Addicts can often be the smartest and most insightful people on the job, even as their self-destructive reflexes kick in. Watching Nurse Jackie not only makes you wary about the thrill-seekers emergency medicine attracts, but about how many other professions exist where access enables stealth abuse. After all, Owsley's girlfriend Rhoney Gissen put herself through dental school and wound up using her science smarts as a medical professional too.* * *
By contrast, Breaking Bad presents the most fearsome picture of the war on drugs through an unlikely partnership, pairing a weary high-school chemistry teacher with a low-life meth-head. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, whose years of flaky students has worn down his romance with science and who reinvents himself as a drug lord, "Heisenberg," after his DEA brother-in-law, played by Dean Harris, takes him out on a bust. There White spies Jesse Pinkman, a former student, who becomes his partner. Aaron Paul's Pinkman brings White minimal street smarts; White still has an itch to teach. They have become cable's most compelling odd couple, and twice as likely to kill each other with each passing season.
To make him halfway sympathetic, show creator Vince Gilligan gives White late-stage lung cancer, a palsy-affected son, and a baby on the way. As James Parker points out in "Till Meth Do Us Part" from The Atlantic's July/August issue, the plot's larger irony turns on how White's cancer goes into remission once he perfects his meth, and his newborn baby becomes his legacy excuse for eliminating all competitors. For White, the ends more than justify the murderous means. After his wife, Skyler, figures out his illegal adventures, she kicks him out, but he steals himself back by quietly insisting she really has no alternative. Like Nurse Jackie and a lot of addicts, White holds his intimates hostage.
Sensing the potential upside, Skyler soon acquiesces, helping him set up a money-laundering front at a car wash. Albuquerque's wide, pastel skies provide the eloquent backdrop to heinous acts committed in the name of "taking care of his own," transparently allegorical for America's war on drugs, terror, immigration, and pedantic high school science. Like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad emanates the odor of rot from within.
White and Pinkman play out the elaborate and bizarre intimacy between the cook and his customer, White's need for domination and the addict's bottomless cry for Daddy. Irrevocably bonded, these two characters redouble their own worst instincts through negative reinforcement. In an episode from Season Two called "Four Days Out," they stare at death together. Jesse inadvertently leaves the RV's ignition key in, which drains the battery as they bake their biggest batch. Stranded in the middle of the desert and out of water, they have to find a way to jump the engine. After a series of elegiac soliloquies, inspiration seizes Walt. He combines chemicals, coins, and galvanized metal to jump the battery. "Chemistry, Bitch!" Pinkman shouts.