SPOILERS: This piece touches on material from all four-and-a-half seasons of Breaking Bad currently available to the public. Please note that this includes the first half of Season 5, which is not available to watch instantly on Netflix. Proceed accordingly.
Breaking Bad is a show about death. Sure, there’s the meth, the crime, the demise of the American family, and a host of other themes. But at the end of the day, we are watching people as they contemplate the abyss. Some of them accept their fate, others are pulled in kicking and screaming, and some stare into the darkness so long, unflinchingly, that they lose their humanity and send souls to hell without feeling a thing.
A few quick statistics about death in Breaking Bad:
- There have been a total of 247 deaths in the four-and-a-half seasons of the show so far.
- This works out to an average of (approximately):
- 55 deaths per season,
- 4.6 deaths per episode,
- Or one death every 10 minutes.
- Donald Margolis has killed the most people (167 second-hand deaths.)
- Walter White has the next-highest death toll (7 first-hand, 16 second-hand deaths.)
- The Cousins have killed the most people directly (14 first-hand deaths.)
That’s a lot of characters written into the editing-room-floor-in-the-sky. But boy, do they do it in an outstanding fashion! In this modern television masterpiece, we’ve seen deaths that have made us laugh, broken our hearts, and everything in between.
What makes the deaths in Breaking Bad so compelling to watch? Perhaps it’s the great writing, great acting, and great direction. However, I contend that it is also the bizarre arsenal of weapons used in the show to send these demi-devils to meet their maker. Other shows might settle for a healthy mix of guns, knives, and bare-knuckles. But if there’s one thing we know about Breaking Bad, it’s that it is not a show that settles.
Before we all weep and gasp our way through the final half-season of Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece, returning to AMC on August 11 at 9pm EST, and become addicted to actual meth to fill the hole where this show will have been, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten weapons in Breaking Bad. This list is based on nothing except my own inner struggle as I compiled it alone in my room at 2 in the morning. You’re welcome to disagree and make your own list; and when you do, I’ll post a comment on your blog about exactly how wrong you are and why. Until then, let’s cook.
Number 10: The bike lock
Who could forget the first time they saw that look on Walt’s face? The inner turmoil of taking a life weighed torturously against the consequences of being caught. Or being killed himself. The mask of concentration as he does what he must. The self-hatred as he sits exhausted by what had seconds earlier been another person. Sure, it wasn’t the first time Walt killed in the show, but honestly, it was. No action-adventure bullshit here, no MacGyver-like glory in escaping a sticky situation. This was the first Breaking Bad death, ugly, dubious, and so sadly mundane.
The bike lock took Walt out of the neat world of chemistry and brought him inches from the realities of a life of crime. It served as a test to see whether Walt really could break bad. It was a test he passed with flying colors.
Number 9: Hydrofluoric acid
It would certainly be an agonizing way to die, but Walt and Co. have used hydrofluoric acid as their version of The Wolf from Pulp Fiction. It fixes. Hydrofluoric acid transforms murder victims into innocuous goo through the miracle that is Walt’s chemistry genius. It’s also a nice allegory for the growth of Walt’s criminal empire; in Season 1, the acid eats through Emilio, its target, as well as a large part of Jesse’s house. By Seasons 4 and 5, Walt and Jesse have gotten the process down to, well, a science.
Hydrofluoric acid is also a nice visualization of one of the key concepts in the show, Walt’s separation of his life into crime and family. Getting rid of the evidence, keeping his hands clean, is key to Walt’s deception, and how better to deal with your problems than to simply melt them away?
Number 8: Lily of the Valley
Walt’s poisoning of Brock Cantillo was arguably the most evil act committed by a character in Breaking Bad. “Right, but remember when the Cousins shot-“ “Remember when Walt POISONED A CHILD? AN INNOCENT CHILD!? Not knowing if he would LIVE OR DIE!?!? So that he could get away with KILLING OTHER PEOPLE!?!?!?” Right, that’s out of the way, now let’s talk about the flower.
Lily of the Valley is an amazing weapon for many reasons. For one thing, it’s been growing in Walt’s backyard for years, minding its own damn business. This allowed it to sneak right under our noses until the end of Season 4, at which point I’m assuming millions of loyal viewers did millions of simultaneous spit takes (as I did.) It’s a great reminder that the world around us is full of danger, just waiting for the wrong person to come along and wreak destruction with it.
Number 7: The silver axe
You may have noticed a trend in this list, that being that the best weapons in the show are uniquely suited to those who use them. Enter the silver axe, the handsome, robust, terrifying signature of the Cousins, Marco and Leonel Salamanca. This is a tool that stands out in the hot, southern sun, shining brightly upon its approach. The flash of the sun on that axe would be the last thing many unfortunate souls saw on this earth.
Think about the term “axe-murderer.” The image that comes to your mind is likely a lunatic swinging a fireman’s axe at screaming teenagers on the shores of Lake Another-Fucking-One-of-These-Movies. You likely don’t imagine the Cousins, all business and flawless execution (literally.) Or at least, you didn’t before this death machine entered your life.
Number 6: The Tortuga bomb
Speaking of the Cousins and chopping people up, remember when the Tortuga had his head cut off like a chicken at Pollos Hermanos? No? Then perhaps you remember when said head arrived on the back of a turtle at a DEA stakeout? Still nothing? Well, I suppose you may recall how said turtle had an explosive hidden in its shell.
More than any other weapon in Breaking Bad, the Tortuga bomb feels like it was ripped from the headlines. It is exactly the kind of disturbing violence that has come to characterize Mexican drug cartels. It should therefore say a great deal about the derangement of the show that this weapon fits Breaking Bad like Blue Sky in a hypodermic chamber. It may have shocked Hank, but for us loyal viewers, not even a severed head on a tortoise could’ve surprised us. Except when it blew up. I jumped a little.
Number 5: Fulminated mercury
Remember when we were rooting for Walt? I know it’s been awhile, but really think back. Once upon a time, he had this geeky charm coupled with a naïve sense of right and wrong. He was the kind of meth dealer a person could get behind. For me, this old Walt was in his prime when he threw down a piece of crystal whoop-ass in Tuco’s hideout, demanding respect and reparations. He knew nothing about what he was getting himself into, whether he would get out alive, or how Tuco would react. All Walt knew was the chemistry.
The fulminated mercury produced something else: it was in that flash of light, I believe, that Heisenberg was born. Walt had come to understand the wild card he held, the power that came with his death sentence. The shock and awe of the explosion was something otherworldly, something outside of humanity. Much like Heisenberg himself.
Number 4: The wheelchair bomb
When that wheelchair exploded, it almost made up for the incessant dinging we all suffered through for so long. What a way for an old man with no power and no options to realize his revenge. What a way for Walt to make his own salvation out of a dead-end. And what a way for Gus to go.
The unique thing about the wheelchair bomb on this list is the way that it transformed weakness into a counteroffensive, literally and figuratively. The wheelchair also became a symbol of how Walt takes huge advantage of those around him. There are many more things to read into this particular weapon, but instead, we can just agree that a guy in a wheelchair blew up some other guys and it was nifty to watch.
Number 3: The box cutter
It is the only weapon on the list with an episode named after it, and for good reason. The box cutter was used in one of the most chilling incidents in the show, and it showed us exactly the kind of person Gus Fring was beneath his calm exterior. It set the tone for the rest of Season 4, with the threat of violence literally hanging over Walt and Jesse whenever they were in the lab.
What a heartbreaking choice to have it be the same box cutter Gale used while setting up the lab he cherished so much. Like the chemicals from Walter’s classroom, the box cutter is a tool with no values attached; values come from how a tool is used. And the box cutter was certainly used.
Number 2: The ATM
“Ain’t no skank.” So dies Mr. Spooge, at the hands of his lovely wife. “Peekaboo” is one of the strangest, saddest episodes of Breaking Bad, replete with moral quandaries and dark comedy. The thing that makes it different is that Jesse, who had fancied himself a badass with little or nothing to lose, comes face-to-face with what “nothing to lose” looks like, and what the meth business actually does. It’s not pretty.
Aside from the gruesome tragedy of crushing one’s husband with an ATM, there is the obvious irony that the money Spooge tried so hard to liberate ends up going to Jesse. The truly chilling thing about the ATM is not just the incident itself, however sickening. It is the realization that the Spooges are just two of countless meth addicts around Albuquerque whose ruination is sponsored by Walt and Jesse.
Number 1: The ricin
I believe I must be honest and say I made this list because I couldn’t stop thinking about a little vial of white powder I’d seen for the first time in Season 2. “Cool, ricin. Another fitting weapon for Walter,” I thought, “Neat.” And then it got spilled, I wrote ricin off as a red herring, and forgot about it.
And then it came back. And it just stayed. Like Poe’s telltale heart, it eats away at me, becoming more and more agonizing the longer it sits. Would it have been a worthy end for Gus? Perhaps. For any of its other threatened uses? No. This is Chekhov’s gun, writ chemical. This is a diagnosis as devastating as lung cancer. Mark me: before the credits role for the last time, someone will swallow the ricin. Wondering who that person will be is what keeps me up at night, perusing forums and old episodes, looking for clues, and finding none. I am left, like the rest of the world, to wait and watch.
- Tuco’s fists
- Phosphine gas
- Jane’s vomit
- Air traffic control
Thanks for reading, and a big thanks to the community at the Breaking Bad Wiki for almost all the info in this piece. Head on over to satisfy your Breaking Bad fix before August 11th. Now, as Gus might say, get back to work.