Tuned In

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.

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.