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The Chemist as Anti-Hero : Walter White and Sherlock Holmes as Case Studies

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posted on 2023-08-04, 05:32 authored by Declan Fahy

Compared to chemists in film, chemists in modern television drama are underexamined by scholars, even though the genre is a powerful processor of images and ideas about culture and society. This critical essay draws on ideas from science communication, media studies and literary studies to examine the representation of chemists and chemistry in the acclaimed television dramas “Breaking Bad” and “Sherlock.” A textual analysis of these shows, chosen as critical case studies, demonstrates that they both portray their chemist protagonists as anti-heroes, who are morally ambivalent characters. The essay argues that both shows portray chemistry as uncommon knowledge, which is conducted largely in isolation or in secret. Although the shows represent chemistry as an empirical and experimental science, they demonstrate that the craft of chemistry is not ethically neutral. In “Breaking Bad,” Walter White chooses to stop using his chemistry skills to teach, and subsequently slides into an immoral world of death, destruction and destabilization. In “Sherlock,” Sherlock Holmes is an amoral, but benign, figure who uses his forensic knowledge to save lives and confront crime. These representations demonstrate that ethical choices are entwined with the practice of chemistry and these choices, in turn, have social consequences.



The American Chemical Society


Published as Chapter 15 in: Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment. D. Nelson, J. Paglia, S. Perkowitz and K. Grazier, K. (eds.) ACS Symposium Series. Washington, D.C: The American Chemical Society, 2013, 175-188.


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