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keeping it real

How Breaking Bad’s Science Adviser Keeps It (Mostly) Real

Lewis Jacobs/ Still Photographer, 2008

Meth could never be as blue as Walter White's signature Blue Sky meth. "When you crystallize anything that’s colorless, which methylamine crystals are, they usually come out with a yellow tinge because of impurities," says Dr. Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. Unlike most chemists who grumble about molecular errors they spot while watching TV, however, Nelson has a forum to do something about it: She has been volunteering as Breaking Bad's science adviser since season two, making sure that Walt's science lectures (and pedantic tutorials to Jesse) actually made sense. But just because she deals with hard facts as a scientist doesn't mean that she isn't willing to grant artistic license. While she did tell show creator Vince Gilligan that the meth's "blue was a little too blue," she recalls that "I think he wanted Walt to have a trademark. So, it’s a little exaggerated. That’s OK. It’s not supposed to be 100 percent factual.”

Nelson first made contact with Gilligan after reading an interview he gave to Chemical & Engineering News in which he admitted the show was in need of some assistance when it came to making Walt a believable chemistry wonk. “I thought, hey, this is an opportunity to build a bridge,” she said. “I knew how much the chemistry community wanted to see correct science in movies and television, and that they also wanted to see scientists presented appropriately.” Too long has popular media been getting it wrong, she said. Like when a rocket ship is seen flying through space “and you can see the smoke coming out of the rocket and it’s rising,” she laughs. “We know it’s ridiculous.”

Her main job has been not so much to scrutinize Walt's meth cooks, but to make sure he walks and talks like a real, PhD-wielding organic chemist. During her first meeting with the writers, she was asked to flesh out Walt’s history; Gilligan quizzed her on why a person would pursue science professionally, and how a brilliant scientist might wind up as a high school teacher. During filming, she’d make herself available for quick-turnaround questions about balancing equations and calculations. One of her first projects was redoing a lecture Walt was giving to his class on alkyne nomenclatures. “It was clearly not written by a chemist,” she said. “I wrote them back some general information, like a 'How Do You Learn Alkyne Nomenclature in Under Two Minutes' memo, and I was really shocked when they used it as dialogue almost verbatim.” The show even recreated diagrams she drew, putting them on Walt’s white board. Sometimes, the writers would call Nelson with “dialogue emergencies.” “When Walt would be speaking to Jesse, they’d want to know that the phraseology was correct, but also to make sure that Walt was really speaking in a way that a chemistry teacher would speak to a student or a subordinate,” Nelson said. “They were interested in not just lab terminology but getting the flavor of the conversation right because, at least initially, Walt and Jesse were not equals.”

For the most part, however, she’s left the actual meth production evaluations to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which participates in making sure Walt’s illegal labs look legit (“Quite honestly, I wouldn’t know about that,” she said) and but don't provide an actual tutorial. She says they’ve been crafty in how they’ve made the process faulty while keeping it realistic. “It’s a valid synthesis, the way they’re using methylamine,” she says. “That process was patented in Germany in 1957. It’s a very old method. They aren’t revealing anything new. What they are doing is leaving out steps. Or sometimes they show some steps from one synthesis and subsequent steps from another synthesis, which prevents Breaking Bad from becoming an illegal meth cookbook.” 

Photo: AMC