Robber Barons and Meth Empires: Heisenberg and the American Dream

At its most basic level, Breaking Bad is a show about capitalism — that omnipotent economic system which revolves around the pursuit of profits. The broader forces at play within the distinct American brand of capitalism — particularly the need to make enough money to be able to afford decent health care — functions as the spark that ignites Walter’s transformation from a middle-class teacher struggling to make ends meet into a wealthy CEO of a methamphetamine empire. Further, as the show progresses, his character radically evolves over the course of his accumulation of wealth.

Not so coincidentally, Walter’s ascent up the ladder of social class aligns with his gradual development of, and eventual transition to, his alter-ego Heisenberg. In this regard, we can interpret the Heisenberg persona as a broader representation for the dominant class — the bourgeoise — in the social hierarchy of capitalist society. Such a reading of Breaking Bad offers us an interesting insight not only into Walter White’s character development, but also into the very nature of capitalism and what it means to be in the kind of powerful position Walter commands.

My goal in this essay will be to demonstrate that we should interpret the Heisenberg persona as a very gritty, cynical and realistic portrayal of the American dream: the promise of social mobility which is afforded to anyone willing to work hard (or so the fairy tale goes). In particular, I will make the case that Heisenberg does not represent a deficiency of Walter’s character, but rather that it is the necessary and inevitable result of the capitalist mode of production.

The story of Heisenberg has its roots in the very first episode of Breaking Bad. In the beginning, Walter and his family are portrayed to the audience as a middle-class family struggling to make ends meet. And as if financial worries weren’t enough, the audience soon learns that Walter has lung cancer. Accepting his cancer as a death sentence, he decides to use what little time he has left (as far as he knows at this point in the show, anyways) to cook methamphetamines.

His desire to enter the black market is a purely pragmatic one. It arises out of a desire to provide for his family. At this point in the series, Walter does not plan to make a career out of cooking crystal. Whether it be from his cancer or of his own choosing, Walter plans on using the black market as a temporary stint. This is apparent in Episode 1 of Season Two, “Seven Thirty-Seven”. After selling Tuco a large quantity of meth, Walt does some back-of-the-envelope style calculations in his head to determine how much money he wants to make before quitting. “Seven thirty-seven… seven hundred and 30 thousand dollars, that’s what I need. That is what I need. You and I both clear 70 grand a week, that’s only 10 and a half more weeks, call it 11. Eleven more drug deals is all we need…”

However, as both Walt and Jesse eventually learn, there is no end to the dealing. Another situation, another problem, another blood-thirsty drug dealer always pops up, forcing the duo to keep cooking. One might view these series of coincidences as plot devices used by Vince Gilligan to keep the story moving, to allow the progression of the plot. And while that might be true to a certain extent, it’s more true that their inability to leave “the game” is indicative of a larger phenomena within capitalist economy. In other words, Walter and Jesse’s constant failures at quitting their careers as meth cooks aren’t so much a result of their personal choices as it is the inner dynamics of capitalism.

Karl Marx had much to say about capitalism, and it is through his ideas that we can gain a better understanding of a deep connection between the plot of Breaking Bad and capitalism. In Volume 2 of his groundbreaking work Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Marx writes that, “[Capitalism] is a movement, a circulatory process through different stages … hence it can only be grasped as a movement, and not as a static thing.” One of the stages he is talking about is referred to as the “circuit of production.” In this stage of capital motion, the various forms of productive capital (for example factories, construction equipment, etc) take raw materials and human labor, and convert those things into money. This newly acquired money is then used to acquire more of the same capital goods, and the cycle begins anew. Marx refers to this phenomena as the reproduction of capital. The end result of the production process is simultaneously the beginning. It is in this sense which Marx claims that capital — and thus the capitalist system as a whole — inherently ensures and facilitates its reproduction, like an amoeba which creates two identical amoebas from one.

In the production process of methamphetamine, there are many necessary ingredients and equipment which the audience becomes all too familiar with. Pseudophedrine, methylamine, Bunson burners, centrifuges, Erlenmeyer flasks, and red phosphorus to name only a few. However, what makes Walter so important to that process is because he owns the most valuable commodity of them all — the ability to cook, or as Marx would call it, their labor-power. Anyone with the right connections and deep pockets can get their hands on all of the concrete, material ingredients to cook. But it takes a very talented and particular kind of person, a highly educated person with a vast knowledge of chemistry, to be able to take all of those resources and combine them into the valuable blue glass. Therefore Walter and Jesse, as the only two people with such knowledge (which they go to great lengths to ensure remains the case), occupy a critically important point within the circuit of production.

While it is true that his ability to cook affords him great privilege, he still resides within the productive circuit of capital as mere elements. The capitalist black market, as a part of system which reproduces itself, needs Walter’s labor-power. Walt himself says it best to Skyler in his I Am the Danger monologue: “Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me.” Therefore, the dynamics of capitalism, regardless of whether Walter or Tuco or Gus are in charge of the business, will go to whatever lengths necessary to ensure that Walter keeps on cooking. Thus, while it may be true that Walt chose to start cooking, the fact that he cannot escape the iron will of the invisible hand is no fault of his own. That’s just capitalism working exactly as it should.

Both Walter and Jesse come to this realization over the progression of the show. And while both of them become quite aware of it, their reactions to this realization are quite different. Jesse, as an idealistic youth, clings on to the naïve hope that sooner or later, his opportunity to escape will come. And, in fact, eventually it does when Mike and Jesse decide to sell their 1/3 share of the methylamine supply. But since this is an essay about Heisenberg, I will save commentary on Jesse’s reaction for a different time. Instead I will focus on Walter’s reaction.

Whereas Jesse clings on to the hope of escape, Walter embraces the futility of retreat and accepts his inability to change the situation with open arms, much like how he accepted his death sentence of cancer. And it is precisely through accepting the fate handed to him by capitalism that Walter evolves into the infamous Heisenberg. He realizes that the meth market needs his labor, just as much as Walter needs the market to pay his bills. However, as the show progresses Walter becomes aware that as a laborer, always subordinate to some kind of drug lord, he inhabits a position which grants him less power and authority. Even though he might be an extremely well-paid worker, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a worker. And so out of a desire to liberate himself from the subordination inherent in the workplace, Walt seeks to ascend the throne and become the top dog.

In his quest to be the boss, Walter resorts to drastic measures. He poisons a young child, organizes the synchronized murders of potential snitches, and directly murders the likes of Gus and Mike all out of a desire to attain — and maintain — his position of power. There are no moral depths to which Walter will not sink in order to keep bringing in the profits. This distinctly capitalist brand of nihilism strongly parallels the sense of ethical duty which is completely absent from contemporary capitalism in the real world. When garment factories in Bangladesh burn down, taking the lives of hundreds of workers with them, the market doesn’t even do so much as pause to consider the implications of the profit system that motivates those factories to skimp out on safety precautions. Accumulation must occur by any means necessary, and if that means unsafe working conditions for millions of workers in the third world, then so be it! As they say in Dune, “the spice must flow.”

Although it is certainly true that the inner machinations of capitalism that lead to such reprehensible atrocities are outside the control of any one single capitalist, it is also quite true that only a certain kind of person can fulfill this social role. Most people, if they came to the realization that their companies carelessness was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of employees, would lose sleep over the intense guilt they would experience; and rightly so! Only a truly cold-blooded sociopath could do such a thing for a living and think nothing of it. Yet it is this cold, emotionless, and detached rationality that helps to define Walter’s Heisenberg persona.

As we have established, sociopathy is practically a prerequisite to being a successful capitalist in the hyper-competitive drug market. It’s not that the dope lord takes pleasure in such cruelty, but rather that such cruelty is necessary to overcome the various barriers to accumulation. Human empathy is simply another obstacle to be demolished, another challenge to be overcome, in the endless pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. Yet in popular American culture, it is the CEO — the very same capitalist who must necessarily exhibit this morally reprehensible kind of behavior — who is deified and praised above all others! The one-percent is constantly exalted by the popular media as “job creators,” as creative, dynamic, entrepreneurial, and as a positive contributor to society as a whole. Although they’re never the ones with boots on the ground doing the actual labor that makes the economy run, they nonetheless take all the credit because their “leadership” and “excellence” have propelled them to such success. And because of their “excellence,” the bourgeois are deserving of their immense profits.

Whether it be in the news, in television, in film, or elsewhere, the CEO is commonly deified as the pinnacle of success; as a kind of role-model we should strive to be. In fact, the entire concept of the American Dream — that idealistic fantasy of personal success and hard work being rewarded with material wealth — is based on the assumption that we should all aspire to be like the one percent; hard-working, entrepeneurial, business-savvy, helpful, and dynamic. But the reality of the situation is that the bourgeoise are none of those things.

What the Heisenberg persona shows us is a more realistic version of the one-percent. Just like the CEO’s of Wal-Mart and Apple, Heisenberg is a perfectly rational individual, making all his decisions according to the calculus of supply and demand, the algebra of profits. Human lives are just another value to be plugged into an equation; a mere value to be considered in maximizing profits according to the computational algorithms of business. If it saves more money, or generates enough profits, then these lives are expendable. Heisenberg’s ruthlessness strongly mimics the complete lack of empathy held by corporations and their leaders. Rather than turning to the ideological pipe-dreams of the bourgeoise as “job creators,” we should instead look to the example of Heisenberg to gain insight into their true nature.

With that said, it necessarily follows that Heisenberg is not a persona unique to Walter. Heisenberg lives on inside the souls of every entrepreneur, every CEO, every business leader in the capitalist world. This isn’t due to a personality flaw, or an ethical defect, or anything else personal. Ironically enough, the anti-social Heisenberg persona is a result of the particular form in which capitalist social relationships manifest themselves. In other words, Heisenberg is a result of social forces outside of Walter’s — or anyone else, for that matters — control. The fundamental laws governing capitalism necessitate that Heisenberg, a person willing to compromise any sense of ethics in the blind pursuit of accumulation, exists. Heisenberg therefore isn’t an inherent personal trait belonging to any single person. Rather, it is a social role, a necessary by-product of the capitalist system. As long as we live under capitalism, therefore, there will always be Heisenbergs. That’s because at the end of the day, Heisenberg is capitalism personified.

Benjamin Riley is a Melbourne-based writer interested in politics, gender and pop culture, and how they inform each other. He is the Victorian journalist for Australian LGBTI newspaper Star Observer in-between indulging his passions for karaoke, linguistics and video games. Follow him on Twitter @bencriley

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.