MythBusters - “Breaking Bad Special”

MythBusters - “Breaking Bad Special”

MythBusters is often a fun show, and it always gains a little something when it ties itself in with popular culture. Science is awesome and all, and it’s good to know there are people out there using it to improve cancer medications and address the dangers of climate change. Meanwhile, the rest of us have been wondering for five years now, what the hell did Walt throw on the floor when he was in Tuco’s hideout that blew out all the windows and allowed him to walk out unscathed? And is it legally obtainable? And does it work at high school reunions? Thanks to Jamie and Adam, the world is now better enlightened on this pressing issue. Checking in from time to time are Aaron Paul and a man with a deep, Southern twang to his voice who I first thought was Marc Maron after a spa weekend, but who is in fact Vince Gilligan. Vince! If you’re reading this, I loved Home Fries and that one episode you wrote of the Stuart Townsend Night Stalker remake thing!

Jamie, the one who sounds like a Nick Offerman character and looks like a much tougher version of William H. Macy at the end of Edmund, and Adam, the one who’s normal-looking but can get extremely excited about the right chemical combination, actually hand off the Tuco case to their B-team: Kari, Tory, and the irreplaceable Grant, the man who built Geoff Peterson, which means that, in the marketplace of cool, he could buy and sell you, me, and the 1998 edition of George Clooney. They’re on it. In the Breaking Bad episode in question, Walt says what he’s throwing on the floor is 50 grams of fulminated mercury. The B–team believes in working its way up to the big reveals, so it’s obvious where this is headed. They go out to the desert, armed with five grams of fulminated mercury, and see if it’s enough to blow up a pumpkin. The explosion is detonated, and the pumpkin will never play the violin again. It’s time to move on to bigger and noisier things.

The B-team constructs a wooden shack that matches the dimensions of Tucco’s ill-fated office. Then they decorate it with colorful and imaginative graffiti, because these are nothing if not enthusiastic kids here. Then it’s Grant’s job to whip up a “throwing robot” out of old coffee grounds and discarded sneakers and some parts of a grandfather clock that MacGyver donated to Goodwill because he didn’t see any way to make use of them. The “throw-bot”—that’s Grant’s phrase; if it were mine, I’d retire right now and rest on my laurels—is positioned inside the shack with the fulminated mercury and surrounded by mannequins that represent Tucco and his scientifically illiterate henchmen.

Throw-bot is activated, the mercury hits the floor, but the windows do not blow out, and no one is really harmed—except, if this scenario is taken to its logical extreme, Walt, who, a few seconds after his ineffectual gesture, would most likely either be dead or delighted to learn that his new acquaintances share a wonderful sense of humor. That’s assuming Tucco or his henchmen would have the presence of mind to crack a window; as Kari points out, they would otherwise be in danger of choking on mercury fumes, since, as I mentioned before but cannot stress enough, the window did not blow out. Asphyxiating your enemies in a closed space might count as some kind of victory, but I doubt that even Vince Gilligan could get good TV out of it.

Jamie and Adam work on another classic from Breaking Bad’s first episode: The scene in which Walt and Jesse attempt to melt a dead body in an upstairs bathtub filled with hydrofluoric acid, only to also wipe out the bathtub itself and the floor beneath it. Jamie and Adam go at their work diligently, piece by piece, using acid-filled petri dishes to see how they will work their magic on bits of steel, linoleum, wood, and “our favorite human analogue, a pig.” After leaving the samples to soak for eight hours, Jamie and Adam are disheartened to see that, except for the drywall, which is now “a soggy, soupy mush,” and the piece of pig carcass, which is far from obliterated but is at least nasty, the acid has scarcely affected the objects at all. But MythBusters knows that when things don’t work in the lab, that’s just an excuse to head out for the desert, where it’s always a bright new day filled with fresh apocalyptic possibilities. While they prepare to ramp up the dosage, employees from a “hazardous materials cleaning company” arrive and begin to set up shop. Jamie is pleased to note that they have “even brought a fire extinguisher, in case we happen to be on fire.”

The great thing about putting the MythBusters crew on jobs like these is that they’re not the kind of Debbie Downers who will be satisfied throwing down however much fulminated mercury Walt said he threw down on the floor and then saying, “Shucks, the windows didn’t blow out. That Vince Gilligan is a lying motherfucker.” No, having seen how cool these events looked on Breaking Bad, they go that extra mile and find out what it would take to get something close to what happened on the show, so that dedicated geeks can then work backwards in their heads. (It turns out that 250 grams of fulminated mercury flattens the shack as effectively as a boot coming down on cockroach scat. The B-team hoots and cheers, and Grant murmurs, “I think we got the windows.” I didn’t really share in their elation, because, looking at the devastation, I couldn’t help thinking Geoff Peterson would never even know he’d had a brother.)

Vince Gilligan takes these results in stride, pointing out there are always important details the scientist might miss because they seem unimportant to the story: For instance, Jamie and Adam assume the bathtub is cast iron, but there is no conclusive proof presented in the episode that it’s not actually made of some other substance, such as, say, “mild cheese.” He talks an amazing amount of shit before pulling the phrase “artistic license” out of his belt, as if he’d forgotten he even had a trump card. Aaron Paul tells him, “You sound more like Walt every day.” His face shows a combination of awestruck reverence and nervous trepidation that Jesse hasn’t shown toward Walt for a couple of seasons now.