Breaking Bad and the New Mexican Nuclear Uncanny

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 [1]

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 SopranosMad 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 the rise and fall of empire, 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.
"Radioactive nation building: … the long-term effects of participating in national-cultural logics that mobilize resources in the name of security and community, but that do so in ways that are unsustainable and that create both social and material toxicity." (p. 213) (Review of the book here.)

Noam Chomsky wrote, “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).” [2] As significant as this break in history was, it is seldom portrayed in popular entertainment. Nuclear weapons appear occasionally in disaster movies as terrorist threats or other such plot devices, 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 Born on the 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 between these eras 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. [3]

In Jack 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.” [4]

What I seek to illustrate here is the decline of nuclear consciousness in popular art, using the masterpiece TV drama Breaking Bad [5] as a prime example. The nuclear age is implicit in nearly every frame of the series, even though the story never explicitly touches upon any aspect of America’s nuclear past. Centered on a high school chemistry teacher who embarks on a criminal career as a manufacturer of crystal methamphetamine, Breaking Bad is 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.” … 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. [6][7]

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.” [8] 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. It functioned for fifteen years before recent failures and radiation leaks raised serious questions about the viability of all such plans to bury nuclear waste. [9] 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 case of environmental radiological contamination—worse even than the famous Three Mile Island disaster, which occurred just three months earlier. [10]
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 by defense and security spending.
Breaking Bad was, however, not consciously created as a story about the nuclear legacy. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, had originally chosen southern California as its backdrop, 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, a teacher and a chemist. The fact that he has never done any work related to American defense or nuclear programs is another indication that the writers of the series had no intention to write a “nuclear” story. It’s implausible that someone with his skills wouldn’t be working at one of the national laboratories if he had become dissatisfied with teaching high school.
By the second season of the series the producers seemed to become aware of the nuclear backdrop to their story. They staged one scene (season 2, episode 7) in The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque (depicted by its name at the time, The National Atomic Museum). The scene is crucial, as it is a turning point at which Walt decides to go from being a minor producer of meth to running a large-scale operation, instructing his distributors to build the network exponentially and conquer new territory. The metaphor of the nuclear chain reaction is well placed in the story. It essentially represents Walt's decision to “go nuclear” in the scale of his drug empire. He explicitly tells Jesse, his young partner responsible for distribution, to go for exponential growth, with the nuclear chain reaction serving as one of the many science metaphors Walt uses when instructing the young men under his care. In one scene Jesse is shown wearing a T-shirt with a pumpkin face doubling as a radiation symbol. 

"Those three I met? They should each have three, six, nine sub-dealers working for them. Exponential growth. That's the key here." (22:46-25:36) Jesse's pumpkin face T-shirt bears more resemblance to the symbol for radiation.

     Nonetheless, the museum setting stays implicit in the background, as none of the characters refer to it in the scene, and nuclear history is never referred to again. The story creators and their characters think about New Mexico as a “nuclear space” as much as a fish thinks about water, but the side-effects of the nuclear science economy 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.” 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.” [11] Vince Gilligan was probably quick to realize that it was a stroke of luck to have his story’s location moved to New Mexico, for the setting itself seems to be a central character or even a creative force in the narrative. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine it would have struck such a chord with its audience if it had been set elsewhere.

In Breaking Bad, radioactive hazards never play an explicit 
part in the plot lines, yet the season three DVD cover features 
barrels of nuclear waste. Was this an error, or a subtle reference 
to the New Mexican techno-scientific landscape?
It’s also worth noting, before discussing Breaking Bad further, that the creators of the show seemed interested in the radioactive background of their story after it had concluded. In the “prequel” series Better Call Saul, which chronicles the early years of Walter White’s “criminal” criminal lawyer, Saul (then known by his actual name of Jimmy McGill) experiences a “meltdown” while calling bingo numbers at a seniors' residence. Here's how he expresses his New Mexico state of mind:

None of us is ever leaving this godforsaken wasteland… I mean what is it with this place? It's like living inside an Easy-Bake oven. Look out that window. It's like a soulless, radioactive Georgia O'Keeffe hellscape out there, crawling with coral snakes and scorpions. Did you ever see the movie The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a documentary! God forbid your car breaks down and you have to walk ten steps. You've got a melanoma the size of a pineapple where your head used to be. So you ask why, if that's how I feel, why do I live here... why? [12]

The Hills Have Eyes (1977, with a re-make in 2006) is a horror film set in New Mexico, in which a family is lost in the desert and tormented by mutant humans born from a nuclear testing site. 
As Breaking Bad begins, our non-smoking hero is diagnosed with lung cancer, while the aunt of his young partner in crime has been stricken the same way. Cancer is the affliction that has made them “break bad.” The nuclear economy has not given rise to any form of equitable social system with health care and death benefits for the widow of a high school teacher. The money flowed for nuclear weapons, but not for those now suffering from the plutonium blowing in the wind. On the Western frontier it is still every man for himself, so in the face of death Walt concludes life as an upstanding citizen is for suckers.
Besides these cases of cancer, 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 common sight.
While the story portrays these physical diseases, Breaking Bad is mainly about the social disease of 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. Incidentally, we can note that the criminal undertaking involves the same toxic secrecy and insecurity that nuclear-weapon states require. Walter comes to his life of crime 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.
Oppenheimer, the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, described 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. [13]

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. [14] The story from Hindu scripture shows that the prince did not want to serve in the war, but here the god stood before him and proved his divine power by taking multi-armed form, and convinced the prince that it was in his interest to submit to the fate that was demanded of him, as Vishnu would carry on with his plans with or without the prince’s participation. The destruction was ordained to happen—someone more evil might have made the bomb first, or conventional bombing would have ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. To put it in the simpler language of the contemporary Dionysian gods Jagger and Richards, Vishnu was saying, “I’m simply dying for some thrills and spills. If you can’t rock me, somebody will.” [15]
It may seem odd 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, but that system was just a portrayal of a dilemma inherent in the exercise of political power. They had to participate because the train was leaving the station with or without them. Some of the scientists might have felt morally off the hook at the time, but it is well known that Oppenheimer was more remorseful and tormented as time passed. He told President Truman, speaking for himself but implicating Truman as well, that he had “blood on his hands.” He favored putting the atomic bomb under international control and was against the development of the hydrogen bomb. Unlike Einstein and scientists who left the nuclear weapons program, Oppenheimer stayed on in the hope of changing the system from within. However, his dissenting opinions became less welcome as American anti-communism became extreme, and he eventually lost his security clearance.
As the story of Breaking Bad progresses, Walter’s hands get bloodier as his motives become darker. When he obtains 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). He is in a place he never intended to be at the outset, in the same way every junkie never set out with a plan to become an addict. 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 stepp’d in so far that, should I 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 contained many uncertainties, as it was known that he conducted research into 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 manner. Can we observe at which point he loses our sympathy and becomes loathsome? While we observe, we can measure one aspect of his nature, 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? To 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.” [16]
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, just as a molecule’s potential is changed when its orientation is reversed. Walter may appear to others as a benign teacher and family man, but when he is flipped he is 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 admit to all past excuses and speak the truth, 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 lives and scruples for the chance to express 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.” [17] For Oppenheimer, that later argument was ruinous, both personally for himself and for the world he tried to warn about the necessity of eliminating nuclear arms. [18] Breaking Bad is a work of art that has much to contribute to discussions over what should be done in the aftermath of the many “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.'

This post was revised on August 24, 2014


[1] William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, (New York: Grove Press, 1959), in footnotes. See also Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press, 2000), which 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?” Chomsky.info, the official website of Noam Chomsky, August 5, 2014. https://chomsky.info/20140805/

[3] Johnah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), preface. 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 titled Plutonian Ode.

[4] Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking Books, 2007). The original draft of On The Road was typed in 1951, and later published in a much-revised format in 1957.   

[5] Vince Gilligan, creator, Breaking Bad, Sony Pictures Television (2008-2013).

[7] Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). The publisher’s synopsis on the back cover 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 Masco calls a ‘nuclear uncanny,’ revealing how the bomb has reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship.”

[8]  Sandia National Laboratories, TechnologyDeployment Centers, http://www.sandia.gov/research/facilities/technology_deployment_centers/

[10] Linda M. Richards, “On Poisoned Ground,” Chemical Heritage (now known as Distillations), Spring 2013. https://www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/on-poisoned-ground

[11] Joseph Masco, 35.

[12] Better Call Saul, Sony Pictures Television, Season 1, Episode 10, “Marco,” written by Peter Gould. Original air date April 6, 2015, AMC Television.

[13] Robert Oppenheimer as interviewed for “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” an episode in the semi-regular NBC television program NBC White Paper, 1965.

[14] Alex Wellerstein, “Oppenheimer and the Gita,” Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 23, 2014. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/05/23/oppenheimer-gita/

[15] Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “If You Can’t Rock Me,” It’s Only Rock and Roll Universal International Music, 1974.

[16] Robert Oppenheimer as interviewed by Edward R. Murrow for “A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer,” an episode in the semi-regular CBS television program See it Now, January 4, 1955.

[17] Robert Oppenheimer testifying in his defense at the April 13, 1954 security hearings, United States Atomic Commission, Volume II, 266.

[18] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Vintage, 2006). Most of the biographical information on Oppenheimer comes from the preface of this book.

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