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Duly Noted

Thursday, Oct 6, 2011, 1:04 pm

“Breaking Bad” Prediction: It Wasn’t Jesse’s Ricin

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Blumpi, Creative Commons.

Contains spoilers through Season 4, Episode 13.

What's wrong with Brock? In the second-to-last episode of this season of Breaking Bad, meth cook Jesse Pinkman's de facto stepson is in the intensive care unit, near death. Distraught, Jesse goes out to the parking lot for a cigarette. He is horrified to discover that his ricin-tipped cigarette is missing. Jesse jumps to the conclusion that Brock is suffering from ricin poisoning and that his former meth cooking partner, Walter White, was the poisoner.

Walter gave Jesse the poison to kill their boss, meth lord and fried chicken baron Gus Fring. Jesse had been toting the poisoned cigarette around all season, waiting for an opportunity and weighing his conflicting loyalties.

Jesse assumes that Walter poisoned Brock to get back at him for taking over the meth lab after Gus fired Walter. As far as Jesse knows, Walter is the only person who knows about the ricin. Though Walter did synthesize the poison in Gus's lab, which we know is heavily bugged.

Jesse is sure Brock wasn't poisoned by accident because he had the cigarette when he left for work that morning and he didn't see Brock again until he arrived at the hospital that night.

Brock's mother tearfully tells Jesse that the 6-year-old was just fine this morning.

Jesse assumes that someone must have stolen the ricin during the day and poisoned Brock with it. He concludes a bodyguard must have taken it during a pat-down at his and Walter's lawyer's office that afternoon.

Jesse confronts Walter, who convinces him that the poison was probably stolen from Jesse's locker at the meth lab, presumably by someone working for Gus. Walter suggests that Gus poisoned the kid in the hopes that Jesse would blame Walter for it.

This sounds far-fetched, because neither Gus nor Walter appears to have a good reason to poison Brock. Some critics have argued that it's out of character for Jesse to explain Brock's poisoning by making such a convoluted inference. But we know that Gus and his grizzled ex-cop henchman Mike have already faked an armed robbery as part of Gus's convoluted plan to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walter.

We also know that Jesse is very angry at Walter because he thinks Walt called the DEA on the meth lab. And Gus is putting a lot of pressure on Jesse to let him eliminate Walt. So, Jesse has a self-serving reason to assume the worst about Walt.

The episode ends with the mystery unresolved. As Amanda Marcotte notes, some of Brock's symptoms are similar to the symptoms of ricin poisoning by inhalation.

But Brock's poisoning with Jesse's ricin doesn't fit what the show has already established about how ricin works.

When Walter gave Jesse the poison in Episode 7, he stressed that if Gus ate the poison, he'd drop dead 36 hours later and everyone would assume it was a heart attack.

In the show, the lag between exposure and collapse is what makes ricin an attractive poison. In Season 2, Jesse and Walter tried unsuccessfully to kill drug lord Tuco Salamanca by tricking him into snorting ricin. They chose ricin because they didn't want him to realize he'd been poisoned until it was too late.

We know that Brock was fine when Jesse left for work. By the time Jesse is summoned to the hospital that night, Brock is on life support.

It would be silly to expect strict pharmacological realism in the larger-than-life world of Breaking Bad. However, ricin has already played a key role in the plot twice, as a slow-acting poison.

The writers of Breaking Bad have established the properties of ricin in their world. If they don't stick to the established logic, they're going to have to write their way out of it, by stipulating that ricin works much faster in children, or something.

None of this precludes the possibility that Brock was poisoned with something else, or poisoned with ricin earlier. Ricin is rare, but Walter isn't the only person in the world who can make it.

As Amanda notes, we already know that Gus is a skilled poisoner. We also know that he's a master manipulator who is willing to use very indirect and complicated strategies to get people where he wants them.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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