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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 23rd September 2013

I’m struggling to find the right words. I almost went for ‘an emperor’s new clothes’ situation’ but I realised that there is an unacceptable degree of arrogance in that because I am not for a moment suggesting that I am right and everybody else wrong. In any case, the emperor’s new clothes story concerns one person going against everybody else. That’s not the case, here.

It seems to me that the world is split in two; those who’ve never heard of ‘Breaking Bad’ or never bothered to watch any of it and those who, having watched it, think it is remarkable television. That seems to put me in a minority of one because I have watched ‘Breaking Bad’ and I don’t like it.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

My problem started at the very beginning when, within the first two episodes, someone who was undoubtedly dead survived and had to be killed a second time before having his body disposed of in a ridiculous way. For a time, I thought I could watch it as a comedy rather than a drama but it didn’t stand up that way. I persevered because I realised I was so out of step with general opinion, including those of a number of people whose views I generally value. And I’ve persevered for a long time. It was back in February that I noted I was struggling to engage with the series.

What first made me aware of the existence of ‘Breaking Bad’ was when references to it starting popping up in my Google Alert for ‘ricin’, the toxin found in the crushed seeds of Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. And, maybe, that’s where my problem lies because the ‘Breaking Bad’ ricin stories are complete nonsense.

I did think about unpicking them step by step but that would probably be tedious so I’ll just say that trying to prepare ricin using a microwave is the best way to ensure you end up with no ricin, the phial that Walt gives Jesse is off-white meaning that it is crushed castor beans not pure ricin and crushed castor beans are strongly emetic so trying to kill someone by getting them to eat such a powder is never going to work. Plus, the described effects that Jesse is told to expect do not match the symptoms of ricin, or castor bean, poisoning.

And it is not just ricin where ‘Breaking Bad’ distorts science to suit its narrative. When Walt poisons the young boy, supposedly with Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley, we are told that the red berries are sweet. They are not. Like many other poisonous plants the berries are described in textbooks as bitter. (This is one plant where I haven’t tasted the fruit to see for myself but since a number of my textbooks refer to the ‘bitter’ berries I think that is the consensus.) In any event, the plant shown at the end of the episode to reveal that it was Walt who administered the poison is in flower not fruit. Perhaps, in the world of ‘Breaking Bad’, plants produce fruit before they produce flowers.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Why does this matter and why does it make me so angry, apart from the hours I’ve spent trying to enjoy the programme without success? I don’t normally worry about the fictional use of poisons because I know that the overwhelming majority of authors distort the truth to suit the needs of their work. Very few references to plant poisons in fiction stand close scrutiny.

One exception is Val McDermid’s ‘Beneath the Bleeding’. I don’t recall how her murderer comes into possession of ricin though he has access to Ricinus communis but the way the poison is delivered does create a good chance of it entering the bloodstream, a key requirement for ricin to be dependably fatal.

Where ‘Breaking Bad’ stands out from other fiction is that many people seem to have bought into the science and believe that Walter White knows what he is doing with chemicals. Plus, of course, the programme is reaching its climax in the wake of the recent ricin scare stories about letters being sent to leading figures.

There is something romantic about the use of poison as a murder weapon, whether that be single or mass murder. In the same way that people like roller-coasters because there is perceived to be a chance of a terrible crash occurring, people seem to like the thought that the next thing they eat could be the death of them.

But, there is nothing romantic about murder whether at the hand of a deranged individual or some terrorist group that thinks its philosophy justifies its actions. As we’ve seen too many times in the past few days, real killers use guns and explosives that tear apart victims, physically, and tear apart families and friends of victims, mentally.

Ricin is the weapon of choice only of sad attention-seekers who think that putting some crushed castor beans into an envelope is the way for them to get their time in the spotlight as a result of the ill-informed hysteria this substance attracts.

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