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Donna Nelson

Donna Nelson

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What Was It Like to Consult for Breaking Bad?

It ended more than 6 months ago, but the ridiculously successful AMC drama, Breaking Bad, has been hard to replace. This year it appears in the Guinness World Records as the most lauded TV series, receiving an impressive 99 out of 100 average rating from television show critics worldwide, where 100 is considered flawless. And it’s no wonder; the gripping five-season series follows a simple high school chemistry teacher’s evolution into a blood-thirsty drug lord.

Science sat down with Breaking Bad science consultant Donna Nelson while she was taking a break from the USA Science & Engineering Festival this past weekend. An organic chemist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Nelson was one of several expert advisers for the show who began consulting several episodes in on multiple topics, including how to make Walt a realistic chemist.

Q: What was it that first made you interested in advising TV shows about science?

D.N.: For decades, scientists have worried about inaccurate science in the movies. Anyone who’s a scientist who sees some inaccuracy presented in their field will groan. It’s sort of like fingernails on a blackboard. Many of us have wanted to build a bridge to Hollywood to get the science right. Suddenly, in Chemical & Engineering News there was an article on Vince Gilligan and his new show. I thought it sounded really interesting and there was one part that caught my eye: He really wanted to get the science right and welcomed constructive comments from a chemically inclined audience. And I thought, “This is it.” I called the editor up and told him that I would like to volunteer. About a year later I told Vince, “That magazine went out to 167,000 people. How many volunteers did you get?” And he said, “One.”

Q: How important was accuracy on the show?

D.N.: People have to remember that this is fiction. You have to realize that the producer and the writers and actors all need to be granted this artistic creative license to not necessarily be 100% accurate all the time. The number one goal is to have a hit show, not a science documentary. If that means they have to exaggerate things, then they have to be given that freedom. One time I was out on a set visit and Vince said, “What do you think about making the meth blue?” I advised him not to do it. He said, “Is there not some way it could be blue?” And I said again, “No, don’t do it.” But, if you watch the show, you know he did it. I wouldn’t fault him there. He was doing that to give Walt a trademark.

Q: Is making meth as straightforward as it seems in the series?

D.N.: The procedures for making a lot of these drugs are really simple. I myself know I can make it because it’s a very simple procedure, but I’ve never tried. After I became interested in the show, I had to go away and look up the synthesis.

Now, I have to say I didn’t help Vince with that part. He had Drug Enforcement Administration agents advise him. They helped so that we wouldn’t be presenting a cookbook on how to make meth and told him what steps to leave out so that anyone mimicking the procedures would fail. They are also the ones who really know what an illegal meth lab looks like because they’ve busted them. [So scenes in] the Winnebago, the superlab, and the Vamonos Pest lab—they helped arrange them.  

Q: Why do you think it’s important to portray the science behind methamphetamine accurately?

D.N.: Well, there are some scientific steps in the process. There was a lot of other science in the show, too, like high school organic chemistry scenes that I helped with. They put in scientific terminology that made the show cool.

There were scenes in which the chemistry was so spectacular that it outshined the actors. Here’s an example. The episode in which Walt and Jesse broke into the storage shed in search of a 1-gallon bottle of methylamine, and all they could find were 30 gallon drums. Think about when they were breaking in and what they were wearing: black. They faded away against the background so you couldn’t see the actors, but they broke in using thermite. Do you remember what the thermite looked like? It shined. It was sparks across the set. The star was the chemistry. So in this show, the science really took front stage sometimes.

Q: What tips would you give scientists who are interested in consulting?

D.N.: You have to watch for the opportunities; there haven’t been many of them. I’ve watched for years and years, and saw this one and pounced on it. There are opportunities through the Science & Entertainment Exchange, but usually they just have one question for a scientist. They’re not interested in developing a relationship, and I’m not interested in those because it’s not an opportunity to learn. I was interested in this because it was an opportunity to learn about another community.

One thing you always have to remember is if the show contacts you and needs information, they’re usually on a time deadline. So they need it then. You can’t say, “Well, I’ll get back to you next week.” Whenever they would contact me, I would try to get it back to them by the next morning. So sometimes I’d stay up all night looking stuff up or making calculations. I was always afraid that if I didn’t get it back to them as quickly as possible, it would just be written out, and I didn’t want them to throw away the science. I wanted there to be as much science in the show as possible.

Q: What work did you do on the side of this?

D.N.: My appointment at the university is 60% research, 30% teaching, and 10% service. Breaking Bad advising would fall into the 10%. I didn’t cut back one bit on research or teaching. Anyone who has a regular day job should expect to just go on as if nothing changed. For me, this was a hobby.

Q: Any favorite scenes?

D.N.: My favorite scene out of the entire series is in season four, episode one. Walt is talking to Gus in the superlab, reminding him how vital he and Jesse are [to the operation.] Without them, Gus would lose the good science. Then Walt proceeds to ask him, “Now is catalytic hydrogenation, I forget, is that protic or aprotic? If our reaction isn’t stereospecific, how can our product be enantiomerically pure?” So he’s showing Gus he knows chemistry, and that only he can bring him these quality products. I thought that was such a terrific message for the public to understand the necessity of science.