"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Uncertainty Principle (and, of course, Breaking Bad)

a tale of two Heisenbergs...

when i was home a few days ago i started reading Copenhagen.
for some reason, it was just calling to me. i've had it on the shelf for years, one of the select books from college i kept around in arm's reach. i remember being assigned it as reading in one of my core classes (Natural Systems), but never read far before i abandoned it for something else (the only notes i made in the margin ended on page 5, with a blue box around the words "Uncertainty Principle" and "complementarity.")

well, i'd pretty  much forgotten anything and everything about the play until i picked it up and started reading it, and, perhaps due to my brimming obsession with Breaking Bad, have found it more interesting and relevant than before. reading it has made me wonder if perhaps Vince Gilligan was inspired, to some extent, by the work of Michael Frayn and the history of nuclear physics.

the play is nothing but an ongoing theoretical conversation between mentor Niels Bohr, his former student (and now rival physicist) Werner Heisenberg, and Bohr's wife cum secretary Margrethe. it takes place in some future time after all three have passed into the next life and involves a discussion of Heisenberg's (in)famous visit to Copenhagen, the true motives and results of which are unclear to historians and the scientific community. the three actors circle each other throughout the piece (as can be seen in the photo off the cover), as electrons inside an atom, mirroring the atomic physics at the center of their discussion, but also drawing attention to the relationships of individuals/elements to one another.

for people who watch Breaking Bad, this is what comes to mind when we hear "Heisenberg":

volatile, explosive, unpredictable. dangerous. seems to me that Vince Gilligan is very careful and methodical with how he created the world of Walt and Breaking Bad, and it seems unlikely that Walt choosing Heisenberg as his nom de guerre is not mere coincidence but part of Gilligan's elaborate plan.

some interesting overlaps and parallels:
1.  Heisenberg the physicist was recruited by Germany, becoming the youngest professor to work on quantum physics at the university where he began his career, later developing and contributing research to the Nazi regime's atomic bomb program (does this explain the Nazis in Breaking Bad? always thought they were an unexpected curveball at the end of the series)

2.  his mentor, Niels Bohr, was himself a prominent physicist and renowned for his work in nuclear physics, but due to German occupation in his home country of Denmark, was forced to escape extermination

3.  from Copenhagen, page 24:
Bohr talks about Heisenberg's recklessness (while skiing, but also how it reflects his approach to his scientific work): "At the speed you were going you were up against the uncertainty relationship... You never cared what got destroyed on the way, as long as the mathematics worked out you were satisfied."
H: "If something works it works."

4.  page 51, (talking about the arrival of the Allies and the end of the war) Heisenberg: "Under my control -- yes! That's the point! Under my control!"
Bohr: "Nothing was under anyone's control by that time!"

5.  page 74, H: "However we got there, by whatever combination of high principles and low calculation, of most painfully hard thought and most painfully childish tears, it works. It goes on working."

6.  page 75, Margrethe: "Your talent is for skiing too fast for anyone to see where you are. For always being in more than one position at a time, like one of your particles."

7.  page 94, Heisenberg: "Our children and our children's children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment... By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things."

and finally, these chilling words, written by Frayn, said by Heisenberg, shared by me with you on the eve of the series finale of Breaking Bad:

"I'm your enemy; I'm also your friend. I'm a danger to mankind; I'm also your guest. I'm a particle; I'm also a wave. We have one set of obligations to the world in general, and we have other sets, never to be reconciled, to our fellow-countrymen, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our family, to our children... All we can do is to look afterwards, and see what happened."
-Heisenberg (page 77-78)

happy Breaking Bad finale day, folks! i don't know if it's because it's the last day one of the best things to ever happen to television will be on the air, or the quickly disappearing summer and impending winter, or that it's the last day of my unemployment, but i am filled with a lingering sadness. i am going to miss this Sunday feeling so much.

Monday, September 16, 2013


so many thoughts on last night's mind-blowing, stomach-churning, fever-inducing episode of Breaking Bad. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!]

1.  the first is that BB is unarguably THE best show i have ever seen, or will possibly ever see. it has ruined TV for me. last week's episode began tickling at this suggestion; this week's episode firmly confirms it. all bow down to the crew of directors and writers and actors involved in making this masterpiece.

2.  how great was that opening shot? a close up on boiling water in a coffee pot -- that volatile state when water (calm, still, untainted and soothing) rapidly transforms, spurting, jumping, wailing, able to burn, sting, and scar -- and a key part to "cooking." we realize in that visual the ways in which the process of cooking is a greater and more appropriate metaphor than we had ever realized, illustrating the changes that have taken place in Walt, and foreshadowing the sudden reaction point the show's narrative will reach by the end of the episode ("Boiling is the rapid vaporization of a liquid, which occurs when a liquid is heated to its boiling point, the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid is equal to the pressure exerted on the liquid by the surrounding environmental pressure." -Wikipedia)

the image also made me recall Walt's clever use of a coffee maker to escape earlier in the series, a devasatating juxtaposition with what transpires in the next few minutes (no clean escapes here; Walt is stuck, once again in handcuffs, and forced to see the damage of his decisions, unable even to bargain for Hank's life -- the first time he is rendered utterly powerless in the show's history)... BB is great at developing the significance of recurring images... as in later in the episode when Walt's pants are rediscovered in the desert -- hilarious and brilliant, and a bit of a wink to fans of the show.

3.  Hank's last words to Walt are brief, typically Agent Schrader, and one of the few moments of courage we see in this episode (the others being Walt Jr.'s defense of his mom -- see below -- and later, Walt's phone call to Skyler -- theories on that in another post...): "You're one of the smartest people I've ever met. But you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago." Hank leaves us with the overarching moral of the story: Walt is someone who foolishly overestimates his own control over things, unable to see the inevitability of his destructive decisions. finally someone is able to point out the stupidity underlying Walt's illusions of glory and triumph.

4.  the flashback to Walt and Jesse's first cook is a good one, but not in the most obvious way. true, we witness Walt's "first lie to Skyler," and this is an innocent, more naive time, when Walt merely wanted to protect his family, soothe things over, mollify his pregnant wife with dreams of pizza.
*all images and screenshots taken from AMC's Story Sync*
but this is also an origin story for Heisenberg, whose noble intent was always the protection of his family, whose guiding mission and motivation was to provide for them -- from pizza, to Empire.

the image we see at the beginning of this episode of Walt is a vision from a happier time, which hurts all the more when later in the episode, Walt's one moral code -- don't hurt family -- is violently, perversely violated with the loss of Hank. and then later, when even Walt Jr. (whimpering as he defends Walt's reputation against his mom and his aunt) physically stands up to Walt in order to protect Skyler. this was a huge moment -- Walt standing back while his family cowers in fear of him, sobbing to himself, "But we're a family!"
does this look like a family to you?

the evolution of Walt has come full-circle, and the cruel contrast between the first and final seasons (or the terrifying notion that these two personas are, have always been, the same man) feels like a knife twisting in our stomachs, the two scenes acting as frames of reference for each other -- placating with pizza to a living room knife fight. look how far we've come.

this whole episode is a searing look into what Walt's passions and plans have wrought. even with his strategic care, his meticulousness, his ferocity (or perhaps because of them), he has managed to become, in the end, what he least wanted -- a disease on his family, their greatest fear, the source of the deepest, darkest pain and suffering of all.

and yet, what hurts the most for Walt is perhaps the realization that he is suddenly alone -- no, that he has always been alone. his family never wanted this -- pizza was once enough of a happy thought to unite the family -- but Walt set his sights on Empire, on greed ("what's with all the greed? it's unattractive" -Uncle Jack), and on his real priority: #1, his ego (or his id?), Heisenberg.

it's painfully clear, to Walt and to the audience, that he was always alone, that the thing he wanted the most was something he destroyed piece by piece with his own hands. the presumed marital bliss, the ease of a harmonious family life, the comfort of having a loved one on the phone -- these are things that will never be recovered. Walt is left with nothing, realizing he is unfit to take care of Holly, the only family member left who could maybe survive all of this without judgment of him, but who incessantly cries out for Skyler.
again, another recurring image: Holly being abducted by someone in the family.
contrast Walt's taking of Holly to Marie's attempted kidnapping (and Hank's talking her down), and Skyler's despair in reacting to both.
so the episode ends, with Walt being driven away, nothing left for him in the ABQ.

it was an episode befitting of its namesake, "Ozymandias," a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and which managed to bring the show full-circle. for those who missed it, one of the promos for Breaking Bad released over the summer showcased Bryan Cranston reading the poem in Heisenberg's snarling voice, while images of Albuquerque flash before the screen, ending with a shot of the infamous hat alone in a desert of swirling sand.

watching it will give you full-body chills as you realize just how perfect Breaking Bad is, right down to the shortest promo.

"Nothing beside remains..."

Monday, September 09, 2013

some brief opining on the magnificence of Breaking Bad

a scene from last night's S5E13, "To'hajiilee"

the greatest triumph of Breaking Bad is its inevitable tragedy.

despite the foreshadowing and the inescapable justice that awaits Walt (and possibly some other characters) at the end of this, the audience is spell-bound watching it unfold.

consider this: "To'hajiilee" is the first episode in possibly the entire series where the final 30 minutes were totally predictable, and yet, they were the most intense, excruciating minutes i've ever seen (in television and film). that was a ground-breaking moment in television -- when total expectation of what came next was still met with complete and utter stunned surprise. bravissimo!

a few more thoughts:  

a friend of mine theorized about the significance of Walt's name and his allegiance with the white supremacists (White = right/might). i don't really think there's much symbolic significance to that connection (too literal, in my opinion), but i've often wondered about the significance of the names -- White, Pinkman, and the non-color-related Goodman (a little literary irony, yes) -- and the use of color in the show. did you notice how Lydia wore such a vibrant, almost strident shade of blue in the scene with Todd at the lab? and then Walt wore a drabby cerulean to the desert? even Skyler had a royal blue edging on her sweater in the car wash. and then Jesse frequently wears red, as i believe he was in last night's episode. oh god, and then there's Marie with her obsessive, childish purples! (though recently evolved to dark purple, bordering on black, as if in mourning / edging towards sophistication and adulthood as she becomes privy to the wickedness in the world immediately around her).

i read once that Vince Gilligan made Bryan Cranston try on, like, 50 shirts before he found the right shade of green for the scene they were shooting. so much attention to detail and careful execution!

for more on the color theory behind Breaking Bad, see this infographic from a graphic designer who worked on the show: "Colorizing Walter White's Decay" (via Buzzfeed)


also: that scene with Hank on the phone -- one of the few times where Hank seems to express genuine affection for Marie, also the first time you feel he is finally actualized in his career; and then the drama that ensues from the juxtaposition of that with what you know is coming next. brilliant. 


an interesting thing happened last night, where the audience knew Jesse was leading Walt into a trap in order to trace the phone call to the location of the money. i initially thought this was a flaw in the writing, that there would be no way the Walt/Heisenberg we know would be so easily duped. Walt would typically see this move coming and be able to counter it, but he was so overcome with greed/rage/love for Jesse that the thought that Jesse would betray him and trick him never entered his mind until it was already too late. it's also possible that Walt's ego got in the way and he never expected Jesse and Hank to join up to outsmart him at his game. 

in this video, Bryan Cranston talks about Walt's descent into a more emotional and less rational state of mind: Bryan Cranston talks Walter White on Talking Bad (via AMCTV.com)

sidenote: isn't he incredibly handsome? i am completely astounded by the physicality of Cranston's acting -- this can't possibly be the same man behind Heisenberg! if you look at pictures from the first season of Breaking Bad and compare them to recent pictures, it's as if Cranston grew a whole knew jawline over the course of the filming. amazing!  


a logical flaw found in the writing!!

it is hard to believe that Walt, so meticulous and forward thinking, would return the van to Huell and Kubie with desert dust all over it. i mean, doesn't he own a car wash?? specifically a car wash his wife and co-conspirator used to launder his money? also, why would Huell wash a rental before returning it? as Skyler said herself earlier this season, "who washes a rental?!" only suspicious characters, that's who! 

since this is the one clue that leads to Walt being caught, it seems pretty far-fetched. also, Walt seems too smart to not check out a rental place and make sure he is untraceable (especially since earlier this season, he even thought to check his car for a GPS tracking device). 

another thing that struck me as really odd was that Walt goes through a lot of effort to memorize the GPS coordinates, yet he immediately drives right up to the spot, the spot that also happens to be the same spot where he and Jesse made their first cook? i dunno...