Why the Hell Are We Making Meth? Musings on Science, Labor and Romance in Breaking Bad.

In the early third season of Breaking Bad, the main character Walt gets what could be mistaken for a craft microbrewery and a dream come true. It’s actually a “state-of-the-art” meth lab, built for him by his boss, Gus, who owns the laundromat serving as a front upstairs. Well, actually, it’s more that his boss gave someone else money to build it, but I’ll get to that in another post.

The lab means as many things to as many people as there are stars hiding in the deep. The lab is a place for redemptive and even mystical exploration of the natural world. If you play your cards right it can also be for lucrative exploitation of “consenting adults … want[ing] what they want”. Gale is Walt’s new lab-assistant. He’s confident in asserting his libertarianism, but not melodramatic about it like Ayn Rand, and not quite nearly as focused on the pursuit of money. The whole set-up of this lab is at least on one level a promise of unalienated labor, what William Morris writing about “useful work vs. useless toil” called “the hope of pleasure in the work itself”:

…how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers – to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body.

Nonetheless, Gale weds working for rich people, or at least “where the money is”, and “doing science”. This is interesting because Gale nonetheless takes an awkwardly political and in this sense ethical turn when talking shop with Walt at the end of the day. Gale says in a somewhat reactive somewhat resigned tone: “I was doing it the way you are supposed to, pursuing my doctorate at Colorado, on an NSF grant.” This entailed a lot of jumping through hoops, kissing ass and “attending too all the non-chemistry that one finds oneself occupied with – you know that world.” Academic politics are notoriously taxing and so it’s no surprise this should rub a libertarian the wrong way, but it’s not taxing in terms of money so much as affective reserves and social capital. Gale is attracted to “the business” because it offers him that “magical” experience of doing real work, which in the context of science means lab-work. This also seems necessary to convincing Walt. Money alone can’t quite hail him into being as a compliant worker since he decided he wanted out, but the promise of respectability doing highly aestheticized lab-work  gets him to agree to return to cooking.

Think of the industrial porn called “How It’s Made“, which would make Zizek blush. “My God, can you believe they syndicate this smut on the same public broadcasting channel that makes, what do you call it, Sesame Street and other children’s shows?” The bossa-nova musical bed is evocative of romantic comedies.

This first time they’re working together strikes me as compelling, plainly erudite though unpretentious as I ever understood Shakespeare to be (at least in his own time). I took note of and pleasure in the Gale’s recitation of Walt Whitman’s poem “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”. However, then I recoiled at the thought that this might be criticized as talking over the heads of lower-class (uneducated) viewers. I thought about this — “yeah, maybe sometimes they teach it in public school, but it isn’t really iconic in popular culture. If people know anything about Walt Whitman it’s usually that he was gay, a romantic poet, and superlatively into himself in a way I find hard to argue with.” — and then related it to my partner. She was nonplussed,” Oh, I didn’t know they were talking about Walt Whitman, but I have seen that poem on the [public] bus”.

This poem and the general invocation of Whitman tie together several threads of romance I’ve tried to touch on in this review of what’s just a 7-minute portion of the show. The romance of science as labor most authentically pursued in the lab or field or apparently the market, which means withdrawing from the feudal relations of the university or the classically liberal relations of the welfare state. The problem with this is one Corey Robin has taken up in terms of neoliberalism as the return of feudal relations (or something like them) within the private dominion of business.  There’s the erotically charged chemists’ bromance . There’s also the romance of craft production and in this I see another curious reflection on work, which I’d like to make my final point.

When Walt is reviewing Gale’s resume, he lingers almost drooling over the fact that Gale has some expertise in “x-ray crystallography’. “I could talk for hours about that, but…” and he stops himself to interrogate Gale about a complicated but elegant arrangement of glass-ware and tubes, through which is being processed a brown liquid.

It turns out to be the nerdiest coffee-maker you’ve ever seen and Gale explains how it’s set up to yield what he wants. He pours Walt a cup (a quintessential office-jerk task). He struggles to articulate just how amazing the coffee is, but manages to roll his eyes and say it’s the best.  Then before cutting to the bossa nova montage I embedded above, he asks “why the hell are we making meth?” and it seems we’ve come full-circle from Ph.D. barista.

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