The Catalyst of the Story (or, The Alchemy of Breaking Bad)

I haven’t yet watched the first episode of the final season of Breaking Bad, but I’m eager to see how it all ends. I feel a slight trepidation that it’ll end poorly, but surely not as badly as LOST or Battlestar Galactica… I’m confident that Vince Gilligan will not do me wrong. There’s a lot of good evidence to show that Breaking Bad is a very well thought out story, one that may have had its ending written before it ever began.

Here’s my thinking: one of the things that has always struck me about the show is its use of color. Devout fans will no doubt know exactly what I’m referring to… each of the principal characters has a “signature color”: Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have black and yellow, Skyler White is blue (then green), her sister Marie Schrader is purple, Hank Schrader is brown, Gustavo Fring is yellow, Walt Jr. is an ochre tending towards orange. The two leads, Walter and Jesse, both have colors in their surnames. [Don’t believe me? Do a Google image search for the characters’ names.]

As a lifelong aficionado of comic books and comic art, the obvious parallels to superhero and supervillain mythology stood out to me like a sore thumb. I immediately thought of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, where the characters and their scenes are appropriately colored as per their “4-color” tendencies. Then of course, you have Walter’s “alliteration” naming scheme – thanks to the plethora of comic book inspired popular movies and television shows, you’re surely aware of Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson, Otto Octavius, Scott Summers, Warren Worthington, Bruce Banner, Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Matt Murdoch…  So of course I’m thinking to myself: “How cool! Breaking Bad is a supervillain origin story, Walter White is like Lex Luthor! What a brilliant aesthetic!”

So this amount of attention to detail and character design is a heartening thing to see in a television show, and leads me to believe that a good ending is forthcoming. But lately I’m starting to think that as neat as the comic book connection seems, there might be a bit more to all of it than just bright colors and funny book names (incidentally, Gerhard Schrader was a German chemist who created insecticides, and was the inventor of several nerve gas agents, including Sarin).

What I’m thinking now is that the character colors actually indicate elements. As in, the elements of the Periodic Table of Elements. The naturally occurring states of the elements have colors associated with them; Black would be carbon; yellow would be sulfur. Oxygen in its liquid form is blue, and copper in a flame test would shine blue and green.

Maybe there’s a whole chemical equation behind the entire show? The metaphor becomes extremely plain when you look at things this way – Breaking Bad is a show about reactions. How do people change when they’re exposed to certain conditions? How do they transform when you combine reactive elements together, and how quickly does it happen when you apply just the right catalyst? And how big will the explosion be??

Obviously in Walter Sr.’s case, his catalyst is lung cancer. It radically changes him, and sets off a chain reaction where he continues to dissolve more and more away from Walter White and resolve into Heisenberg. The Jekyll and Hyde motif is also plain, and perhaps another source of inspiration – Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece is surely the first draft of Breaking Bad, the story of a man driven to madness, violence, and corruption due to overexposure to drugs, bad chemistry, and primal power.

But what of the others in Walt’s social circle? There’s Jesse (also a black / carbon) who himself goes through many changes with the application of heat, pressure, and solvents; but perhaps he will turn into a diamond as opposed to Walt becoming a lump of coal (or something worse). Skyler’s transformative process made her stronger, but perhaps also made her more brittle. Hank’s shooting was his catalyst, yet another indirect effect caused by Walt’s initial transformation.

This final season will surely show us what all the final forms of these character elements will be – if I’m right about this elemental connection, and Vince is using chemistry as a metaphor for relationships, I don’t see how we’d be disappointed with the tapestry he’ll weave given that he’s started with such great materials.

BONUS SPECULATION: You may not want to read any further if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to read speculation and potentially be spoiled by it.  I’ll type the rest of the text out white on white, so you’ll have to highlight below with your mouse to read the rest…

If Vince Gilligan has the balls to do it, I believe we’re going to witness Walter White killing his entire family. If it were me writing it, that’s how it would have to go down: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.” It would be positively classic Shakespearean Greek tragedy for Walt to kill the very thing he set out to save in the first place. I envision it like this: Walt Jr. plays his final, most important role and does something to seriously insult his father. Maybe it’s when he finally learns about the meth and says something like “You’re just a a a – a lousy good for nothing drug dealer!” And in a fit of ego, Walt lashes out and kills the boy (just like he does with Mike).

Skyler, Medea-like, goes on to kill the baby and herself, maybe through drowning – or perhaps in a purifying fire, or maybe quietly and solemnly with carbon monoxide in the minivan in an enclosed garage. Hank comes in to play Macduff while Walt cries: “Lay on, Macduff, And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!'”

But I do not think that Walter White will die. No… I think that he will be the only one who lives, the man who had terminal cancer – he stays alive long enough to gain the world and lose everything, and just keeps on living in the desert, beside the vast and trunkless legs, himself the shattered visage.