'Breaking Bad' reveals secrets behind Walter White's evil genius
"Breaking Bad" evil genius Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is the kind of man who can just as easily bust through a lock with thermite he synthesized with a few Etch-a-Sketches as he can concoct a story of being in a fugue state to account for going MIA. There is no problem, big or small, that he cannot solve with a fat, juicy lie or a scientific scheme.
“Myth Busters” debunked a couple of the brilliant chemistry teacher’s scientific applications, but what matters is that the schemes worked for Heisenberg, (Walt's evil alias). “Breaking Bad” co-executive producer Peter Gould took TODAY on a behind-the-scenes journey into the mind of the blue meth king, to learn just how the meth — and the stunning plot twists — get cooked up.
Walt blows up Tuco’s office (Season 1, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”)
Walter White was still a criminal novice but when he was posed with the dilemma of ridding himself of the menacing drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz), Heisenberg was born.
“Does he hire someone with a rifle?” Gould recalled how the conversation in the writer’s room went. “Is there a sniper in the distance to shoot? Does he plant some kind of little bomb somewhere? We were very, very dissatisfied. And then one day, I think [creator Vince Gilligan] said, ‘What if we had something that looked like meth but it was explosive?’”
Writer Gennifer Hutchison, a writer’s assistant at the time, was tasked with the research. Twenty minutes later, she discovered mercury fulminate.
“Suddenly, the scene came to life and we were very, very happy,” Gould said. “Sometimes it would take seven people in a room days banging their heads against the wall to try to figure these things out. What we tended to do on the show was write ourselves into corners and then try to get out without cheating.”
Walt needs to kill Tuco (Season 2, “Seven Thirty-Seven”)
Eventually, the writers decided Heisenberg had to poison Tuco. Someone in the writer’s room remembered a famous story from the ‘70s in which the Bulgarian Secret Service used ricin to assassinate a defector in London.
“We thought this is a great thing because it’s not something the police would normally look for,” Gould said. “We were a little bit stunned to see that it’s very possible to make it. So when we have the characters making it on screen, we were very careful not to show how it’s really created. But, in fact, we did have the castor beans, which are the basis for cooking ricin, on set and we had to be very, very careful. Even just the castor beans can be quite dangerous.”
Ricin went on to play a big role on the show. Walt later tried to get Jesse to poison Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito); Walt almost poisoned Lydia (Laura Fraser) earlier this season; and in a flash forward, Walt goes back to his home to retrieve it from the wall socket where he hid it.
“I’m not a ricin salesman but, from Walt’s point of view, one of the advantages is that it’s not like someone eats ricin and they drop dead right away,” Gould said. “They get sick and they seem to have a cold. It’s much more difficult to trace and unless toxicologists are looking for it, which usually they’re not, it goes unnoticed. It’s a very sneaky, nasty, terrible poison.”
Walt Builds a Battery for the RV (Season 2,"4 Days Out")
On a four-day meth-cooking binge, Walt and Jesse were stranded in the desert because Jesse left the keys in the ignition. At Jesse’s urging to “use science,” to get them out of their mess, Walt built a battery out of galvanized metals, brake pads and sponges soaked in potassium hydroxide.
“We went online and found this way of making a battery using pennies,” Gould said. “We actually built one in the writer’s room. It created a mild amount of current, and was sort of our proof of concept. Every once in a while, there would be a science experiment right there in the writer’s room. It turned out to be kind of a big mess.”
The Assassination of Gus Fring (Season 4,"Face Off')
When Jesse failed to poison Gus Fring, Walt concocted a plan to use a bomb instead. But, first, he had to convince Fring’s archenemy, Tio Salamanca (Mark Margolis), to let the bell on his wheelchair be the trigger. The result: Ding Boom!
“We had this character Tio Salamanca who is completely immobile and we loved this character,” Gould said. “We thought, is there some way to get Tio involved in this story? Then we thought, of course, there’s the bell that he communicates with. And so we wrote a card up on our board, which has the big ideas, “Ding Boom!” And that was the basic idea—to use Tio’s only means of communication to get revenge on Gus. It gave Walt a way to kill Gus without being in the room. A lot of the story in season four came out of that because we had to think of the history between Tio and Gus.”
Lily of the Valley (Season 4, "Face Off")
To get Jesse back on his side, Walt figured out that he had to turn his young protégé against Gus Fring—and the only way to do that was to use his girlfriend’s little boy.
“That was a real struggle,” Gould recalled. “We realized that Walt has realized the same thing everyone who has watched the show realizes: Jesse has a real tender spot for kids. And so we thought about whether there’s a way to make Brock sick. Of course, he could poison the kid with Ricin. But then we decided that Walt would find another way.”
The producers asked writer Gordon Smith to find out if there’s a household plant that would get someone sick briefly but would not kill them.
“And he came back with Lily of the Valley, which is not something you see a lot of in New Mexico,” Gould said. “But the Whites do have some of it, apparently. The whole point is to get the kid sick but not to kill him. You can argue about how bad Walt is, certainly. He got a kid sick but he didn’t kill him.
Yeah, Bitch! Magnets! (Season 5,"Live Free or Die")
Walt murdered Gus Fring and destroyed the super lab. But he forgot about the security cameras, which fed into Fring’s laptop, which was seized by the police. Technically, Jesse solved this problem but it was Walt who worked out the details.
“Walt couldn’t just go in and steal it so we started thinking about how do you destroy the information on a laptop?” Gould said. We are always told, ‘Don’t put your computer data near a magnet.’ So we took it in the opposite direction. What if we took a giant magnet and used that to destroy the information? I hate to say it but people have since told us that it might not work. If someone had told us at the time we were writing it that it might not work, we might have thrown it out.”
What? And lose one of Jesse’s most memorable lines: "Yeah, bitch! Magnets!"
Vamonos Pest: The fumigation maneuver (Season 5,"Hazard Pay")
With the RV destroyed and the super lab blown up, Walt and Jesse needed a new office. Walt came through with the idea of hiding in plain sight by setting up shop inside homes that were being fumigated.
“That’s a Vince Gilligan special,” Gould recalled. “There’s no question about that. We’d walk to lunch in Burbank and we’d sometimes see a house covered for fumigation. And Vince wondered, what if they could cook inside one of these houses? As we tried to work out the details, we’d constantly think it is too far-fetched. There’s no way to do this.”
But production designer Mark Freeborn made it work.
“He and his department built those magnificent rolling lab elements that all hooked together,” he said. As an action prop, it was just beautiful to see. Each piece fit inside of one of those roving cases that said ‘Vamonos Pest’ on it. How do you top the super lab? The answer turned out to be this perfect portable lab you’re going to see more of.”
The Train Heist (Season 5, "Dead Freight")
It was a masterful undertaking for Walt, Jesse and Mike (Jonathan banks) to rob a moving train of a barrel of methylamine without the train conductors knowing any better. But it was an even bigger challenge for the show’s production department.
“It was enormously difficult,” Gould said. “There was no train like that in Albuquerque. So the entire production had to move to Santa Fe for four or five days. It was the only time we ever did that. It was a really big deal for us. It’s actually the same tracks they used in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’”
Originally, the plan was to use a tanker truck. But writer George Mastras thought it would be too reminiscent of the hijackings of the Pollos Hermanos trucks in previous seasons.
“To the credit of production, and to the credit of George Mastras who wrote and directed the episode, they were able to pull off this crazy-ass idea,” Gould said. “There were some really big pieces that we figured out in the writer’s room. But there were others that George came up in the writing. He did a lot of research with the train companies and Homeland Security about how chemicals like this are secured.”
It was Gould who discovered early on in the series that meth could be made from methylamine by reading counter-culture mimeographed meth books. “I didn’t buy them, I will say. Vince bought them and I wouldn’t be surprised if his credit card was on the DEA’s list because of it."
Video confession (Season 5, “Confessions")
In a recent twist, Walt stunned Hank (Dean Norris), Marie (Betsy Brandt), and viewers with a confession like no other.
“In the pilot, Walt starts out with a video confession,” Gould said. “And he destroyed that confession, but what if he did another one? What if he did one now with his new perspective on things? Since then, as the story continued, we realized he could use this video confession to create a counter-narrative, to create a story that fits the facts but was completely opposite of what we really saw happening.”
Writer Gennifer Hutchison was instrumental in putting the right words in Walt’s mouth.
“It was really a demonstration for what an amazing actor Walt has become,” Gould said. “He really seems to believe, at least in the moment, his lies. And that’s a stunning change from the guy we met in season one who could barely lie to his wife.”