Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher and family man turned meth cook.
Heisenberg, a drug kingpin.
Werner Heisenberg was a German physicist during WW2 who worked with subatomic particles. He contributed to the development of an atomic bomb for the allied forces, but for some unexplained reason, he suggested that the Germans give up on the project (Rose). Some people theorized that Heisenberg may have saved the world from catastrophe. Heisenberg was also famous for the “Uncertainty Principle,” which was a theory of variables suggesting that for any given predictions and consistencies we have, there will always be a possibility of something completely unpredictable happening. After the war, he was accepted back into the scientific community, but he never spoke publicly of what he did during WW2. He later died of cancer.
Walter White has created the persona of Heisenberg to deal with his personal weaknesses. As he gains power, he becomes a monster. He becomes a hazard to everyone he holds dear. He becomes “the danger,” as he states later in the series. Similar to the Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle,” throughout the show his actions are often unpredictable, and as an audience, viewers were thrilled by that, even though they may be horrified by the lengths this Heisenberg goes to. All this from one of the most passive members of the community, chemistry teacher Walter White, after finding out that he has terminal lung cancer.
The story of a good guy turned bad isn’t a new one. Creator, director, and show runner of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan illustrates that this is the story of “Mr. Chips turning into Scarface.” The Mr. Chips Gilligan is referring to is a beloved school teacher in the book “Goodbye Mr. Chips” which was adapted into two feature films and two tv films. The Scarface Gilligan is referring to is Al Pacino’s Scarface, and not the Paul Muno Scarface. The difference between the two Scarface’s is the Howard Hawks film with Paul Muno based on Al Capone, whereas the Brian Depalma film is about a fictional Cuban immigrant who rises to power. It is important to note that both go off the rails and lose their power, which would influence the downfall of Heisenberg near the end of the show’s run.
The tale of a good man turned bad has been prevalent throughout the history of storytelling. In Christianity we have several stories that illustrate a fall from grace. For example: Sampson and David were both men, favored by god, whose lives were overtaken by sin. The Devil is the epitome of one who falls from grace, and this creature has even been turned into a sympathetic character by the writer John Milton in “Paradise Lost.” In cinema, the most famous tale of the fall is Orson Welle’s masterpiece Citizen Kane. Recently, audiences of various entertainment mediums have adopted a fondness for anti-heroes. Over the years of it's run, Breaking Bad has become the poster child for a growing genre of anti-hero protagonists in television. Some other recent shows featuring anti-hero protagonists include Dexter, House of Cards, and Mad Men.
In the first episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White is conducting a science experiment and explains that chemistry is the study of change. This theme carries itself through out the show, specifically in the change of Walter White into Heisenberg. He pushes his boundaries over and over again, constantly adapting, morphing into “the danger.”
While on the surface level, Walter White becomes the feared drug kingpin, Heisenberg, this isn’t the Kafkaesque metamorphosis many might interpret. He still is the same person inside and out. In fact, it’s all a front. He’s still a weak, spiteful and angry person, as he always was, but his change of lifestyle caused him to throw away his inhibitions and live his life on the edge.
Breaking Bad on the surface level is an entertaining show about a science teacher turned meth drug kingpin, but on a subtextual level, the show is an indictment of the health care system in the United States. There have been many memes created online, about how the show wouldn’t even exist if we had Universal Healthcare in the United States. The suggestion comes with the idea that if hospital bills weren’t so astronomically expensive, some people wouldn’t go to desperate means to pay for them.
Breaking Bad, rather obviously refers to the Brian DePalma film, Scarface. In fact there’s even a scene in the film where he is watching it with his son. His wife, Skylar is horrified by this, because she can see the parallels of Tony Montona and Walter White. Also, the fact thatWalter White goes by the alter ego Heisenberg signifies that he is well aware of the “Heisenberg Principle” and chooses to embody that idea.
Breaking Bad borrows a lot of its story elements from mobster films, as well as westerns. It also draws inspiration from the iconography of outlaws, so prevalent in American culture, and deconstructs those ideas into a story where actions have greater consequences.
The show is an indictment of the notion of “the self made man.” Walter White is reckless and selfish, which leads to his eventual downfall. He claims that he needs his partner, Jessie Pinkman, but more often than not he uses him, causing Jessie’s friends to either get sick or die. After the climax of the show, Walter is so sad and alone that he offers a man five thousand dollars just for his company. After experiencing the weariness of loneliness, he decides to go back to save Jessie from drug slavery.
Vince Gilligan started as a screenwriter, first writing a screenplay for the film Home Fries, but really made his break writing for the sci fi thriller TV show The X Files and it’s short lived, but critically acclaimed, spin-off show The Lone Gunman. Breaking Bad itself now has a spinoff show,Better Call Saul, about the seedy lawyer Saul Goodman. Based on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, one can safely assume that the weight of consequences plays a huge factor in all of Vince Gilligan’s inspiration. Another prevalent theme is the criticism of government policies such as the Healthcare reform implications in Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad is pretty harsh on a lot of different aspects of American Culture, specifically the drug trade that often crosses the border between the United States and Mexico. While the show on one hand glorifies the process of drug making, the audience gets small glimpses of what drug abuse is like as well, albeit not enough. One might also argue that the negative portrayals of Latin Americans in the show borders on xenophobia. This xenophobia for Latinos reinforces the negative stereotypes that Latin American immigrants are (usually) drug dealers, criminals, or overall untrustworthy. Perhaps, the most famous example of this concept is the 1961 musical West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with White and Puerto Rican gangs squaring off against each other.
Whitehead, Dan. “BREAKING BAD: Who Is The Real Heisenberg?” Badass Digest RSS. N.p., 22 Aug 2013. Web. 04 Mar 2015.
Rose, Paul Lawrence. “Criticizing the Version.” Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture. Berkeley, CA: U of Californa, 1998. 69-71. Print.