The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.
William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Western civilization’s social, man-made and natural environments are dysfunctional, decaying and polluted. This dystopia is familiar to everyone because we see it in the mass media and we see it reflected in popular entertainment. It is common for film and television writers to choose the decline of empire as a central theme of their work. Disaster movies are all too familiar, and high quality cable television dramas such as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad come to mind as examples of long-form fiction that cover the topic better than any two-hour movie could. Yet in spite of the apparent interest in the grand theme of cultural supremacy and decline, these works reveal the extent to which both the producers of mass entertainment and its audience are unconscious of the fact that their stories are tales of the nuclear age.
Noam Chomsky wrote recently, “If some extraterrestrial species were compiling a history of Homo sapiens, they might well break their calendar into two eras: BNW (before nuclear weapons) and NWE (the nuclear weapons era).” As significant as this break in history was, it is seldom portrayed in popular entertainment. Nuclear weapons appear occasionally in disaster movies as scary terrorist threats, but the real stories of the nuclear age, of the victims and veterans of nuclear testing, for example, remain hidden. Films such as Coming Home and Fourth of July told the fictional stories of Vietnam veterans, but there is yet to be a Hollywood film about a veteran who came back from the Nevada Test Site, or a story told about the hibakusha of the Bikini Islands.
The generation that lived through the rupture in history was much more aware of how the atom bomb had transformed society. In the book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin wrote:
"Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization.
In Kerouac’s On the Road, there is no mention of the atom bomb until the final pages of the story set in Mexico, yet it delivers the explanatory punch of the tale. The refusal of the characters to take part in the post-war economic boom, and all the preceding delinquency and mad wanderings of these “best minds of a generation” now seem to be explained by this painful consciousness of how the world had changed:
Strange crossroad towns on top of the world rolled by, with shawled Indians watching us from under hatbrims and rebozos. All had their hands outstretched. They had come down from the backmountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer and they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and banks and reduce them to jumbles like the avalanche heap, and we would be as poor as them someday and stretching out our hands in the samesame way.”
This essay seeks to illustrate the decline of nuclear consciousness in popular art by suggesting that the nuclear age is implicit in every frame of the masterpiece Breaking Bad, even though the story never explicitly touches upon any aspect of America’s nuclear history. The story, centered on a high school chemistry teacher who embarks on a criminal career as a supplier of crystal methamphetamine, was set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state which was ground zero for much of America’s nuclear program. In The Inconceivable Atomic Legacy of New Mexico, Sam Gilbert wrote:
A former Los Alamos scientist, who requested anonymity, told me, “The US nuclear complex is either unacknowledged or considered antiquated Cold War stuff. But look at the world today—Iran and North Korea, the global investment in nuclear energy, and the meltdown in Japan. It’s coming full circle, with New Mexico at the center.”
And that’s not just patriotic hyperbole; in his book The Nuclear Borderlands, author Joseph Masco describes New Mexico as “the only state in the US supporting the entire cradle-to-grave nuclear economy.” This includes uranium mining, nuclear weapons design and testing, the largest single arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the country’s only permanent depository for US military industrial nuclear waste.
New Mexico is home to Los Alamos National Laboratories, the primary site of the Manhattan Project and still a leading nuclear technology center and waste storage facility. Sandia Labs in Albuquerque “strives to enhance the nation’s security and prosperity through sustainable, transformative approaches to the world’s most difficult nuclear energy challenges.” In the south of the state, there is Alamogordo, site of Trinity, the world’s first nuclear test in 1945. In the southeast corner of the state is Carlsbad, site of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the nation’s only nuclear waste repository that functioned for fifteen years before recent failures and radiation leaks raised serious questions about the viability of all such plans to bury nuclear waste. Finally, in the northwest corner of the state there is Church Rock, the site of the July 16, 1979 uranium mine tailings breach (occurring to the hour on the 34th anniversary of the Trinity test) that went into the forgotten history books as America’s worst radiological contamination of the environment—worse even than the famous Three Mile Island disaster that happened three months earlier.
All of these nuclear sites have made New Mexico a nuclear state, a state that has grown and benefited over the last seventy years thanks to infusions of federal spending on defense, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy. In all this time, New Mexico has received more federal funds than it contributes back to the federal government. Thus the broken society depicted in Breaking Bad is the product of the nuclear technocratic economy that dominated the state in the late 20th century. New Mexico is an extreme case, but if other states and other nations look similar it is because they too have been affected in the same way.
Breaking Bad was, however, not consciously created as a story about the nuclear legacy. The creator, Vince Gilligan, had originally set it in southern California, but he was asked to film in New Mexico strictly for the financial incentives offered by the state. For a while he considered how to set up his shots to look like California, but then he decided it would be simpler just to set the whole story in Albuquerque.
The central character of Breaking Bad is Walter White, but he is a chemist who has never done any work related to American defense or nuclear programs. Again, this is a sign that the makers of the story had no intention to write a “nuclear” story. It never crossed their minds to set any of the action at the nuclear sites mentioned above, or to introduce a character who had a connection to them. Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend at one point mentions wanting to see New Mexico’s famous Georgia O’Keefe paintings, but no character ever went to The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, “an intriguing place to learn the story of the Atomic Age [with] exhibits spanning the early research of nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses of nuclear technology.” All of this just goes to show how much the cultural norms created by the nuclear age have been submerged beneath conscious awareness. The story creators and their characters think about them as much as a fish thinks about water, but they permeate the environment of police stations, junk yards, strip malls, drug dens, suburban swimming pools, Indian nations and, most of all, the surrounding desert that serves as a constant reminder of what nuclear technology threatens to deliver on thirty minutes notice. Furthermore, the plague of crystal meth addiction at the center of the story underscores a fact of life in the techno-scientific age. Nuclear weapons are essential, so it is humans who must adapt or be anesthetized to what the construction of a nuclear weapon state demands.
Whether the creators of Breaking Bad were aware of it or not, the setting seems to portray what Joseph Masco meant when he wrote of New Mexico’s “nuclear uncanny”—an anxious “new cognitive orientation toward everyday life” and “reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship” (see note 7). New Mexico is a “home to both the hyperwealthy and the poorest of the poor, one that is simultaneously sacred space, US experimental laboratory, tourist fantasy land and national sacrifice zone.” Vince Gilligan was probably quick to realize it was a stroke of luck to make his story in New Mexico, for the setting itself seems to be a central character or even a creative force of the story. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine it would have struck such a chord with its audience if it had been set elsewhere.
As the story begins, our non-smoking hero is diagnosed with lung cancer, while the aunt of his young partner in crime had been stricken the same way. Cancer is the affliction that has made them break bad, broken their hearts and turned them into pessimists and realists who now know that they have to survive like outlaws on the old frontier. The technological age brought no social progress at all. There was always enough money for nuclear weapons, but none for those now suffering from the plutonium blowing in the wind. The bright future promised by the technological age didn’t provide a minimum of health care and social security.
Furthermore, Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy, adding to the pall cast over the technological landscape. Many people accept such afflictions as naturally occurring, but at the same time we have the uneasy feeling that something is amiss. Formerly rare conditions seem to touch every family on every street. Walter’s radiation treatment burn is recognized by his scientifically illiterate partner because it is such a commonplace thing.
While the story portrays these physical diseases, Breaking Bad is mainly about the social disease of drug addiction and the war on drugs, and thus it follows in the literary tradition of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in portraying drug addiction as a metaphor for the organizing principle of modern life: addiction to power and control, to consumption, to machines, to oil and uranium, and addiction to making others addicted. As Cold War spending declined in the 1990s, New Mexico was primed to turn from one kind of fix to another.
Into the breach comes Walter White like a latter day Robert Oppenheimer, a man of science reluctantly tempted into an evil scientific endeavor that will happen with or without his participation. Oppenheimer made an atom bomb, whereas Walter White makes a neurochemical weapon of mass destruction. He comes to it first telling himself that his motives are pure. He will take just enough to save his family. If he doesn’t do it, someone with lower motives will do it anyway, with an inferior product, right?
Oppenheimer, the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, rationalized his participation in the same way. He said famously about the first nuclear detonation:
I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince [Arjuna] that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
The historian Alex Wellerstein explained in his interpretation of this quote that Oppenheimer was not claiming god-like powers, as many people have understood his words. The story from Hindu scripture shows that the prince did not want to serve in the war, but the god stood before him, proved his divine power by taking multi-armed form, and showed that the prince must submit to the fate that was demanded of him. To put it in the simpler language of the contemporary Dionysian gods Jagger and Richards: “I’m simply dying for some thrills and spills. If you can’t rock me, somebody will.”
Thus we are to accept that these rational men of science justified their participation in the nuclear weapons program by comparing their necessary obedience to the US government with the superstitions of an ancient belief system. They had to participate because it was destiny, so morally they were off the hook. The destruction was ordained to happen anyway, and someone more evil might have made the bomb first. Or conventional bombing would have ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. I find it to be a dubious argument that uses Eastern mysticism as a way to deflect attention from a moral dilemma that can’t be resolved so easily.
As the story of Breaking Bad progresses, Walter’s hands get bloodier as his motives get darker. When he has more than enough to provide for his family, he still wades in deeper, like Macbeth trapped by the “insane root that takes the reason prisoner.” (Macbeth I.III.83). No one starts out shooting heroin with the intention of becoming a junkie. Breaking Bad has been called a great modern tragedy, and the parallels to Macbeth run deep. Some of Macbeth’s lines would fit right into the mouth of Walter White: “It will have blood they say: blood will have blood” (III.IV.122), or “I am in blood stepped so far that I should wade no more. Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.IV.136-138).
As Walter White succumbs to his addiction to power, he takes on the pseudonym Heisenberg, which is perhaps the story’s only explicit reference to nuclear physics. The name serves as a metaphor for the moral enigma that is Walter White. Werner Heisenberg was famous for formulating the uncertainty principle which states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known. Heisenberg’s life itself had many uncertainties, as it was known that he did research in nuclear fission in Germany during the early 1940s, but the extent of his enthusiasm for building an atom bomb for Hitler remained a mystery.
|graphic from www.infobytes.tv/breakingbad|
Walter White is an enigma in the same way. Can we observe at what point he loses our sympathy and becomes loathsome? While we observe we can measure one aspect of him, but not others. Is his addiction to power any different than the addiction of a meth addict, or any different than that which we see in our institutions and corporations and in global politics? For the police he is like a subatomic particle: the meth kingpin Heisenberg’s existence may be known but his meth-making cannot been observed. When his actions are observed, his mind and his nature are unfathomable. Robert Oppenheimer alluded to this when he said, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”
Walter White uses science in one other way to hint at duality and ambiguity. In his mundane role as a chemistry teacher, he tells his students about chirality, the property of asymmetry derived from the Greek word for “hand,” a familiar chiral object. An object is chiral if it is, like a hand, not identical to its mirror image. As a metaphor for moral agency, Walter is hinting that people too are chiral opposites with Jekyll-and-Hyde like properties. A molecule has different potential when its orientation is reversed. Walter may appear to others as his well-known self, but he has been flipped and is now capable of things which no one expects of him.
In the finale, Walter White admits to his wife that he didn’t really do it for the family. He did it because he was “good at it.” He knows he will die soon, by cancer or violence. He knows he has lost his family, that his son will despise him forever, but he has not come to his wife one last time in order to apologize. He wanted to speak the truth that he believes she deserves to hear, but what he says falls short of showing contrition. Later, when he is dying of a gunshot, he staggers to his lab equipment and dies caressing his precious creation. He bears a great resemblance to other men of science who gave up their personal lives and scruples for the chance to exercise their genius. No regrets, and sorry, not sorry. As Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success.” Breaking Bad is a work of art that has much to contribute to this argument over what to do about the technical successes of the 20th century.
The promotional trailer for the final season of Breaking Bad features Bryan Cranston reciting the famous poem Ozymandias that provided the title of one of the episodes.
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:`Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
1. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959). See also Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press, 2000) that notes the irony in Burroughs having attended the Los Alamos Ranch School before it became the birthplace of the atom bomb. The school was purchased by the United States Army’s Manhattan Engineering District in 1942.
2. Noam Chomsky, “How Many Minutes to Midnight?" TomDispatch.com, August 6, 2014. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175877/tomgram%3A_noam_chomsky,_why_national_security_has_nothing_to_do_with_security/
3. John Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004). Ginsberg's concern with the nuclear threat continued throughout his life as he participated in protests in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats plutonium pit factory, and wrote a poem called Plutonian Ode.
4. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (original scroll), 1951.
5. Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, (2008-2013; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2013), DVD.
6. Sam Gilbert, “The Inconceivable Atomic Legacy of New Mexico,” Vice, February 24, 2014. http://www.vice.com/read/the-atomic-legacy-of-new-mexico
7. Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). The publisher’s blurb for states, “The atomic bomb… is not just the engine of American techno-scientific modernity; it has produced a new cognitive orientation toward everyday life, provoking cross-cultural experiences of what calls a ‘nuclear uncanny,’ revealing how the bomb has reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship.”
8. Linda M. Richards, “On Poisoned Ground.” Chemical Heritage Magazine, Spring 2013. http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/31-1-on-poisoned-ground.aspx
9. Joseph Masco, 35.
10. Perhaps the most implausible aspect of the story is in its portrayal of this suburban family as prosperous enough to own a home but not a life insurance policy.
11. Alex Wellerstein, “Oppenheimer and the Gita,” Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 23, 2014.
12. James A. Hijiya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144, no. 2 (June 2000), 123-167.
13. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “If You Can’t Rock Me.” It’s Only Rock and Roll (1974; Universal Music, 2009), CD.
14. Interview with Edward Murrow, A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1955. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer
15. Robert Oppenheimer testifying in his defense at his 1954 security hearings, page 81 of the official transcript. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer
Some information not referenced in the notes can be easily traced with internet searches.