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I Am the Danger: The Death of Walt and the Rise of Heisenberg

Photo: Gregory Peters/AMC

People ask Bryan Cranston where the "rise" of sinister alter-ego Heisenberg comes from. He says from the first episode, when he tried to be someone else. Yet the dark truths of his journey downhill reveal so much more.

"Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S" -- that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears -- the glasses, the business suit -- that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us."

-- Bill (David Carradine), Kill Bill, Vol. 2

At they make their first, tentative steps on the road to domination of the south western meth trade, Jesse Pinkman, displaying some of the caution that is an essential asset of the business, has a question for his new partner; "Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what -- 60? He's just gonna break bad?" We'll give Pinkman a pass on the insults because it's not an unreasonable question. The dowdy put-upon 50 year-old high school teacher Walter White who, yes, does have a giant stick up his ass, isn't the typical entrant into the drug game. You'd question him too. Like Jesse, you'd want to know if he was depressed or crazy and if he isn't either of those things then what is he?

"I am awake," he replies.

Siddhartha is reputed to have answered with the same words after rising from his bodhi tree. Awake. Reborn. Enlightened? OK, so White is no Buddha, but the line does suggest a kind of emergence, a new consciousness that had hitherto been hidden from view. It takes a little while for it to develop in full, but it is so distinct from the ordinary Walter that, even at this early stage, it's convenient to give it a label. Let's call it Heisenberg.

The power of Bryan Cranston's performance is in his portrayal of these two personae who manage to be completely different while inhabiting the same body. The behavioral contrast recalls Christopher Reeve's performances as Superman/Clark Kent. Heisenberg is sharp, decisive and demanding, Walter is bumbling, awkward and uncertain. Just listen to the number of times he leaves requests hanging in the air. "Mind if I...?" "Can I just...?" He's embarrassed to even be asking the question. Heisenberg, on the other hand, seizes attention. He's more imperative than interrogative. Out in the desert, miles from safety he confronts an angry rival and proposes, no, demands collaboration. "Say my name," he commands. "Heisenberg," comes the reply. "You're god damn right."

The first flicker of the emerging Heisenberg comes much sooner, not in the manufacture of drugs, which is, after all, "only chemistry" -- even Walter can do that. Walter. -- but in the killing of Krazy-8. Taking two episodes, it is, even in the era of 60-hour drama, an exceedingly drawn out event. The drama comes not so much from the moment of murder, but from Walter wrestling with his conscience, or rather, Walter wrestling with Heisenberg. Such grappling dominates the character for the remainder of the run.

It's starts off fairly amusingly. As a rational man of science, he rather sweetly insists on making a list of the pros and cons of going through with it. A line bisects the paper, signifying the duality at play here. On the left hand side are the reasons not to let him live. Right hand side: reasons why he should kill him. Walter is still the dominant personality at this stage and naturally begins with the reasons not to.

He lists all sorts of reasons, including the hope that "he may listen to reason," but most of them have an ethical flavor. His very first item is telling. "It's the moral thing to do." His primary concern is for right and wrong, independent of the circumstances. Not killing someone is the moral thing to do.

Walter comes up with four or five more reasons not to kill Krazy-8 before examining the reasons he has to. He makes a single entry. "He'll kill your entire family." The perfect distillation of the personalities. Left and Right hemispheres. Morality vs Pragmatism. Walter vs Heisenberg.

His excellence as a chemist is beyond question. His ruthlessness as a drug baron emerges as a necessary corollary of it. It is all expediency and it is Heisenberg, the pragmatist, that drives it. In "Over", after Skinny Pete is robbed, it is Walter who insists that Jesse "deals with it." He immediately understands the value of reputation in a business that lacks the protection of the law. The retention of reputation is expedient. By "Gliding Over All", there is no question that every loose end must be dealt with. We see him learn the necessities across the series, whether aggressively demanding that rival cooking crews stay out of his territory, giving the DEA the runaround or concocting ever more complicated schemes for accounting for the vast sums of money flowing his way, Walter comes ever more to rely on Heisenberg. Not merely an agent of necessity, Heisenberg is born of it.

If you're looking for something to mark the extent of Heisenberg's growth, the obvious comparison is between the agonized decision-making over the killing of Krazy-8 with his relatively easy call to ice the nine potential informants left by the collapse of the Fring operation. Of course Walter doesn't have to get his hands dirty in these latter cases. It has the dispassionate remoteness of a drone attack rather than the proximate brutality of single combat.

However, it's a long journey from protagonist to antagonist and for all the agonies of his birth, Heisenberg didn't just come from out of nowhere. He appears, even if only as trace elements, from the outset. At his first on-screen meeting with Jesse, it is Walter who sets the terms, and who is unafraid to issue ultimatums to get what he wants. He's not above poleaxing some guy who mocks his son in the store and he's immediately cognizant of the financial possibilities that methamphetamine manufacture offers. Oh yeah, let's also not forget that cooking was Walter's idea in the first place.

As for the why:

"Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn't intend. My 15-year old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable. And within 18 months, I will be dead."

There's a recognizable reflex here. Who can say at 50 that their life turned out at least half as good as they wanted it to? At 40? 30? Those dreams we had as youngsters of being rock stars or millionaires or highly successful pharmaceutical entrepreneurs fade away and leave us with the resentment of what might have been. It can't have escaped Walter's attention, as he hosed down all those cars at Bogdan's car wash, that he was operating several clicks beneath his true potential. Overqualified and underpaid, Walter White was a pathetic spectator of everyone else's happiness. Was this really the life he had promised himself? He was better than that, surely? It was humiliating.

Walter is a prideful man. He refuses the genuine help of old friends, even in the face of death. Just listen to the way he spits out the word "charity," as if the very taste of it is poisonous to his palate. He would literally rather die than submit to the humiliation of accepting help. If Walter is a tragic figure, and wherever our sympathies lie, he is, this is his fatal flaw. It's also Heisenberg's defining characteristic. Heisenberg emerges as the twisted result of decades of resentment. Walter's cancer diagnosis is the catalyst, but his resentment is the active ingredient. Put another way, necessity forced Heisenberg's first appearance but it is pride that sustains him as a character. It will also be his downfall.

Walter/Heisenberg's continued pursuit of the meth business is justified by his own sense of importance in it. Everyone remembers the line about being "the one who knocks," but he prefaces it with the point that the organization which depends totally on him, is big enough to be "listed on NASDAQ." His pride is not borne by the idea of being some fearsome badass who stalks the nightmares of Albuquerque's terrified drug dealers, his boast is of the value of the firm and his importance to it.

As his growing bodycount proves, Heisenberg becomes a monster through his ruthlessness, but the engine of this is his pride. Having walked away from Gray Matter, he has been denied the opportunity to excel in his work and so transfers his pride into his role as meth cook, boasting, as of "Say My Name" that he and Jesse are "the two greatest meth cooks in America." When Jesse says that he wants to walk away it is outside of Walter's understanding. He cannot grasp how anyone can be the best at something and not want to do it.

By this stage of course, Heisenberg is the dominant persona and Walter merely the mask. Having brought Skyler in on the scheme, he has to wear it less and less and only, in true Heisenberg style, when it is expedient for him to do so. That it is merely a disguise could not be any more apparent than when he appears in Hank's office, crying and broken, simply to distract the ASAC long enough to plant or remove a bug. Although he can adopt the expressions and mannerisms at will, the real Walter has long gone. There is no way back.

Yes, Heisenberg killed Walter, but it's all still Walter's fault. He had choices. He applied his skills in the pursuit of illegal activity when he could so easily have ploughed his talent into something legal and honorable, such as a weapons manufacturing or working for a patent-hoarding pharmaceutical company. On receiving his diagnosis he could have accepted the Schwartz's largesse. On receiving the all-clear, he could have made good on his word to Gus that he was out of the game. At that point, he didn't need the money any more. By his own admission, he already had more money than he knew how to spend. But then it was never about the money at all. It was about pride and identity. Walter Hartwell White just wanted to be somebody. Well now he is.

But that somebody is not Walter White.

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