The Other Heisenberg’s Principle: Be the one who knocks
I think that I like Walter White more than any other single character on television since Fox Mulder. And strange as it may sound, the person I have come to admire most on Breaking Bad is Walt’s alter-ego: Heisenberg.
For those who haven’t seen the series (and shame on you all) and those without my nerdy obsession or recall, here’s what you should know. Walter White is a high school science teacher, a brilliant chemist and former start-up guy who was cheated out of a fortune for a company whose technology he co-created.
Walter has settled, he’s made his piece with mediocrity. He has a wife and and son whom he loves, a baby on the way and is mostly content. That is, until he discovers that he has terminal cancer and has no way to provide for he family once he dies. In a strange twist of fate he returns to entrepreneurship in the most unlikely of ways when he reconnects with a n’er do well former student who is now a meth dealer.
The show, created by Vince Gilligan, is brilliant and unique in television history. I once read that it was the only top rated show ever whose top ratings came from neither its audiences in New York or L.A., but from the middle of the country where its story is set. And Bryan Cranston, who plays Walt, has created what I think can be argued is television’s most rich and nuanced character, ever. Period.
For my money, the most important scene in the series is Episode 6 of Season 4, “Cornered.” The scene has become identified with its most pivotal line: “I am the one who knocks.”
In this crucial scene, Walt, who has told his wife Skylar about his criminal life, finally comes out to her completely. He makes it clear to her that the weak and meek man she used to know, Walt, has been replaced by the powerful, confident and successful man he has become: Heisenberg.
What happens in this scene is crucially important, because it is the moment where Walter White is completely eclipsed by Heisenberg. For much of the show, Walt deals with a constant conflict between the necessity that he be Heisenberg, while still trying to remain attached to his old life and identity as Walt.
When Walt tells Skylar, “I am the danger” he is coming completely into his consciousness of his power. And he is not remotely sorry to claim it. If there were any doubt about the completeness of Walt’s transformation it is put to rest in a scene in Season 5, that you can easily find on YouTube simply by searching the words, “say my name.”
Now, it’s easy to be reductive about Walt and there are certainly many reasons to see Breaking Bad as a kind of 21st century Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But I think that kind of moral oversimplification fails to explain the story’s central arc, which is about the rise of the creative power of a man from dormancy and, literal, near death.
Of course, the condition of Walt’s cancer, its death threat, makes him a man in extremis. But rather than resignation, depression or collapse, Walt wakes up. Rather than slink off into the desert, Walt rises like a phoenix out of a strange green cloud of meth production. And then he chooses the name Heisenberg as his nom de guerre, the name, not of a chemist, but of one of the world’s most famous physicists. Werner Heisenberg was one of the architects of quantum theory and his most important legacy is his “uncertainty principle” So what are we to make of the fact that Walt’s alter-ego is a cipher for the fundamental condition of uncertainty?
I said at the start that I admire Heisenberg. I admire him, not because he is better than Walt, but because he is Walt. He is the wildness in the superficially polite and meek Walter White, a surging energy, ready to lash out. As he tells Skyler, when he is trying to tell her that he is something more than the Walter she knows: he is the danger. Heisenberg is the man in Walt who is ready to face anything, who welcomes the uncertainty, who recognizes it for what it is…an opportunity for transformation.
The transformation of Walter White is an admonition to those of us who have accepted the death sentence of a world we don’t and can’t control. And Heisenberg’s challenge to us is to meet our fear: “What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.”
Fear in the face of uncertainty is just a futile capitulation to a future that coming whether you like it or not. But if you want to face the future, then follow the other Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: be the one who knocks.