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Hottest course on campus: 'Breaking Down Breaking Bad'

Monday, September 15, 2014

When it comes to audacious, complex, badass characters, Shakespeare reigns supreme.  Or does he?

Kenneth Schiff, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Mercyhurst, used to think so. Mercutio, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Henry V - they were a gnarly bunch.  But along came Walter White, who took badass to a whole new level.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said his goal in creating Walter White was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. And it wasn’t just Walt whose character evolved so dramatically over the five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad. The same could be said of Jesse Pinkman, Skyler White, Saul Goodman, Mike, Gus…

“The moral complexity of the characters and the plot development are as good as anything Shakespeare ever wrote,” Schiff said. “Breaking Bad is a new form of great, narrative art.”

Who would have figured that Walter White’s iconic “I am the one who knocks”* would be uttered in the same breath as Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent”?

Certainly Schiff, who watched all 62 episodes, didn’t expect to be so “blown away” by this television genre, which is why when the opportunity arose to share his enthusiasm in the Mercyhurst classroom, he jumped. He joins associate professor of criminal justice, Tina Fryling, J.D., and chemistry/biochemistry department chair Clint Jones, Ph.D., in teaching what arguably is the hottest course on the Mercyhurst campus this fall: an interdisciplinary offering called “Breaking Down Breaking Bad.” And it’s just for freshmen – 75 in all.

Schiff examines the Emmy Award-winning series as a work of narrative art; Fryling dissects the criminal justice thread throughout; and Jones teaches the science piece. They take turns doing lectures and then each takes a group for weekly break-out sessions.

Schiff is exploring the series as a narrative art form.  He is particularly excited that his students can relate in the moment rather than being culturally removed as they are in the study of other great works of literature.

Jones is engaging his group in the chemistry lab, where they are learning to perform drug analyses. Students are given an unknown “white powder” consisting of one or more of the following chemical compounds: caffeine, lidocaine, aspirin and naproxen. He then takes them through the analytical process so they can determine the identity and quantity of the drug(s) in their unknown powder.

“Many of these students aren’t even science majors, but we are giving them an authentic lab experience that introduces them to forensic drug analysis with a focus on the chemistry and techniques used in modern laboratories,” Jones said.

For her part, Fryling is teaching students about drug laws, drug cartels, examining why certain drugs are illegal, how drug crimes have affected the modern-day prison population; she even delves into even attorney ethics.

“Certainly ‘Just call Saul’ (the character of attorney Saul Goodman) has some issues,” Fryling said.

In her breakout session, students will participate in a mock trial – a chance to create their own justice since the Breaking Bad storyline never reached the courtroom phase.

“It should be interesting,” Fryling said.

For those students who have watched Breaking Bad, the course is a welcome opportunity to reconstruct some of their favorite moments and learn more about the nuances that contribute to its popularity. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Schiff can only say, “I envy them. Think what they have to look forward to.”

*Season Four, Episode Six: The quote in full: "You clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!"

NOTE: Mercyhurst Student Government will welcome R.J. Mitte, who stars as Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad, to campus on Sept. 23. Mitte will open MSG’s annual speakers series. His talk is not open to the public so as to afford all interested Mercyhurst students the opportunity to hear him speak. The three faculty teaching “Breaking Down Breaking Bad” and three of their students will be dining with Mitte that evening, along with the MSG executive board and 20 students who won seats during a random raffle.