In Emotional Weather Report, our column in the Philippine Star
Do you watch Breaking Bad? It’s one of the best shows in the history of television, right up there with The Wire, The Sopranos, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The title comes from a southwestern American colloquialism: when someone who has always abided by the law suddenly veers off into wrongdoing and crime, he is said to be “breaking bad”. It could also mean “raising hell” or “turning evil”. Essentially that’s what happens to the series protagonist Walter White, played with hair-raising brilliance by Bryan Cranston (previously known as Malcolm in the Middle’s dad).
When the series begins White is a meek, middle-aged chemistry teacher at a suburban high school. Once a brilliant chemist, his work in crystallography contributed to research that won the Nobel Prize. For reasons that have not been made clear, he has settled into a quiet life as husband and father. Money is always tight—his teenage son has cerebral palsy and his wife is pregnant—so he moonlights as a cashier at a local carwash where he is frequently required to wipe down cars.
Then White is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He can’t afford the treatments and he’s worried about how his family will get by if he dies. Through his unwitting brother-in-law, a drug enforcement agent, he realizes that there is a very lucrative line of work suited to a man with his skills set—illegal, of course, but he is a desperate, dying man.
White starts cooking crystal methamphetamine (a.k.a. meth, local term ‘shabu’). Thanks to his scientific background, it turns out to be the purest, finest meth on the market. When Walter White embarks on his life of crime, he is cooking meth in a rundown trailer in the desert with a former student of his. Four seasons later he is a drug kingpin who will eliminate all threats to his business. His cancer is in remission, apparently, but something worse has eaten through his soul. Walter White has broken bad.
Apart from its numerous awards Breaking Bad has earned plaudits for its “uncannily accurate” depiction of the meth trade. I don’t know if the local drug syndicates employ gifted chemists and crystallographers to manufacture their product, but scientific aptitude is the last thing one associates with meth-heads. Toothlessness and bizarre behavior, yes, though I know meth-heads are supposed to be victims and we should be compassionate towards them.
Talk of Breaking Bad reminds me of a story I heard from a friend some years ago. In it meth is not so much a cancer of the body or a pestilence of the soul but a rot in the brain.
Early in this century, this friend of mine was employed by a now-defunct enterprise with a reputation for eccentricity. Of which they were proud. Now all offices abound with fascinating characters, but this workplace had an unusually low ratio of “normal people” to “not”.
One evening, when most of the employees had gone home, a few stragglers remained in that office to relax after a stressful day, get an early start on the next day’s assignments, or to wait until traffic eased up on the road. It was the kind of office where people stayed late and whoever was the last to leave turned off the lights and woke up the security guard. All was quiet on the premises until a strange odor wafted into the main hallway.
It smelled like something burning, something metallic and chemical. The odor became more and more pervasive, until it was a full-fledged stench.
“What is that?” my friend asked. “What the hell is that?” asked her colleagues.
“Gardemmet,” said a senior manager, “That smells like shabu.”
There were random protestations of innocence among those present, although no one questioned the senior manager about his familiarity with meth. They got up to find the source of the odor. Clearly the stink molecules were coming from the general direction of the kitchen. When they got there, the microwave oven was spewing noxious fumes.
The microwave was unplugged and opened. When the smoke cleared they saw a piece of aluminum foil on the turntable, and on that foil was a bit of rock crystal. Someone had tried to cook meth in the microwave. Not cooking as in “manufacturing”, but cooking as in “vaporizing to inhale the fumes”. Presumably the reasoning went like this: “If me heat meth in foil with fire to get high, and microwave heat food very fast, then microwave equals fire! So if me heat meth in microwave, me high fast!” Ulol, bobo, etc.
The guilty party was easily caught; he was not directly involved in the company’s business so no chemically-induced fantasies made it into their reports. The hero-turned-antihero of Breaking Bad may be a genius chemist, but the most avid consumers of his (and his competitors’) products are flaming morons.