We spoil major plot elements of Breaking Bad in this post – pretty much everything except how it ends.
Over the course of the show Breaking Bad, we watch Walter White’s transformation from a mild-mannered and chronically poor chemistry teacher to an ego-driven meth kingpin. But since it begins as a glorified fish-out-of-water tale, a lot of narrative weight rests on our understanding of Walt as an exacting chemist whose fussy standards are totally misplaced in the classroom.
The first episodes clue us in on Walter’s potential when he lectures his former student (now petty meth dealer) Jesse Pinkman on lab cleanliness and safety; as the show goes on, Walter’s ironic safety efforts become more and more pronounced. Eventually, when Walt and Jesse move into Gus Fring’s superlab underneath an Albuquerque laundry plant, the audience is treated to what looks like a fully OSHA-compliant lab, complete with eyewash stations and ionized water. (That last is totally inexplicable to us, but then we’re not top-shelf meth cooks.)
What really perks us up at MySafetySign.com: the prevalence of safety signage and labels. They’re all over the place, sometimes providing subtextual commentary about the onscreen action. Sometimes they’re accurate and sometimes they’re not; sometimes they’re there for OSHA compliance, but we see more GHS hazmat labels and chemical safety placards in Breaking Bad than we’ve ever seen in any other show. Here is a countdown of the nine most interesting that we spotted.
9. Methylamine mix-up
In the final episode of season 1, Walter and his sidekick Jesse manage to steal a giant barrel of aqueous methylamine, one of the chemicals used to manufacture meth (and handy for making large quantities, as opposed to ephedrine, which is best for small amounts of the drug).
We have a feeling the propmaster was dipping her toes into the wild world of chemical safety for the first time with this label, though. The NFPA mandates certain numbers indicating specific hazards on these labels, and the diamond on an aqueous methylamine label should have numbers in the top three quadrants: 3 in the blue (health) quadrant, 4 in the red (flammability) quadrant, and 0 in the yellow (instability) quadrant.
In other words, the chemical can burn at room temperature and can cause permanent injury if you come into contact with it, but it won’t explode if dropped – which is why Jesse doesn’t blow up when he tips this barrel down the stairs.
8. Secret meth superlab: NFPA compliant
The safety signage and labels on the show really pick up steam when Walt starts cooking meth in Gus Fring’s underground superlab. You could interpret this as a reflection of Fring’s officiousness, but in reality, it has more to do with Walt’s lab assistant Gale Boetticher – it’s Gale and not Gus who sets down the specifications for the lab, with Gus providing the budget.
In this shot from a montage about Walt and Gale’s burgeoning romance, the two play chess with a labeled jug of isopropyl alcohol in the background. Note the NFPA-compliant hazard diamond on the right side of the label.
7. Botched DOT placard a little Nazi history
In this particularly tense episode, Gus Fring has lent the hapless (but ever more disillusioned) Jesse Pinkman to the Juarez Cartel in exchange for an end to Fring’s conflict with the narcotrafficantes. Jesse is disgusted with the state of the lab – no OSHA signage here – but he’s also thrown by the Mexicans’ expectation that he synthesize his own phenylacetic acid.
Here, you’ll notice a small discrepancy: a DOT label on the barrel to the right of the shot indicating a highly flammable solid. The Spanish label to its right tells us that the chemical is C4H10O, or diethyl ether, a liquid used to cut meth. The 4 should be a 3.
As a point of trivia, this also tells us that the Juarez cartel is using the so-called Nazi cook method, cribbed from the Germans, who used methamphetamines to keep soldiers alert during World War II.
6. Eyesores and ironic OSHA signs
Walter White in his trademark tighty whities, which are now up for auction.
The OSHA compliance signage that hangs everywhere in Gus Fring’s superlab is one of our favorite little ironies of the show. Was Gale expecting to be busted by inspectors? Was Gus afraid of lawsuits? Probably not, but it makes sense to hang the right signs whether or not you’re facing inspection.
In this shot, as they argue about what to do with a few ounces of extra meth, Jesse is faced with a half-undressed Walter White and a sign reading CAUTION: EYE PROTECTION REQUIRED. Coincidence, or tongue-in-cheek commentary on Bryan Cranston’s look in his briefs?
5. The corrosive cook
This safety label warning of corrosive substances shows up in our all-time least favorite episode, “Fly,” in which the increasingly erratic Walt freaks out on Jesse over supposed contaminants in their cook.
We think very little gets into the shot by accident, and it’s possible that a label warning of corrosion is meant to signal just how corrosive Walt’s egomania is – toward his bizarre friendship with Jesse, his family life, his sanity, and ultimately his ill-gotten gains. An even better corrosion sign comes up later in the series, as we’ll see.
4. Chemicals, non-compliance, a heist
One of our favorite episodes of the show involved an old-fashioned train heist, in which the outlaws manage to steal millions of dollars’ worth of methylamine from a freight train. The truly detestable Todd Alquist has to make a hasty escape from the top of the train as it leaves prematurely, but not before we spotted a DOT placard on the flank.
The propmaster nailed this placard – if this train’s contents were due for international shipment, it’d be required to bear the UN digits 1235 (the code for aqueous methylamine), but it’s not, so it needs a placard reading either FLAMMABLE 3 or COMBUSTIBLE 3 to indicate a dangerous liquid. Unfortunately, aqueous methylamine is also a powerful corrosive, so it also needs a CORROSIVE placard, too… leaving this train out of compliance.
3. Not a mojito
In the same episode, Jesse, Walt and gang load up a water tanker with the methylamine. We noticed this totally accurate OSHA signage on the tanker – drinking methylamine is inadvisable, although it does occurs naturally in some shark meat.
2. The writing on the wall
Walt’s sometime-ally, sometime-archnemesis Gustavo Fring has lots of menacing beefcake at his disposal, and Tyrus Kitt is one of his most loyal “security” staff. This OSHA sign appears behind Tyrus as he and Mike threaten Walt and Jesse over a shipment of meth at the superlab. (In addition to reminding Walt and Gus not to smoke in the basement, it also foreshadows Tyrus’s eventual demise in a bomb blast.)
1. Signs of danger and deterioration
Box Cutter is a truly harrowing episode. Gus Fring finds out that Jesse has killed Gale, and Gus’s underling, Victor, now knows the secrets of Walt’s cooking method.
In one of the most shocking moments in a series full of shocking moments, Fring neatly folds his clothes, puts on a hazmat suit, and – surprise! – slits not Walt’s but Victor’s throat, thus ensuring that no one but Jesse and Walt know his recipe for ultrapure meth.
Even the stoic, ultra-loyal Mike Ehrmentraut is caught off-guard enough to wave a gun in Gus’s general direction. The scene marks the point where Gus’s relationship with Walt goes from respectful to steely – and also where Walt sees what he’s going to have to do if he’s ever going to fill Gus’s shoes.
Arguably, Gale’s and Victor’s deaths are where Walt’s moral fiber begins to corrode irrevocably, and where Gus reveals what a destructive force he really is.
There’s a OSHA sign that says DANGER: CORROSIVE behind Walt in the scene.