Breaking Bad: How Walter White Poisoned Brock and What Happened to the Ricin Cigarette

UPDATE AUGUST 26: After last night’s episode, there are a lot of questions about Jesse’s desert revelation and how it all fits together, so I updated this post to include that toward the end, to keep it chronological. You can skip to that part here.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people come across my blog from googling something like, “How did Walter White poison Brock?” or “What happened to the ricin cigarette?” or “what happened berries Walter Brock” or something similar. On the Breaking Bad message boards, questions about these topics still rage. While watching the latest episode on Sunday night, some friends were asking the the same questions. This storyline definitely has to be one of the most complex–maybe even convoluted–plotlines on the show. Some of it is more left to assumption than explicitly shown. So I thought I’d try to elucidate with my understanding of what happened, start to finish.

In episode 407 “Problem Dog,” Walt makes some ricin in the superlab. He gives it to Jesse, who puts it in a “lucky cigarette” that he keeps upside down in his cigarette pack. The ricin cigarette is born.

Walt, his revolver and lily of the valley

In episode 412 “End Times,” Walt is despondent and doesn’t know what to do. Gus has just threatened his wife, son, infant daughter and brother-in-law. Walt knows that Gus could be close to turning Jesse against him and that Jesse’s flagging loyalty is the only thing keeping Gus from killing him. Since Skyler gave a big chunk of Walt’s drug money to the IRS for the Ted thing, Walt doesn’t have the money to get himself and his family out of town through Saul’s disappeaerer “vacuum guy.” He sits out back behind his house and spins a revolver. The first two times, it points at him. The third time though, it points to a potted plant, which (we will later come to see) is a lily of the valley plant. Here is where Walter White gets his idea.

A few things to keep in mind from previous scenes and eps: First, Walt saw Brock and Andrea at Jesse’s apartment. He knows to some extent who they are and that Jesse cares about them. Second, Jesse has been carrying around a vial of ricin inside a cigarette for awhile now to (maybe) use on Gus. Lastly, Gus has used children before. His meth empire used kids like Andrea’s little brother Tomas, and when Jesse gets upset about this, Gus’s people kill Tomas (episode 312 “Half-Measure”). So Gus has hurt kids in Andrea’s family before.

So here’s (my assumption of) Walter’s plan. He has Saul deliver the lily of the valley berries to Brock in some way. This is never shown exactly but probably Walt did something with the berries like made them up into some candy (chemistry skills) or something and had Saul deliver it to the boy. This wouldn’t have been too weird because earlier in Season 4, before Jesse and Andrea got back together, Saul used to deliver money from Jesse to Andrea and had seen and talked to Brock in the past.

UPDATE: At the 2013 Comic-Con Vince Gilligan explained exactly how he and the writers imagined Walt got the poison to Brock, and it wasn’t, as I had thought, through Saul. Instead they pictured Walt as the “Evil Juice Box Man” going into Brock’s school and giving him a juice box that had juice from the poison berries. And if you’ll look closely at episode 413 “Face Off” (thanks to Greg below for pointing this out), when Walt busts into Saul’s office, Francesca is shredding school schedules. It’s a big spreadsheet of classes and times but there are notes on the side that seem to be one student’s personal schedule, most likely Brock’s. So, kudos to the writers on including that little detail, and again to Greg for noticing that what’s was being shredded. End of update.

Huell switches it up

Then, Walt has Saul, through his bodyguard Huell, remove Jesse’s ricin cigarette by switching out the packs. He removes Jesse’s pack with the cigarette containing the ricin vial and puts in a pack without it. This happens when Huell gives Jesse a pat down after Saul calls him to the office. Recall that Jesse got many, many urgent messages from Saul demanding that he come in to the office–this was done to get him there so Huell could do the cigarette pack switcharoo–then Saul kinda blows off Huell, as if he knows nothing about it (Saul’s good like that) and tells Jesse that these are “the end times, kid.” Walt has to make sure Jesse’s ricin cigarette is removed so he can convince Jesse that Gus or Tyrus stole the ricin cig to poison Brock.

So then, Jesse gets the call that Brock is in the hospital. He hears Brock has flu-like symptoms that aren’t getting better, which is exactly what Walt told Jesse back in the Tuco days is what would happen to someone with ricin poisoning. Jesse figures out EXACTLY what happened–that Walt poisoned Brock (likely through Saul) and then had Huell remove the ricin cigarette from him. This is exactly what he accuses Walt of when he threatens to kill Walt. In fact, if you’re still having questions about this whole deal, watch this scene where Jesse almost kills Walt because he gets it exactly right (except that Walt didn’t actually use ricin).

Jesse accuses Walt

But then Walt turns it around and convinces Jesse that Gus has done it as an attempt to frame Walt and get Jesse to finally give his consent to kill Walt or to kill Walt himself. Jesse’s refusal to give the okay to kill Walt was the thorn in Gus’s side. Gus has used children before, he argues, and he swears that he himself would never do such a thing to a child. He convinces Jesse that Gus knew about the ricin cigarette because Gus had cameras on them all the time. Jesse, who on some level loves Walt and thinks of him as a father figure, decides to believe Walt rather than shoot him, and helps Walt to kill Gus.

Afterward, Jesse finds out that Brock wasn’t poisoned with ricin after all, but lily of the valley. He thinks it’s all a coincidence and Walt assures him they still did the right thing in killing Gus. All seems well as Walt relaxes out back behind his house, in a much different state of mind then he was in before. In the last frames of Season 4, the camera focuses in on the same plant that Walt’s revolver pointed at in the earlier scene, and its tag, which says “Lily of the Valley.” This is supposed to let us as the audience know that yes, Walt poisoned Brock.

So why did Walt go to the trouble of doing it with lily of the valley instead of just using ricin? Well, as evil as Walt has become, he doesn’t actually want to murder a kid. The implication is that if he had actually used ricin, it would have killed Brock but with lily of the valley, it was “touch and go” but Brock pulled through. Also, I think that Walt, true to character, isn’t even thinking far enough ahead to think of what a weird coincidence it could look like. All he’s thinking about is survival, about getting Jesse to think Gus poisoned Brock with ricin so Jesse will get back on his side. That’s it.

In season 5, some loose ends still need to be cleaned up. The first is that Walt throws out his lily of the valley plant, destroying the evidence. Then, in his meeting with Saul, Saul hands the ricin cigarette that Huell lifted from Jesse back to Walt. Saul also says that he had no idea that Brock would end up in the hospital. It’s never explicitly spelled out but this conversation is what reveals that it probably was somehow through Saul that Brock got the poison, and that Saul didn’t really know what he was actually doing. That’s what leads me to believe Walt made the berries into some type of treat for Saul to deliver. Walt is a chemist who made poison out of beans, after all.

Walt makes the decoy

Then in episode 502 “Madrigal,” we have more loose ends to tie up. One is that Jesse still doesn’t know what happened to his ricin cigarette. He doesn’t have it, he doesn’t know Walt has it and he no longer believes Gus had it, so in his mind it’s MIA. Walt tries to convince Jesse that he must’ve lost it in the superlab before they torched it but Jesse doesn’t think so. Jesse’s making himself crazy worrying that some innocent person will come across it wherever he lost it and get sick and die because of it. Walt says he’ll come over and help Jesse toss the house and find it. So Walt makes up a dummy ricin cigarette, using salt instead of ricin. He hides the real vial of ricin behind an electrical socket in his bedroom. He then plants the fake cig in Jesse’s Roomba as they are tearing the place apart. We don’t see him do this, but when he offers to help Jesse find it while making a fake one, we assume he’s going to plant it somewhere.

Jesse finds the decoy

Then Walt pretends not to know what a Roomba is (“What the hell is that thing?”) and convinces Jesse to look inside it. Jesse does and lo and behold there is his “ricin” cigarette. Jesse now believes he made a huge, huge mistake, originally thinking Walt was behind it. He almost killed Walt, and now thinks that Walt, or should I say “Mr. White” was completely innocent. Jesse feels awful and can’t figure out what’s wrong with himself that he would make such a huge “mistake.”

It is genius on Walt’s part. He has gotten Jesse back to his side. He has Jesse doubting his own instincts about what’s going on, feeling like he is instead stupid. Then Walt comes in as the comforting father figure and talks to him about moving forward, so he gets Jesse on board with cooking meth again.

And then in 503 “Hazard Pay,” Walt completes this long con of Jesse by manipulating him into ending things with Andrea, and hence Brock. And then showing absolutely zero interest or concern. Walt has become one sick, twisted dude.

UPDATE

This next section addresses how this plotline about the Brock poisoning and the ricin cigarette plays into episode 511 “Confessions.” DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you haven’t yet seen the episode as this will be a big spoiler. You’ve been warned.

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 9.23.02 AMIn episode 511 “Confessions” Jesse goes to Saul’s office to hire the same “disappearer” that Walt once planned to use. Jesse starts smoking pot in Saul’s office (not the first time, that was nicely set up two episodes back). Saul freaks out and says the disappearer won’t take him if he’s high. So Huell does what he does–he pickpockets Jesse’s pot. If you watch closely, you can see Huell doing this.

Then Jesse, waiting for the disappearer, looks for the pot in his pocket. It’s not there. He starts freaking out, finds the cigarette pack. He realizes that Huell lifted his pot and this triggers Jesse to realize that Huell had switched the packs before, that he’d been right all along (remember, this was his original suspicion). So he goes and beats and threatens at gunpoint the truth out of Saul.

The confusion for a lot of people is that Jesse yells about ricin when he screams at Saul but Brock was poisoned with Lily of the Valley. He screams about the ricin cig because that’s Saul’s part in the plan. Saul and Huell lifted his ricin cigarette (so that Walt could convince Jesse that Gus via Tyrus had stolen it at the lab). He realizes then that he must’ve been played by Walt, that Walt must’ve been the one to poison Brock with Lily of the Valley.

Jesse has been getting smarter for seasons now. And he’s been suspicious of Walt ever since late in the first half of Season Five, and especially since Walt had the guys in prison killed, which told him all he needed to know about what happened to Mike. He’s been terrified of Walt. And there was a lot of talk about Walt playing and working Jesse leading up to this moment in the episode. So, I think Jesse’s in a different place in that he’s readier to see this truth about Walt. It must be under the surface, a seed of suspicion.

In that moment in the desert, waiting for his new life in Alaska, when he finds the cigarette pack in his pocket, I think the whole convoluted plot becomes crystal clear to Jesse in all its detail.

Oh shit.

I decided to add on some more because I noticed that a lot of the people who left comments were having trouble believing the leap Jesse made from seeing the cigarette pack to putting the whole plot together. This was a little surprising to me because as soon as I saw Jesse looking at the cigarettes (and I believe it’s a similar camera angle as when he looked at his cigarettes in 412 “End Times” when he realized the ricin one was gone), I started freaking out and silently screaming to myself, Jesse knows! So anyway, I thought I’d try to illuminate in more detail why it was believable to me.

The first thing to remember is that not all that much time has passed since Brock was poisoned in the world of the show. Just a few months. Maybe four or five. For us, it’s been almost two years since the end of Season Four. A lot more time has passed for us as viewers than for the characters on the show. The whole Brock thing wouldn’t be that far buried in Jesse’s mind. He’s also been relatively sober (except for the pot) since, and Jesse’s always smarter when he’s not dipping into the crystal blue persuasion.

The other thing is that Jesse originally put all the pieces together quickly when he came to Walt’s house. Well, he didn’t know Walt had used lily of the valley, but aside from that detail, he’d figured out the whole plot. So, in Jesse’s mind the poisoning of Brock and the lifting of his ricin cig through the pack switchup were already linked in his mind. Maybe that’s why it didn’t seem like much of a leap to me, because Jesse had essentially already figured it out once, and because these things were always linked for him. Walt worked hard to spin a fiction around the whole thing, but it makes sense that once one piece comes tumbling down, like Jesse realizing Huell had switched packs on him back then, the whole castle falls. It’s like Walt built a very big and complicated Jenga tower and all it took was that one piece pulled out to bring it all down. Plus there would’ve been no reason for Walt to have Huell switch cigarette packs on Jesse if he hadn’t poisoned Brock. The two things have always gone together.

And I also think that this is the way realizations work in real life. Consider a more commonplace example, since most of us (I assume) haven’t dealt with having a drug dealer partner mentor father figure poisoning our significant other’s kid in a convoluted plot to win back our loyalty. Consider instead infidelity. You find something that makes you think your spouse/partner/lover/sex friend/whoever is cheating. They give you a plausible (maybe not 100% convincing but plausible) story that explains things away. They appeal to your emotions and swear that they would never do that, they love you and you are their one and only sex friend or whatever. You believe them because you want to believe them, because they seem like the kind of person who would never cheat. And maybe they orchestrate some corroborating evidence to their story (ricin decoy in the roomba equivalent). But all it takes is one tiny little hole in their story–a receipt in a pocket, something out of place in the house, another person who was involved in the cover story (the boss they were supposedly working late for, let’s say) saying something just the slightest bit out of sync with the story, catching a wayward look in a crowded room, a whiff of mysterious cologne or perfume–and suddenly you KNOW. All of it. You were played.

I’m not speaking from experience really on that one, from either side of the scenario, so I’ll go with something less related but it’s the first thing that comes to mind with realizations–Mystery Diagnosis. It’s a show that was (still is?) on Discovery Health about real-life scenarios of patients with illnesses that go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, sometimes for years. If you think the Brock and ricin storyline is convoluted and muddied, diseases and conditions are worse. Their symptoms overlap so it can be difficult to tease them apart. They are so, so complex. They affect different people in different ways. Especially when you get to the more bizarre ones. This can’t be understated, these were stories of people who serious went sometimes over a decade (or more), to one doctor after another and not getting answers. The doctors who did solve the cases usually did so in a moment. Suddenly it all came into focus, all the different symptoms suddenly slid into place of the one correct diagnosis. And as a viewer watching the show, that’s always happened for me. I couldn’t solve that many (I have no medical training whatsoever, just a biology major including a year of anatomy and physiology, and a lot of time spent watching House back in the day) but I got a handful, maybe ten or so, before it was revealed on the show. And whenever I did, it was because it would suddenly crystallize. Somehow just one word or one symptom would suddenly conjure up some book I’d read a few months or years back, or a patient on House, or something I’d read in A&P or another class, or several of these would come together and I’d start screaming at the TV, “It’s Stills Disease!” or “Acute Intermittent Porphyria, bitch!” or “It’s Addison’s!”

I know this seems like a big tangent, and it kind of is, but the point is that I think the way light bulb realizations work in real life is that stuff bobs around under the surface of our unconscious minds, and sometimes when we’re mentally ready to see something, or when the right little clue piques our interest, that’s all it takes for a complex thing to come into crystal clear focus. I think it’s just very true to human life. Of course not every realization is a light bulb moment, but plenty are.

And Jesse, he’s probably had some questions and curiosities about the Brock poisoning bobbing in his unconscious for awhile now. It was a little too coincidental, you know? That Brock got poisoned and he lost his cigarette and they’re somehow just two odd occurrences that led him to help Walt murder Gus must seem a little weird. I don’t think Jesse totally believed Walt was innocent until he found the decoy in the roomba. And so for awhile he believed Walt’s story. But then, Walt killed Mike’s guys and Jesse figured that meant Walt must’ve also killed Mike. He saw Mr. White in a new, more diabolical light. And lately there’s been all this talk about Walt playing him. And at his house in “Blood Money” he saw what a good liar Walt can be, how convincing he can come off, when Walt lied about Mike being alive. So all it takes is that one thing–his pot–out of place for him to see it all in focus. To essentially go back to his original gut instinct about what happened to Brock (except substituting Lily of the Valley as the actual poison used on Brock) and Saul’s involvement. Remember these two things–Brock being poisoned and Huell switching his packs–were already linked in his mind originally. It really wasn’t that big a leap. All the pieces were there, Jesse just needed a little push to put it all together.

Totally believable and true to life in my eyes.

~Emilia J

P.S. I still plan to get to everyone’s comments. Had to stop replying for a bit to get my episode write-up done and now this. And other life things that are not in front of the computer! Some great discussions going on, and I will attend to it all as soon as I can. Rock on all you observant, dedicated and awesome BrBa people!

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170 thoughts on “Breaking Bad: How Walter White Poisoned Brock and What Happened to the Ricin Cigarette

  1. So here is my question: What would Gus get by poisoning Brock? I don’t get it why would he do such thing to Jesse, who didn’t do anything to him?
    (sorry i watched it a long ago, can’t remember all the details)

  2. Hi. Thanks for creating a place to think about this very important issue !
    After my 4th viewing of these wonderful series, I still think there are many loose ends to this Lily of the Valley story :
    – The difficulty of getting Brock to swallow a sufficent dose of poison : bringing it to him, making him eat or drink the right quantity, etc … Not something a Walt or even a Saul would leave to chance. It couldn’t have just happened ; many less complicated developments are described at length. Why isn’t this one ?
    – When Jesse begins to worry about a link between his lost ricin and Brock’s sickness, he is convinced too suddenly that there was a premeditated poisoning. Anybody would go looking for some remains of the plastic ricin holder. Jesse should have thought Brock could have just bumped into it. Trying to check this possibility would have been a logical course of action, even if it meant admitting, at some point, some responibility to Andrea.
    – Why would Gus or Walt poison Brock ? In the story, the poisoning convincingly triggers Jesse’s fury because we know he is a child protector. But it doesn’t make sense. Gus certainly has no reason, as Brock is a complete outsider to him. And it is much too tricky for Walt who would be the first suspected (as he was), and should have had too much difficulty convincing Jesse it was Gus’s fault.

    Actually there is a need for 2 or 3 more episodes to make all this hold together. C’mon Vince, back to work !

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