The Uncertainty Principle

Heisenberg is speeding down the highway in his dull-green Pontiac Aztek when a cop pulls him over. The cop walks up to his car and says, “Excuse me, sir, but do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg responds, “No … but I know EXACTLY where I am!”

Okay, so maybe you don’t get the joke, yet (you will in a minute). In fact, you might say instead that THIS is what happens when Heisenberg is pulled over by a cop:

What the joke is actually referring to is the uncertainty principle, first described by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. The uncertainty principle is an inescapable property of the physical universe: at a fundamental level, nothing can simultaneously have a definite position and a definite speed. That is, you can only ever know with absolute certainty where something is or how fast it is going, not both. Now, at a large enough scale (anything larger than several million atoms, which is everything we can physically see without advanced optical equipment) this uncertainty is small enough that we can estimate both with a high degree of accuracy.

However, this uncertainty is still measurable. In fact, the consequences of this uncertainty are incredibly significant. On a concrete level, nuclear fission is only possible due to uncertainty. On a more theoretical level, there are arguments that the notions of free will and consciousness are impossible without this uncertainty (briefly: all the activity in our brains is the result of predictable chemical and electrical reactions, but we do not behave purely deterministically due to the cumulative effects of millions of tiny deviations in chemical/electrical behavior as a result of this uncertainty).

Heavily related to the uncertainty principle is the observer effect (actually, Heisenberg himself thought the two were synonymous, only later research has proved that they are in fact separate phenomena): the act itself of trying to measure position or speed effects the object of that measurement. Even if physical uncertainty did not exist, we would be inducing uncertainty in our attempts at measurement. For example, in order to see something we need light, which is made up of particles called photons: even if we are trying to see something smaller than an atom, a single photon is enough to push the original particle out of the way. So as soon as we look to see where an object is or how fast it is going, we effect that object’s speed and position. A watched batch of meth isn’t just going to turn blue, is it, Todd?

As a result of these uncertainties, for any event it is impossible to infer from the end result what property of the event was responsible for that result. We are familiar with this concept in science; we are also familiar with it in the way we understand more every-day ideas like sports. Was the touchdown pass caused by the quarterback’s accuracy, the receiver’s speed, a defender’s confusion, something else entirely, or some interaction of these factors? Even the best approximations are only guesses; at a fundamental, physical level, reality is inherently indeterminate.

(Okay, SOMETIMES things are little more clear…)

Just as its protagonist adopted the moniker Heisenberg, “Breaking Bad” as a show adopted the principle of this uncertainty as its guiding tenet.

At its simplest level, the show has been about making us like something bad, something evil. The show followed Walter White as he changed from a high-school chemistry teacher and family man into a drug lord and murderous criminal, from something seemingly mundane and relatable into something almost alien. As the show progresses, Walter’s actions become increasingly abhorrent – killing Emilio and Crazy 8 in self defense, letting Jane choke to death on her own vomit, running over two drug dealers with his Aztek, having Gale killed, poisoning a child, and so on. The show was almost claustrophobic in its focus on Walt: at each step, we are privy to his reasoning, to his (increasingly desperate and disjointed) justifications. He is doing it for his family, he is doing it in self-defense, etc.: there is always a reason, reasons that become increasingly vague and obscure as the show goes on.

The show tricks us, in a sense, into rooting for Walt. He starts off as the underdog – he is the unappreciated genius that the world has not given his fair due. We root for him to succeed because we sympathize with him (what with the terminal lung cancer and all) and his motives (providing for his family). However, we also root for him because he is the protagonist. We don’t think about it, but it is part of the nature of the medium: we are on his side because he is familiar, because he is always on screen. As his actions become more onerous, and the justifications more tenuous, we are forced to not only question are judgments of morality itself, but our relationship to the show.

There are no absolutes; even Heisenberg couldn’t make meth with 100% purity. Maybe nobody deserves to die, but if one or another person has to die, how must that choice be made? Would you not choose the one with whom you are familiar, the one who still has some semblance of a noble motive – providing for his family? Why does Walt’s decision to kidnap Holly disgust on a visceral level more than his earlier murders (it is no coincidence, I think, that this action came at the climax of the show, as if all his earlier evil was only building up to it)? Why – in the show’s final throes – do we speak of Walt’s redemption when he is still intimidating, lying, and murdering (not to mention the fact this actions don’t change the lives he has ruined, including those of his loved ones)?

How could you not fall in love with this face? From

And how do we reconcile the fact that we have more or less been tricked into liking this man, who by any account is evil? In fact, one could even make the argument that Walt didn’t “break” bad – he always was bad, it was just waiting to manifest. The very first episode of the show ends with Walt seemingly sexually aroused by his murders (this same arousal later manifests after watching a drug dealer beat an associate to death in front of him). From what scant information is given to us of Walt’s past, we also know that he abandoned a woman (Gretchen) who he was going to marry because he was insecure about her family’s wealth and that, as a result of this, he spitefully bought out his shares of Gray Matter (blaming, of course, Gretchen and his former friend Elliot). And as he plainly says in the final episode, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive.”

All of the evidence we have seems to point to Walt being a bad person, even from the start; it was just the confluence of events that led to him becoming Heisenberg that let him acknowledge it to himself. And over the course of those 5 seasons we were rooting for him, wondering how he was going to extricate himself from difficult or impossible situations, almost unquestioningly. That isn’t to say that none of us questioned his morality or lack thereof during the run of the show, but the structure of the show, and its tensioned, revolved almost completely around Walt in such a way that it was impossible not to experience it in some fashion from his perspective (in another way, the show made us root for Jesse, a drug addict as a guiding moral light – as with Walt, upturning traditional moral values in favor of a more complex and nuanced view that posed more questions than answers … bitch).

In this sense, the show’s finale was the ultimate culmination of this trend. Although the show is renowned for its unpredictability, it actually followed, and concluded, with a fairly standard plot structure (you could easily apply the mono-myth structure described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces). The details could be surprising, but a large part of the show’s brilliance was the way it built towards predictable, or inevitable, events while building tension in the uncertainty of the method by which we get there. Even when the end result is known, we don’t know the causes. And with every action come innumerable unforeseen reactions: the death of Jane leading to the Wayfarer 515 crash that killed 167 people, the magnet that wipes the hard drive at the police station accidentally revealing the numbers for Gus’ secret bank accounts, a copy of “Leaves of Grass” strategically placed on the toilet leading to his downfall, etc.

Sometimes in life you are faced with difficult decisions. From

Attempting to control all of the outcomes is futile, just as it is futile to try to measure something’s speed and location at the same time, and just as it is futile to try and kill that one fly buzzing around your meth super-lab under the laundromat. Because of the uncertainty principle, total confidence, and total control, is impossible. The notion of control was central to the show: to the bitter end, Walt had to end things on his terms, and his alone. The show used control as a metaphor by which to address issues of morality, family, personal honor/pride/egotism, and in a certain way the American Dream (what was Walt, after all, but a self-made man?). Dozens of articulate and interesting arguments could be made about any individual one of these. However, one thing that sets “Breaking Bad” apart from many other television shows is the way its structure, and its embracement of uncertainty, is in fact a commentary on the nature of story-telling in and of itself.

The show took full advantage of the properties of its medium in a number of ways. In seasons 2 and 5, the cold opens of episodes showed you events that hadn’t happened yet – revealing more and more information about where the show was headed while leaving mysterious the methods by which it would arrive there. In fact, in season 2, the titles of some episodes were a clever reveal of this mystery (“Seven Thirty-Seven”, “Down”, “Over”, “ABQ” (the abbreviation for Albuquerque). The pacing of the plot was specifically geared towards the episodic and season format – most episodes and seasons ended on a huge cliff-hanger. It was the spacing of these cliff-hangers, and the cryptic flash-forward reveals, that lent the show its air of unpredictability (and lent it forward momentum) without sacrificing its relatively straight-foward plot structure.

Further, the use of this plot structure to tell the story was interesting. In a way, it was almost forced (which is why so many observers have felt that the last episode was seemingly “off” in tone). In order to tell this story in that way, the show had to take an extremely claustrophobic view of the world it created. It focused almost exclusively on Walt, with only relatively minor glances into the ripple effects his actions caused. The show meticulously wrapped up loose ends – but only from Walt’s perspective. And due to the way they force us to perceive the world through Walt, the loose ends our tied up from our perspective as well.

Nevertheless, the end of the show, and Walt’s death, leave endless questions unanswered. Heck, even events from the first couple of seasons have reverberative effects that have never been re-examined. What happened to Jesse’s parents after cutting off all contact with him – and how would they react to hearing about Walter White, who they knew to have a personal connection with their son? What happened to poor Donald Margolis? Speaking of the Wayfarer 515, how would such an event in a post-9/11 USA affect air travel and security nation-wide? What happens to Walt’s family, now that they are almost pariahs – even if they are able or willing to accept the money from Gretchen and Elliot which is by no means certain? Will Badger ever finish his Star Trek screenplay? Or, we could go even further back, before the events of the show proper – what are all the impacts of Walt’s Nobel-winning research or the work of Gray Matter on the world? Even if he never received public credit, he was still a party in its creation. And so on and so forth.

The fact is the show, in the way it narrowed in and focused on Walt and his immediate actions, sacrificed its ability to adequately examine the wider repercussions of those actions on this fictional world. Not only was information obscured by the reliance on traditional plot structure, but by the structure imposed by the medium. Total control is impossible to attain in a world ruled by uncertainty. These rules hold true even when you are telling a story, creating a fictional world, as Vince Gilligan and the writers of “Breaking Bad” were. It is even impossible to completely control your own creation.

Relevant? From

Fiction is just a representation of reality, but uncertainty makes an objective reality impossible. Our perceptions of life around us are just guesses; we have no way of knowing if our guesses are any better than Walter White’s. Or Gale’s.

One response to “The Uncertainty Principle

  1. It’s interesting to compare this to the stock trajectory of most action movies. We’re presented an underdog, given a background that says “this person has been wronged, their actions will set things right” and things are left to unfold on their own. The culmination of this in my mind (as well as being offensively bad movie to me) is Taken, and presumably Taken 2 as well. Taken as a plot structure essentially reads “this is the good guy with the good motives, now he is going to creatively murder a whole bunch of ethnically vague creeps in France for 90 minutes, and you don’t have to feel bad about it at all”. We love violence, but we love it even more when it comes pre-vindicated for us.

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