“I am not in danger . . . I am the danger.” With those words, Breaking Bad’s Walter White solidified himself as TV’s greatest antihero. Wanna Cook? explores the most critically lauded series on television with analyses of the individual episodes and ongoing storylines. From details like stark settings, intricate camerawork, and jarring music to the larger themes, including the roles of violence, place, self-change, legal ethics, and fan reactions, this companion book is perfect for those diehards who have watched the Emmy Awardwinning series multiple times as well as for new viewers. Wanna Cook? elucidates without spoiling, and illuminates without nit-picking. A must-have for any fan’s collection.
About the Author
Ensley F. Guffey: Ensley F. Guffey is a historian of American popular culture, and he has published scholarly essays on Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, and Marvel’s The Avengers.
K. Dale Koontz: K. Dale Koontz is the author of Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon (McFarland, 2008) and teaches courses in areas as diverse as communications, film, theatre, and the law.
Read an Excerpt
From Wanna Cook’s Episode Guide
1.01 Pilot/Breaking Bad
Original air date: January 20, 2008
Written and directed by: Vince Gilligan
“I prefer to see [chemistry] as the study of change . . . that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation! It is fascinating, really.” Walter White
We meet Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and Walt’s family. Walt is poleaxed by some tragic news. With nothing to lose, Walt decides to try to make one big score, and damn the consequences. For that, however, he needs the help of Jesse Pinkman, a former student of Walt’s turned loser meth cook and drug dealer.
From the moment you see those khakis float down out of a perfectly blue desert sky, you know that you’re watching a show like nothing else on television. The hard beauty and stillness of the American Southwest is shattered by a wildly careening RV driven by a pasty white guy with a developing paunch wearing only a gas mask and tighty-whities.
What the hell?
Like all pilots, this one is primarily exposition, but unlike most, the exposition is beautifully handled as the simple background of Walter’s life. The use of a long flashback as the body of the episode works well, in no small part due to Bryan Cranston’s brilliant performance in the opening, which gives us a Walter White so obviously, desperately out of his element that we immediately wonder how this guy wound up pantsless in the desert and apparently determined to commit suicide-by-cop. After the opening credits, the audience is taken on an intimate tour of Walt’s life. Again, Cranston sells it perfectly. The viewer is presented with a middle-aged man facing the back half of his life from the perspective of an early brilliance and promise that has somehow imploded into a barely-making-ends-meet existence as a high school chemistry teacher. He has to work a lousy second job to support his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son and still can’t afford to buy a hot water heater.
Executive producer and series creator Vince Gilligan, along with the cast and crew (Gilligan & Co.), take the audience through this day in the life of Walt, and it’s just one little humiliation after another. The only time Walt’s eyes sparkle in the first half of the episode is when he is giving his introductory lecture to his chemistry class. Here Walt transcends his lower-middle-class life in an almost poetic outpouring of passion for this incredible science. Of course, even that brief joy is crushed by the arrogant insolence of the archetypal high school jackass who stays just far enough inside the line that Walt can’t do a damn thing about him. So this is Walt and his life, as sad sack as you can get, with no real prospects of improvement, a brother-in-law who thinks he’s a wuss, and a wife who doesn’t even pay attention during birthday sex.
Until everything changes.
The sociologist and criminologist Lonnie Athens would likely classify Walt’s cancer diagnosis as the beginning of a “dramatic self change,” brought on by something so traumatic that a person’s self the very thoughts, ideas, and ways of understanding and interacting with the world is shattered, or “fragmented,” and in order to survive, the person must begin to replace that old self, those old ideas, with an entirely new worldview. (Athens and his theories are discussed much more fully in the previous essay, but since we warned you not to read that if you don’t want to risk spoilage, the basic and spoiler-free parts are mentioned here.) Breaking Bad gives us this fragmentation beautifully. Note how from the viewer’s perspective Walt is upside down as he is moved into the MRI machine, a motif smoothly repeated in the next scene with Walt’s reflection in the top of the doctor’s desk. Most discombobulating of all, however, is the consultation with the doctor. At first totally voiceless behind the tinnitus-like ambient soundtrack and faceless except for his chin and lips, the doctor and the news he is imparting are made unreal, out of place, and alien. As for Walt, in an exquisite touch of emotional realism, all he can focus on is the mustard stain on the doctor’s lab coat. How many of us, confronted with such tragic news, have likewise found our attention focused, randomly, illogically, on some similar mundanity of life?
It is from this shattered self that Walt begins to operate and things that would have been completely out of the question for pre-cancer Walt are now actual possibilities things like finding a big score before he dies by making and selling pure crystal meth. Remember that Walt is a truly brilliant chemist, and knows full well what crystal meth is and what it does to people who use it. He may not know exactly what he’s getting into, but he knows what he is doing.
Enter Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, best known previously for his role on Big Love), a skinny white-boy gangster wannabe, who under the name “Cap’n Cook” makes a living cooking and selling meth. He’s also an ex-student of Walt’s, and after being recognized by his former teacher during a drug bust, Walt has all the leverage he needs to coerce Jesse into helping him. Why does he need him? Because, as Walt says, “you know the business, and I know the chemistry.” Symbolizing just how far beyond his old life Walt is moving, he and Jesse park their battered RV/meth lab in the desert outside of Albuquerque, far from the city and any signs of human life. All that is there is a rough dirt road and a “cow house” in the distance. The desert is a place without memory, a place outside of things, where secrets can be kept, and meth can be cooked. This is where Walt lives now.
It is in this desert space that Walt becomes a killer, albeit in self defense. Ironically, the one thing that Walt views as holding the keys to the secret of life chemistry becomes the means to end lives. Walt, a father, teacher, and an integral part of an extended family in other words, an agent of life and growth has now become a meth cook, using chemical weapons to kill his enemies. Walter White has become an agent of death.
The transformation is just beginning, but already Skyler (Anna Gunn, previously known for her roles on The Practice and Deadwood) is having some trouble recognizing her husband: “Walt? Is that you?”
Highlight: Jesse to Walt: “Man, some straight like you giant stick up his ass all of a sudden at age what? Sixty? He’s just going to break bad?”
Did You Notice:
This episode has the first (but not the last!) appearance of Walt’s excuse that he’s doing everything for his family.
There’s an award on the wall in Walt’s house commemorating his contributions to work that was awarded the Nobel Prize back in 1985. The man’s not a slouch when it comes to chemistry, so what’s happened since then?
At Walt’s surprise birthday party, Walt is very awkward when he handles Hank’s gun.
Speaking of Hank (Dean Norris, whose other roles were in the TV series Medium, and the movies Total Recall, and Little Miss Sunshine), he waits until the school bus has left the neighborhood before ordering his team into the meth lab, showing what a good and careful cop he is.
Maybe it’s just us, but J.P. Wynne High School (where Walt teaches chemistry) seems to have the most well-equipped high school chemistry lab in the country.
As Walt receives his diagnosis, the doctor’s voice and all other sounds are drowned out by a kind of numbing ringing, signifying a kind of psychic overload that prevents Walt from being fully engaged with the external world. This effect will be used again several times throughout the series.
Walt literally launders his money to dry it out, foreshadowing what’s to come.
Thanks to John Toll, who served as cinematographer for the first season of Breaking Bad, the show has one of the most distinctive opening shots ever. Just watch those empty khaki pants flutter across a clear sky. Breaking Bad loves certain camera angles and this section is where we’ll point out some of the shots that make the show stand out.
Look at that taped non-confession Walt makes for his family when he thinks the cops are coming for him. We’re used to watching recordings of characters shows are filmed (or taped), but here, we’re watching him recording himself on tape. Who’s the real Walt?
Title: Many pilot episodes share the name with the title of the show and Breaking Bad’s pilot is no exception. Vince Gilligan, who grew up in Farmville, Virginia, has stated that “breaking bad” is a Southernism for going off the straight and narrow. When you bend a stick until it breaks, the stick usually breaks cleanly. But sometimes, sticks (and men) break bad. You can wind up in the hospital with a splinter in your eye, or you can wind up in Walter White’s world. Either way, it’s no kind of good.
Interesting Facts: Show creator Vince Gilligan’s early educational experience was at J. P. Wynne Campus School in Farmville, Virginia. He recycled the name for the high school in Breaking Bad.
What Is Crystal Meth, Anyway?
While there is some evidence that methamphetamine can be found naturally in several species of acacia plants, commercial meth making involves chemistry, not agriculture. The history of the drug dates back to 1893 when Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi first synthesized the substance from ephedrine. The name “methamphetamine” was derived from elements of the chemical structure of this new compound: methyl alpha-methylphenylethylamine. In the United States, meth is a Schedule II controlled substance, which the Drug Enforcement Administration defines as a substance that may have some accepted medical use, but also has a high likelihood of being abused and causing dependence. Other Schedule II substances include opium and cocaine.
Crystal meth is a very pure, extremely potent form of methamphetamine that is usually smoked like crack cocaine, but can also be crushed and snorted, injected, or even inserted into the anus or urethra where it dissolves into the bloodstream. Among other ailments, prolonged meth use can result in rapid decay and loss of teeth (known as “meth mouth”); drug-related psychosis that can persist for weeks, months, or even years after use is discontinued; and, oh yeah, death. Crystal meth is highly addictive and is such a horrifically vicious drug that in 2008 The Economist reported that in Pierce County, Washington, where 589 meth labs were found in 2001, some police and residents were relieved to see an uptick in crack use as an indicator that the meth trade was declining!
Make no mistake: what Walt and Jesse are doing is a Bad Thing.
Unfortunately, you don’t need a trained chemist like Walter White to whip up a batch of meth. In fact, there are many recipes for home-cooking meth and one of the most popular uses a method that sounds downright patriotic: in the “Red, White, and Blue” method, the red is red phosphorus, white is the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, and blue is iodine, used to make hydroiodic acid. The cook obtains these ingredients from items such as lye, anhydrous (“without water”) ammonia, iodine, hydrochloric acid, matches (Emilio is scraping match heads when viewers first meet him), ephedrine (which is found in sinus medications such as Sudafed), drain cleaner, ether, lighter fluid, and brake fluid. Ick.
Another downside of meth manufacturing is the stew of toxic fumes that are created as by-products. As seen in the pilot episode, a careless cook can be exposed to highly toxic phosphine gas by overheating the red phosphorus used in the cooking process. Other toxins can include mercury and hydrogen gas also known as the stuff that blew up the Hindenburg. Now you know why Walt made Emilio toss out his cigarette.
Mustard Gas versus Phosphine Gas
Hank: Meth labs are nasty on a good day. You mix that shit wrong and you’ve got, uh, mustard gas.
Walt: Phosphine gas.
Both of these gases are best avoided, to be sure, but there is a significant difference. According to the Centers for Disease Control, mustard gas (or, more accurately, “sulfur mustard”) is a chemical warfare agent that was first used by the German Empire in September 1917 against the forces of Imperial Russia at Riga during World War I. Mustard gas is a “vesicant” or blistering agent, which means it caused blistering both externally and internally on the skin, eyes, throat, esophagus, and lungs, with the blisters sometimes forming several hours after exposure to the gas. Mustard gas was not always lethal, depending on the dose or whether or not any gas had been inhaled. Victims often suffered agonizing pain from burns, blindness, and bleeding, both external and internal, and many who survived were disabled for the rest of their lives. Unlike chlorine, phosgene, or even tear gas, gas masks did not protect the wearer from mustard gas, which could cause disabling chemical burns on any part of a soldier’s exposed skin. Furthermore, mustard gas sank low and lingered for weeks, making occupation of trenches extremely dangerous for friend and foe alike. Mustard gas has no recognized medical use and its use in combat is now a violation of the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention.
Phosphine gas is far more deadly. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, phosphine gas is an unintended and potentially lethal (just ask Emilio!) by-product of meth manufacturing using the hydroiodic acid/red phosphorus method. Phosphine gas has no effect on the skin, and causes only mild to moderate irritation to the eyes, but produces rapid and horrific effects if inhaled. Low-level, short-term exposure can cause coughing and severe lung irritation. Neurological effects include dizziness, convulsions, and coma. The results of long-term or high-level exposure to phosphine gas (as in a poorly ventilated RV, for example) include pulmonary edema; convulsions; damage to the kidney, liver, and heart; and death. Phosphine gas was also used during World War I, but unlike mustard gas, quick and proper use of gas masks proved an effective countermeasure. In non-gaseous form, phosphine is used in the manufacture of semi-conductors and compound conductors. Pellets containing phosphine that react with atmospheric water or a rodent’s stomach acids are used for pest control, and phosphine gas is also used as an aerosol insecticide because it leaves no residue on the products it is applied to.
Meth isn’t the only thing that gets cooked on Breaking Bad. Meals are a big part of the show, indicating how things are going at any given time: is the White family sitting down to a home-cooked meal or is it a dinner of takeout? And, while it is a well-known fact that teenage boys can wolf down copious quantities of food, Junior (aka “Flynn”) eats more breakfasts than should be allowed by law. In fact, Breaking Bad memes and drinking games have sprung up around Junior’s breakfasts, so keep an eye out for how many times you see him at the breakfast table.
Walt’s home life has an important marker associated with breakfast the birthday bacon. For his 50th birthday at the start of season 1, breakfast is a celebration with Skyler spelling out “50” in veggie bacon on his plate. There will be two future instances of bacon spelling out something for Walter; watch how much his circumstances have changed each time.
Table of Contents
What’s Cooking: Change We Can Believe In
1.01 Pilot / Breaking Bad
Special Ingredients: What Is Crystal Meth, Anyway?
Mustard Gas Versus Phosphine Gas
1.02 The Cat’s in the Bag
Special Ingredients: Chirality, Thalidomide, and Methamphetamine
1.03 . . . And the Bag’s in the River
Special Ingredients: Baking Soda
1.04 Cancer Man
Special Ingredients: Gluing Stab Wounds
American Health Insurance
1.05 Gray Matter
Special Ingredients: Cerebral Palsy
1.06 Crazy Handful of Nothin’
Special Ingredients: Stages of Lung Cancer
1.07 A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal
Special Ingredients: Etch A Sketch Thermite
Meth Used to Be Legal
What’s Cooking: Walter White and the Anti-Hero
2.01 Seven Thirty-Seven
Special Ingredients: Castor Beans to Ricin
Georgi Markov Poison-Tip Umbrella Assassination
Special Ingredients: LoJack Technology
Cartels versus Mexican Law Enforcement and the Mexican Army
Mexican Meth Superlabs
2.03 Bit by a Dead Bee
Special Ingredients: Fugues and Fugue States
Grills, or Grillz Dental Appliances
Sidebar: Marie and the Color Purple
Special Ingredients: Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Special Ingredients: H. Tracy Hall
2.07 Negro Y Azul
Special Ingredients: Narcocorridas (Drug Ballads)
Saint Jesus Malverde
2.08 Better Call Saul
Special Ingredients: Attorney-Client Privilege
2.09 4 Days Out
Special Ingredients: PET/CT Scans
Special Ingredients: Striker Strips or Match Heads?
Special Ingredients: Heroin and Works
Special Ingredients: Is It Murder?
Special Ingredients: Lung Lobectomy
Air Traffic Controllers
What’s Cooking: Saul Goodman & Bus Bench Advertising
3.01 No Más
Special Ingredients: Santa Muerte
Tenerife Airport Disaster
Sidebar: The Cars of Breaking Bad
3.02 Caballo Sin Nombre
Special Ingredients: Los Zetas
Polleros (Coyotes) and “Chicken Runs”
Special Ingredients: Industrial Chicken Farming
3.04 Green Light
Special Ingredients: Class-Action Lawsuits
Special Ingredients: Heated Floors (Back to Ancient Rome)
Special Ingredients: Probable Cause for Searching Vehicles vs. Searching Residences
3.07 One Minute
Special Ingredients: JHPs and the Winchester “Black Talon”
Universal Pain Assessment Tool
Meet One of the Cooks: Interview with Michael Slovis, Director of Photography
3.08 I See You
Special Ingredients: Pablo Escobar
Special Ingredients: Gambling Addiction
Special Ingredients: Contaminants Found in Crystal Meth
Special Ingredients: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Door Paintings
3.12 Half Measures
Special Ingredients: Bonnie and Clyde
3.13 Full Measure
Special Ingredients: Metallic Balloons and Power Lines
Desert Eagle Pistols and Silencers
What’s Cooking: Fan Hatred and Skyler White
4.01 Box Cutter
Special Ingredients: Rocks and Minerals
4.02 Thirty-Eight Snub
Special Ingredients: “New Mexico Is Not a Retreat Jurisdiction”
4.03 Open House
Special Ingredients: EPA Car Wash Inspectors?
4.04 Bullet Points
Special Ingredients: The Kelly Criterion
Special Ingredients: Dead Drops
Special Ingredients: Four Corners
4.07 Problem Dog
Special Ingredients: Rage and Product Placement in American Television
Sidebar: Veggie Trays
Special Ingredients: Chile and the Pinochet Junta
Special Ingredients: The CID Division of the IRS
GPS Tracking Devices with USB Connectivity
Special Ingredients: Huntington’s Disease
4.11 Crawl Space
Special Ingredients: “Macho” Camacho
Charms Against the Evil Eye
4.12 End Times
Special Ingredients: Cell Phone Detonated Pipe Bombs (IEDs)
4.13 Face Off
Special Ingredients: Lily of the Valley
Sidebar: Walt & the Backyard Pool
Essay: “Buying the House”: Place and Space in Breaking Bad
Season Five Part 1
5.01 Live Free or Die
Special Ingredients: “Popcorn Effect” on Superheated Teeth
Saul and Clarence Darrow
Special Ingredients: Suicide by Portable Defibrillator
Federal Authority to Seize Offshore Funds in a Drug Trafficking Case (RICO)
5.03 Hazard Pay
Special Ingredients: Why Are They Called “Second Story Men”?
Special Ingredients: House Tenting
5.05 Dead Freight
Special Ingredients: North American Tarantulas
Post 9/11 Rail Transport Security Measures
Special Ingredients: How Can Electrical Wiring Burn Through Plastic?
TROs and Ex Parte Orders
5.07 Say My Name
Special Ingredients: Antoine Lavoisier
5.08 Gliding Over All
Special Ingredients: Meth in the Czech Republic
Hank & Marie & Kids
Season Five Part 2
5.09 Blood Money
Special Ingredients: Forensic Handwriting Comparison
The All Seeing Eye
Special Ingredients: Christian Louboutin
5.12 Rabid Dog
5.15 Granite State
What’s Cooking: “The One Who Knocks”: The Violentization of Walter White
Special Ingredients Index
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
WANNA COOK? may be an "unauthorized" guide to BREAKING BAD, but it is of very high quality. It is much longer than the usual fan-related book (although it's really 433 pages long, not 500 as the product info. says). It is erudite, co-written by a self-confessed TV maven and an expert in various aspects of communication, including the law (which comes in very handy dicussing Saul Goldman). Chapters proceed episode by episode for the full length of the series, but the authors are very sensitive to recurrent themes (Walter White's intellectual arrogance, say) and the creative use of filmic techniques such as time-lapse photography, or creative use of colored lenses to separate Mexico from New Mexico, the present from the past. Who will benefit from this book? Practically anyone who enjoyed it. Who will NOT benefit? People who have not seen it and expect to use the book as a glorified "Cliff note." You can learn a lot, but the authors are not interested in providing plot synopses. See BREAKING BAD first -- all of it if you can. Then move on to WANNA COOK.