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An Expert Breaks Down Iconic Pop Culture Poisonings

Villains in TV shows and movies often use poison, toxins, and venom to kill their victims. But are those scenes realistic? Sure, they don’t need to be. But it’s always fun to learn more about how on-screen depictions follow real life. Or in some cases veer wildly into complete fabrication. Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a medical toxicologist at California’s Poison Control System, ranks pop culture poisonings on a 0-10 scale based on how realistic they are.

In this video from Insider‘s YouTube channel, Dr. Rangan watches everything from James Bond’s poisoning by martini to Monica getting stung by a jellyfish on Friends. He has a sense of humor throughout his explanations on how diagnosing and treatments take much longer than usually shown. But thankfully, so does death. He gives points when they use correct terminology. And he docks points when they perpetuate false or even harmful treatments, like sucking out snake venom or peeing on jellyfish stings.

Game of Thrones

Let’s start with Game of Thrones. One of the many, many ways someone died was “The Long Goodbye,” a poison spread through kissing. Cersei uses it to kill Tyene Sand as revenge for it being used to murder her daughter Myrcella. Since there’s dragons and White Walkers in Game of Thrones, obviously we can forgive some unrealistic poison. Dr. Rangan points out its similarity to botulism, which takes hours or days to kill you. But he’s skeptical about adding any toxin to your own mouth in order to kiss someone to death. Cersei wipes her lips and then chugs an antidote. But no matter how fictional the universe, that’s just not how that would work. Dr. Rangan gives it a rating of 3 out of 10.

Insider
Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad includes the most accurate depiction of poison on the list. Dr. Rangan ranks it an 8 out of 10. Ricin is in fact made from castor beans. It leads to the vague but horrifying symptom of “extremely voluminous fluid loss.” Interestingly, though, Walter White’s hubris in bragging to his victim about how he poisoned her could backfire. There’s not a cure but the symptoms are treatable if diagnosed quickly. Since she’s still conscious, Walter White likely told his victim too early. She now knows what’s happening and could get to the hospital for treatment. 

Insider
Captain America

One we’ve seen multiple times is the false tooth cyanide capsule. This does have some basis in real life. Some governments provided cyanide pills to spies and pilots so they could avoid being captured alive. In Captain America: The First Avenger, a Hydra agent bites down, foams at the mouth, and is dead within seconds. Dr. Rangan gives this depiction a 3 out of 10. In reality, cyanide is a fast-acting poison but it would still take 5-10 minutes to die. 

The Princess Bride
Insider

I agree with Dr. Rangan that The Princess Bride‘s iocaine powder scene is the most fun to watch. Cary Elwes as the man in black? Yes please, 10 out of 10. Even if he’s spouting pseudoscience about a poison that dissolves in any liquid. 

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. Her parents had to call poison control multiple times when she was an adventurous toddler. Melissa also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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