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Is Heisenberg Dead? Walter White and the Light-Switch Theory of Morality

Separating "good Walt" from "bad Heisenberg" is an easy shorthand, but it oversimplifies Breaking Bad's morality--and our own.

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Ursula Coyote/AMC

These past few weeks we’ve seen a lot of arguments about Breaking Bad, or rather a lot of arguments about the arguments about Breaking Bad. But if you step back from the debate over Team Walt and Team Skyler (and God help us, Team Todd), Bad Fans and Good Fans (to use Emily Nussbaum’s term), something pretty impressive is going on: a TV show is pushing crowds of fans to have an engaged discussion about the nature of morality. I’m not sure that “Who Shot J.R.?,” say, ever had the same effect, even if Dallas drew a bigger total audience.

The latest philosophical inquiry brought to you by AMC is: who or what is “Heisenberg” (Walter White’s nom de meth as a criminal genius), when did he come to exist, and is he still around? Two pieces on Vulture yesterday suggested two different answers. In an interview with Denise Martin, Peter Gould, the writer of last Sunday’s “Granite State” episode, says that “one of the things that I had in mind was that a lot of this episode is about him trying to conjure up Heisenberg, and Heisenberg is just not there anymore. In my mind, Heisenberg died when Hank did.”

Meanwhile, Lost’s co-creator Damon Lindelof, likening Walt/Heisenberg to Bruce Wayne/Batman, argues that Walt was always Heisenberg, or rather, that he always had the seed of Heisenberg within him. The idea of an “origin story”–you’re one person and then, zap!, some misfortune turns you into another–is, Lindelof argues, faulty. Continuing the Batman analogy, he writes: “millions upon millions of people are murdered by criminals all the time — especially in comic books. But the sons and daughters of those people do not become Batman. But Bruce Wayne? Bruce was different.” And so was Walt–way before he developed a suspicious cough.

Part of the question depends on what exactly “Heisenberg” is. If Heisenberg is Walt’s ability to ingeniously wriggle out of any problem as if by magic, then yes, “Granite State” shows that he is at a dead end, his mojo run out. But if Heisenberg is that aspect of Walt that made him break bad–his hubris, bitterness, spite, arrogance–then I have to doubt whether Heisenberg can ever truly die, without taking Walt with him.

Maybe it sounds like a picky semantic question. But it implies two different views of morality, psychology, and human nature. Do people have good and bad halves, or do they express the same personality through good or bad acts? Do we each have the potential for evil and good? Are there bad people who are not just worse than good people but entirely different in kind? Do people “snap” and become bad, or do they move along a continuum?

Put another way: does “breaking bad” imply breaking like a twig or like a curveball? Or to use a Home Depot analogy, is morality a light switch–on/off–or a dimmer knob?

I’m from the dimmer-knob school, but I can see how the light-switch theory has an appeal. Breaking Bad discussion is as prone to get polarized as any other debate, especially as it spreads online. The unsettling vehemence of some Team Walt fans who get off on Heisenberg’s badassery–as well as the hateful bile toward Skyler–has, I suspect, pushed some people to adopt an intensely opposite position. He’s all bad, he’s become 100% Heisenberg, and he’s beyond empathy or redemption.

Dividing the protagonist into “Walt” and “Heisenberg” makes for an easy discussion shorthand. And the show has done something to suggest the dualism: His name is Walter White, after all, and as Heisenberg, he literally wears a black hat. But it’s misleading, I think, to take the Walt/Heisenberg duality too literally, as if he has a split personality, like Smeagol/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. First, it’s not how the human mind usually works. Second, it’s a way of distancing the rest of us–who haven’t gone the full Heisenberg in our lives–from Breaking Bad’s larger story.

No, we’re not all Walter White. Most of us would never do what he did even in his circumstances. But have none of us ever done the wrong thing in the name of pride, expedience, or “the children”? Isn’t the world full of people who make selfish choices because they tell themselves they need to look out for their own families first (never mind what other families are indirectly affected)? To disassociate yourself from Walt is to tell yourself that your ordinary impulses–It’s not fair! I deserve this! My kids deserve this!–could never lead you to a bad place. You don’t have to kill to compromise, and Breaking Bad is all about how one moral compromise makes the next one easier.

More than that, if we can truly, entirely separate ourselves from Walter–if we can say we have nothing at all in common with him–why in the world watch Breaking Bad at all? It would be watching animals in the zoo: really despicable animals, doing soul-crushingly terrible things, for five seasons.

What I’ve seen in Breaking Bad for five years tells me that it doesn’t see see Walt’s morality, or anyone’s, in those absolute terms. I think it’s telling a story that’s both starkly moral and empathetic–that its writers don’t believe that understanding Walt means excusing him. That’s why, for instance, Walt’s bile-filled phone call to Skyler in “Ozymandias” could be fake and real at the same time: a performance for the cops that draws on a real rage that Walt has all too often felt. (Disclaimer: It is entirely possible that Breaking Bad’s writing staff disagrees with me on this one!)

Which is why I suspect that anyone wanting Walt to end up either wholly redeemed or resoundingly damned will end up disappointed. Maybe Heisenberg is dead, in the sense that Heisenberg never existed as more than a figure of speech to begin with. Walter White, no more than any of us, does not have a good guy and a bad guy in his head striving for victory. His love and his hate, the good intentions he once had and the unspeakably horrible acts he’s committed–it’s all Walt. It always was.

32 comments
CathyCreswell
CathyCreswell

Anyone familiar with the shows finale know how Walt would reply:


"I did it for.......ME"

walter72
walter72

History tells us that we're all capable of "evil". It comes down to culture -- where you're born and which virtues you prioritize. If, say, we were born into Viking culture, for example, and told all our lives that "real men" raid and pillage to provide for their families, and cowardice and weakness are abominations that will send you to hell, then there'd be a whole lot more killers in our society than there currently are. And keep in mind, our brain sizes haven't increased since medieval times. We're still the same people -- it's our culture that's ever-changing. In Viking society, a guy like Walter White would've been lauded, because they felt it was honorable to dominant your rivals, and reprehensible to be dominated by them. And, to put it lightly, Walter prioritized strength over all other virtues -- i.e. might is right. 

So, it's all subjective -- concepts such as "right and wrong" and "good and evil" are totally dependent on how a culture sees the world, and, more specifically, how it feels about death. Vikings embraced death, so they didn't think it was that big of a deal to murder people. The standard of living was lower, so life wasn't worth as much to them. Yet, our modern culture, on the other hand, absolutely abhors death, largely because the standard of living is so high (i.e. murder victims are "robbed of their lives", whereas Viking murder victims were robbed of their chance to die of plague or typhus) so far fewer people will relate to a guy who prioritizes strength over compassion. Our culture calls it "barbarism". 

FreddySanford
FreddySanford

My God how can you have an article about good vs evil and make no mention whatsoever of original sin? We're all born into sin. There's only one way out of our predicament. Walt didn't find it.  


You can't write an original story. There's only one story and it's been written. All other stories are just copies with slight permutations. "Only the names have been changed"

JerilynNighy
JerilynNighy

"unsettling vehemence of some Team Walt..."  Oh, get off it.  There is no harm in rooting for a fictional character.  He is the protagonist of the show.  Anyone who reads Crime and Punishment would probably root for Raskolnikov.

herrbrahms
herrbrahms

***** for this writeup.  Finally we have a columnist who thoroughly gets who Walter White is.  Walt has become morally compromised; he's done terrible things, but in his center he is the same person whom we met at his 50th birthday party in the pilot.

There are no entirely good or bad people in life, just as in this show.  If you want to put Holly on one end and Todd on the other, there is a continuum.  I see it like this:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Holly, Steve Gomez, Andrea and Brock are all very decent people.

Walter Jr. occasionally slants his stories with lies; Gale Boetticher cooks meth for money but couldn't be more harmless otherwise.

Jesse's parents think they're doing their best, but in fact they are poor listeners and poor parents.  I fear their younger son Jake is headed down much the same road as Jesse.

Elliott and Gretchen tried to do right by Walt in the end, but it's likely that they bear at least some of the blame for the falling out that led to Walt's resentment.

Hank is a racist bully who nevertheless has strong convictions and stands up for them; Marie is a kleptomaniac busybody but also a supportive sister and spouse---when it suits her.

Skinny Pete, Badger and Combo are trying to make their ways in the criminal world because it's all they're good at.  Jesse would still be bumming around with them (or buried by Emilio) had Walter not picked him for this project.

Jane is a recovering addict trying to live on the straight and narrow, but she extorts Walt without the slightest hesitation.  Ted Beneke is an ungrateful tax cheat in the guise of doing it for his family.

Saul, Huell and Kuby will commit all manner of lesser crimes to get their way, but they have a marked distaste for violence.  

Jesse is uniquely tortured by his crimes, but that doesn't excuse murder.  But he has certainly paid his share at this point.  Likewise, Skyler didn't ask for this, but she is quite willing to off Jesse and rationalize it.

Walter White kills in self-defense or self interest--- the notable exception being his second degree murder of Mike.  Walt honestly believes that he's doing it for his family, even if he's deluding himself.  Mike kills for hire but loves his family just as Walter does.

Gus Fring routinely kills to maintain power, but never for thrill.  He has a realist's view of his business.  He shares a businesslike sentiment with Lydia.

Jack Welker is a leader of a hate group, thinks nothing of murder, theft or betrayal, but has a soft spot for family.  Emilio and Krazy-8 seem to be at about the same level.

Hector & Tuco Salamanca are needlessly vicious for their own enjoyment, as are the cousins.

And finally we get to Todd, who soullessly takes lives without the slightest rise in his pulse.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

jamespdlynn
jamespdlynn

This is why Breaking Bad resonates so much more for me than a show like the Sopranos. I never cared deeply about any of the characters in the Sopranos; it was like watching, as this writer describes, a zoo of violent, immoral (albeit interesting) animals. The characters on Breaking Bad are different. Walt began as a mostly good man, and even at this point in the series, he still shows rare moments of sympathy and goodness. So although he now is as evil or worse a man than Tony Soprano ever was, I still find myself at times rooting for Walt and hoping for his moment of redemption (though I'm starting to doubt more and more that moment will ever come).

I think it speaks to writing of the show, that viewers are using the same arguments as Walt does in order to justify his actions. People like things to be black or white, not the shades of gray as they usually are. That's why there's such as a strong desire to label Walt as either inherently good or inherently bad.  He is too much of a complex character to be broken down in that manner though, and that is what make him, along with the show as a whole, so compelling.

seanmiskell
seanmiskell

In the very first episode of the show, Walt is talking to his class about how at its root, chemistry is a theory of change, which also serves as a short description of the show itself. In the second episode, "The Cat is in the Bag," Walt talks to his class about chirality, or mirror images in chemistry. Walk likens this duality to the relationship between the right hand and the left hand. This seems to suggest that both Walt and Heisenberg are dualistic elements of the same person. Both are always there, but are more manifest at different times (hence how Walt's phone conversation with Skyler in "Ozymandias" could be both playing to the cops and coming from real emotions). 

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

PLEASE, next time you post something about Heisenberg, don't use it in a headline unless you're writing a science article.

shara_says
shara_says

Wonderful post.  I am sending this around to my family, who have been enmeshed in an extended Team Walt vs Not Team Walt (and my dad is apparently Team Todd as well now). 

BillyMozart
BillyMozart

 "No, we’re not all Walter White. Most of us would never do what he did even in his circumstances"

 I think an interesting corollary to this question is, would most of us never do that because we're morally better, or because we wouldn't have the guts?  Everyone thinks about doing mean vengeful things, self-serving things, hateful evil things - but don't because we're too inured to a very safe, middle class way of life.  That's what we thought of Walter White when we first saw him.  For instance, when someone pushes you on the subway, do you want to take back some of your pride, and if so, how far do you go?  If you've thought about it you've missed your chance already.  The criminals in The Wire were the way they were because they grew up rough, adapted their morality but more to the point the way they look at life.  Walter White is the ultimate question: given the opportunity could a meek individual, like most of us on the internet talking about Breaking Bad are, have the cojones to do something that bad and that badass?  Trying to pretend we'd all be innocent of Walter's choices because we're better?  No, we've traded in the evil AND the courageous parts of ourselves for the muted safety of the suburbs.

DanBruce
DanBruce

Uncertainty about Heisenberg is to be expected.

JillianBrady
JillianBrady

The Dualistic self is an interesting subject to explore--very much in keeping with Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf.   All us are dualistic to certain extent--we may be exchanging pleasantries with a person we don't much care for while smiling on the outside and sneering in the inside.  I like this piece very much--very thought provoking.  I agree that reducing Walter to either good guy or bad guy is a mistake.  There are no absolutes.  Vince Gilligan plays with color imagery--Pinkman as in pink (the result of mixing white (as in Walter) with red (as in blood).  Then there is Marie's obsession with purple (blue mixed with red).  This conveys a sense that blood must be spilled in order to attain wealth and power, The name Skyler conveys an idea of pristine blue, as in sky.  Walter seeks to capture the color of the blue sky with the cooking of his crystal meth--it is something to strive for.  Then Elliot and Gretchen lie and say Walter had nothing to do with the brilliant ideas which gave birth to their very successful company.  They maintain that  the only thing Walt contributed was his last name.  They merged Black with White to produce Gray, hence Gray Matters.  Gray Matters is not just about the contents of the brain but how nothing is absolute in life, and certainly not in Breaking Bad.  Black and white thinking is not applicable here--Breaking Bad is about the blurring of the lines.  Anyway, what a great and thought provoking piece.

commentonitall
commentonitall

Heisenberg is the pragmatic sociopath within us all.  The part of us that has an unfair act done to us and a response we want to give or have but can't.  Heisenberg represents the basic animal within us all, the fight or flight response at it's most primal and most brutal base.  Breaking Bad represents why it is we should not and cannot have the Heisenberg response if we want to have any type of happiness (unless you are a true sociopath, but now isn't that why the world is the way it is.)  So in the end is Walt a bad person, yes.  Does he have some good in him, yes.  Is he only human, absolutely.  We have all wanted to take the path Walt took, but have had the better sense not to.  I think that is the reason Walt / Heisenberg has resonated with so many people.  He represents a calculated and cruel response to injustice in the universe, yet his very acts are that which cause injustice.  That is the real question that this persona brings, can injustice ever be dealt with in a just way?

KJatTOC
KJatTOC

I'd argue it the other way: Walt, the guy who at least did all of this nominally for his family, is dead--with Walt Jr. having ended any last hope that his family would ever again reciprocate his love.  All that's left is Heisenberg--the guy who operates out of pride and a thirst for power.  The Charlie Rose segment retriggered that piece of his personality, and who the heck knows what he does when he's operating off pure ego, rather than calculated profit.

But, in the end, I agree with the duality angle.  It's just that the slope between the two ends of the spectrum is so slippery.

WendyVodolaCahill
WendyVodolaCahill

@walter72 I feel we should all have another glass of wine and accept the fact that Breaking Bad was a great show.

I recently just saw the the last episode and I have to say I will miss it.

jjsec.

CathyCreswell
CathyCreswell

@FreddySanford Not everyone subscribes to that belief. Surely triceratops and Tikalit the fish were not born into a sinful world? Chaos, yes. Eat, be eaten, survive, yet have social responsibilities that impact all other life. That is how I think.

CathyCreswell
CathyCreswell

@JerilynNighy It's the "Walt is awesome", "Skylar is a bitch" view the author is referring to. They root for one, and hate another character with hidden internal motives that stem from real life feelings about the opposite sex.

CathyCreswell
CathyCreswell

@herrbrahms Todd truly terrifies me. As Jesse described him:


" He's got Opies looks and down home niceness, but he blew that poor kid away without a flinch."   Todd smiles at the description, feeling well defined like it's a compliment.

JerilynNighy
JerilynNighy

@herrbrahms You forgot Hank is a cop who does extra-legal investigating, and nearly kills Jesse with his fists.  Jr. is also greedy for that flash car.

MattRossi
MattRossi

@jamespdlynn You are insane if you've watched the entire Soprano's series and found the characters therein to be violent, albeit interesting, zoo animals. Both of these shows are phenomenally written, and top of their class. To say that Walt is somehow more complex than Tony Soprano is to show great disrespect to one of the greatest fictional characters ever conceived. Both are great and complex, but there is absolutely no argument to be made about who is more so: Tony Soprano. Walt was always a fairly concrete character; his change was from one diametric pole to another, and every step along the way was well documented by every episode. Tony Soprano was nebulous, contradictory, and enigmatic; his moral coordinates were every bit as uncertain as Heisenberg's-namesake principle, and almost certainly more than his analogue, Walter White. Breaking Bad was always a more rigid and finite show, The Soprano's was amorphous, imprecise, and challenging. Both challenged the viewer to gauge and weigh their moral underpinnings, but The Soprano's was clearly more serene and conceptual. That said, Breaking Bad is one of the greatest artistic drama's of all time. I'd say Tony Soprano and Walter White would be Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on the Mount Rushmore of all-time greatest television-dramatic Actors. Cheers!

smather2175
smather2175

@seanmiskell Actually he said it was a theory of transformation but you were close enough. Although, 'transformation' seems to have deeper meanings than simply 'change.' I know, it's picky. Sorry.

vrcplou
vrcplou

@shara_says Gotta draw the line at Team Todd, lol!  Although he is polite; he always apologizes before he puts one in the back of your head.

vrcplou
vrcplou

@BillyMozart This is why I've always been pro-Walt even with the Very Bad Things he's done.  He started out this meek character, pushed around by his wife, his brother-in-law, by life.  He's finally grabbed his life, claimed it, owned it and become fully himself.  Didn't work out exactly as planned but I have to admire someone who truly takes the reins of their life.

vrcplou
vrcplou

@KJatTOC I agree - I think Walt died when Hank got shot and now all that drives him is that desire to claim what is his, what he rightfully deserves and to wreak vengence on those who have thwarted him (beware Jesse!).  But I think Walt is like most people, morally flexible.  But he made the mistake of thinking he could "break bad" without consequence.  All those actions had repercussions and reactions and he just got led further and further down the path.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions - it's not a saying for nothing.