Heisenberg in the Mirror

Television — By on October 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm

I did it for myself. I liked it. It was good. It made me feel alive.
-Walter White from Breaking Bad

In the beginning of Paradise Lost John Milton describes Lucifer after his fall from Heaven:

O how fall’n! Who in happy realms of light clothed with transcendent brightness did outshine Myriads…now misery has joined in equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest from what height
fallen…

In the epic poem Lucifer looks up to the glories of Heaven and is haunted by the distance of his fall. For Lucifer the torment of Hell is not the fiery pit, but the low position—the eternal incompletion. From now on he will go to any measure to restore his glory. With this resolve against Heaven and its King, Lucifer transforms into Satan; the lowest being, armed with terrifying power and voracious ambition.

Recently the AMC show Breaking Bad aired its final episode and ended with high acclaim from fans and critics. In 2008 the show had 1.4 million viewers, but five years and many Emmy awards later (including best show of 2013) its finale claimed 10.3 million laptops and television sets. Breaking Bad is the story of a suburban dweller named Walter White, a chemistry genius turned high school teacher and a man whose life is miserable anyway you look at it. His sixteen year old son has cerebral palsy; his teacher’s salary hardly pays the bills; his masculinity is dwarfed by his brother in law who is the DEA for Albuquerque; and the company he co founded out of grad school and sold for five thousand dollars now makes millions he’ll never have. Lung cancer is added to Walt’s list of complications and he is subsequently controlled by his fearful wife who finds out she’s pregnant after the diagnosis. Yes, Walter’s been dealt a terrible hand but he finds a niche that will allow him to practice chemistry and provide for his family before he dies: cook and sell methamphetamine.

As the story develops, the dopey but genius Walter keeps his cover by habitually lying to loved ones. Meth manufacturing inevitably doesn’t allow his hands or money to go blood free and the cash flow increases when he turns his mind to deception and manipulation. His cancer eventually goes into recession but his crime life turns into a vicious cycle of no return as Walt’s objective changes from providing for his family to controlling his destiny. In his rise from drug manufacturer to kingpin Walt gives himself the name Heisenberg; a name that grows into the biggest in meth production and eventually the most notorious name in the world of crime.

In sixty two episodes creator Vince Gillian successfully turned a cheesy dad into the image of Scarface, but the portrayal of Walt is much different than silver screen crime boss like Tony Montana or Vito Corleone. In a crime film the protagonist usually has a charismatic rise and fall and you feel the raw power of the character when the credits role. But in the five year rise and reign of Heisenberg, the belittled and somewhat pathetic Walter White is never forgotten to the character.

Often the best part of a crime film is being introduced to an entirely new world; a place distant from the viewer. For instance in the world of Goodfellas I can watch Joe Pesci murder someone with a knife and I’m inclined to believe I’m not capable of that kind of evil. But Breaking Bad starts in the suburbs–not the streets–and Walter White could be your next door neighbor. He doesn’t practice crime from cultural pressure, family heritage, or because it’s the only life he’s known, he does it because he has been slighted by a existence of namelessness, and cancer threatens to leave it that way. The awareness of his low position motivates him and he looks to excel by any means. This makes it uncomfortably easy to relate to Walter White. If we have been cheated, shamed publically, or forgotten by a loved one there’s always that feeling of desolation that tells us to do something rash or powerful to tip the scales in our favor. What if everything in life minimized and pained you and you were given less than a year to live? Wouldn’t you want to take control? The idea of taking owning of your own destiny is usually thought of as a good thing, but what if self fulfillment comes in the form of a pitiful suburban dad engineering a scheme that turns him into a monster? The results are not as sexy as most crime movies, but they are exponentially more terrifying.

The story of Heisenberg is as ancient as it is personal. After his fall from Heaven, Lucifer is trapped in a state of infinite smallness made from eternal loss. In Eden he temps Eve with the phrase, “you will be like God knowing good and evil.” This is the message: “you are not what you could be, think of what you could become.” We thought eating the fruit would make us closer to God, but disobedience made us haunted by our distance from him. We know from history and the evening news that people will do monstrous things in the search for some kind of fulfillment or satisfaction. Are we that different? Are we incapable of horrors?

Remember the pitiful Walter White. Remember the monstrosity of Heisenberg, because the story of Breaking Bad shares an ancient paradox with the Tower of Babel that is still relevant to our time and heart: the more bricks you lay to attain Heaven the farther you build from God.


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  • Mike

    Kent, Thank you for the recapitulation of the narrative, especially for your insight on what was unique to Walter White — “But Breaking Bad starts in the suburbs–not the streets–and Walter White could be your next door neighbor…”