From the moment I first stumbled onto an episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, I knew it was set in Albuquerque (and I’m excited to see that the prequel, Better Call Saul, is also set in this David Lynchian fever-dream of a city). The first shot I ever saw of this groundbreaking, masterpiece of television was Walter White’s house. I’ll always remember that dumpy, 1960s ranch with a gravel yard on a dull little cul-de-sac. For me, this house is as iconic of Albuquerque as a California Bungalow would be of Pasadena, or an elegant brownstone would be of New York. While many imagine The Land of Enchantment as a sea of adobes and tasteful Mediterranean clay shingles, the Albuquerque I remember (as someone who called the city “home” in the early 90s) was also this Albuquerque, a land of hastily-built suburban homes with mustard carpet and little pools in the backyards that were more trouble to maintain than they were worth.
My most recent trip to Albuquerque was in late 2013, in October, during the Balloon Fiesta. I was there to investigate Albuquerque’s nuclear history as part of a project for a class on the rhetoric of National Security. This also happened to be the week that Walter White died. His obituary was in the paper. No, Really. As a fan of the show, the trip was almost as much about paying my respects to Walter and the city he came to rule over as it was a trip to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the two stories- the story of America’s nuclear development, and the story of a scientist who chooses to Break Bad and use his intellect for the forces of evil- were closely related.
There are two big metaphors I find most intriguing in the show, which apply to the nature of nuclear science and America’s nuclear narrative. First, there is the metaphor of cancer. Cancer is a disease of unchecked growth, and can be both caused by and treated with radiation. Cancerous cells deplete the body’s resources, for growth that is diseased and uncontrolled, rather than generative and normal. Second, there is the metaphor of the chain reaction. A simple trigger is all that is needed to take an object at rest and set off a series of events that can have the most unintended of consequences.
Walter begins the series as an object at rest. His massive potential energy is contained in an inert identity as a teacher, father, underpaid public servant. Then, there is cancer. Then, there is the understanding of his own half-life, of the life rapidly retreating from his body. Then, there is radiation. His own body becomes a site of decay, the constant fight against metastatic growth, a cycle of cancer and cancer treatment that started (most likely) with either Walter’s exposure to radioactive chemicals in his work or simply with contact with Albuquerque’s contaminated landscape, and cycles back to his treatment with radiation in a desperate attempt to live.
But as is the case with some radioactive elements, the decay actually transforms Walter into something utterly different. He becomes Heisenberg, an elementally different version of himself.
Walter does not choose the name of our culture’s more recognized, American nuclear physicist, Robert Oppenheimer. Instead, he chooses the name of the man who presented a lecture to officials of the Third Reich theorizing nuclear fission, which got the Nazis as close as they’d ever come to building a nuclear weapon (Notably, though, it wasn’t close enough for an American assassin, sent with a gun to one of Heisenberg’s lectures, to decide to pull the trigger). Some of Heisenberg’s calculations were later proven wrong, and he was characterized by some as a man who could have built a bomb, but chose to develop nuclear power instead. Others say he was purposefully throwing the match, keeping the bomb just out of hand’s reach for the Third Reich. Heisenberg’s motivations, like his most significant scientific contribution, were quantum: uncertain, ambiguous, difficult to fully observe.
By contrast, repentant Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita upon detonation of the Trinity test (about a two and a half hour drive from Albuquerque): “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Melancholy, tormented Oppenheimer devoted much of his later life to attempts to control the use of his scientific discoveries. Heisenberg, on the other hand, maintained his cool veneer of scientific detachment, seeming to adhere to the narrative that the pure, empirical science was his guiding force, and whatever purposes humans, nations and leaders found for the science were their own moral prerogative.
Walter must have had Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in mind when he took his name. The principal holds that the more precisely a particle’s location is determined, the more difficult it is to calculate its momentum. Similarly, as we learn one element of Walter’s moral standpoint, it becomes less certain what his next move could be. It is never clear whether Walter is conducting himself with a set of morals at all, or a moral code of his own design, or for the good or detriment of anyone around him. He poisons a child (but non-lethally). He brutalizes his wife (as a ploy to protect her?). He alienates Jesse (for his own protection? Or for Walter’s own gain?). Is Walter good or bad? What are his motivations? It depends on how you look at it. Or if you look at it at all.
Ultimately, the end result of both the discovery of nuclear firepower and the end game of Walter’s meth empire are similar. Neither the nuclear bomb nor Walter’s vast cash stores can be put to practical use. Both the bomb and Walter’s meth business start as morally questionable means rationalized by their potential ends: the end of the war, the funds needed to sustain the family of a dying man. But at some point, both grew past that horizon. Into an arsenal of weapons we don’t use. A storage room full of money that can’t be spent. And fallout, everywhere you look. The consequences of these scientific endeavors are horrible, almost too horrible to fully imagine. The end users of Walter’s product are not very visible in the Breaking Bad narrative, so it can only be guessed how many people he’s hooked, how many will die, how many children will be neglected by addicted parents. The bomb and the meth represent scientific ego and power gone cancerous, grown beyond its capacity to contribute to a common good.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is featured in a handful of Breaking Bad episodes. Enshrined within its walls are discussions of the evils of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the terrifying near misses of Broken Arrow incidents, the paranoid artifacts of Cold War preparedness culture. It is a narrative of the heights of human imagination, the most profound accomplishments in the ongoing quest to understand the way the physical world works. And it is a timeline of human failings, misunderstandings, abject fear and petty disputes. And so is Breaking Bad. It is a story of the corrupting properties of power, the proper use of great human potential, and the unforeseen consequences of human endeavors. But more than anything, it’s about the ways human beings justify their own horrific behaviors under the guise of calm, intelligent rationality.