback everyone!

This is a fantastic post Pete and it makes me remember/rethink a number of processes in relation to the show's whole. (I was afraid to come over here and read it before I had a chance to watch "To'hajiilee"--have never felt so possessive about a show's final episodes!) The motorbike in particular is a great example of how the show's organizing processes get refined in ways that parallel the characters' "psychic degradation," as you put it. Jesse's bangled attempt to dissolve a body in hydrofluoric acid opened up the series with this incredibly messy, visceral, and simultaneously gleeful/horrified experience of a chemical process; part of what's so haunting about the motorbike sequence is that, by season five, they've become so proficient at dissolving inconvenient bodies and accessories--it's now purely mechanical, rote. The process of meth-making follows a similar arc. Walt and Jesse's trip down memory lane a few episodes ago (when Walt showed up at Jesse's house and waxed nostalgic about the good ol' days) seemed all about reminding us of the frenetic, often elated energy they had when cooking in the camper, the better to appreciate how routine this work has become. And of course it's Walt, with his fixation on order, rationality, and process, who seems the most incapable of being satisfied with this routine.

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