Monday, February 18, 2013

Meth Monday #19: "Say My Name" by Shimon Lerner

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Meth Monday." This week I'm excited to hand the keyboard off to Solomon Mao's first ever guest poster, Mr. Shimon Lerner. Beyond his addiction to Breaking Bad, Mr. Lerner is also a long time  fan of Joss Whedon, and he arraigned and hosted the live-tweet of Chosen, Part II for The Great Buffy Rewatch of 2011. Mr. Lerner is currently completing his Ph.D. in Applied Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An observant Orthodox Jew who never neglects to read his daily page of the Talmud, Mr. Learner and his wife live in Jersualem where they bravely attempt to play Watchers to their own little Scooby Gang of four children. Shimon tells me that his passion for science matches that of Walter White, but that the comparison between the two ends there. For which we should all be very thankful. 

Say My Name
Shimon Lerner

I wanted to contribute some quick thoughts on a relatively small (perhaps even inconsequential) detail, which serves to demonstrate some of the sheer brilliance of the writing team behind Breaking Bad.

When Walter White chooses a nickname for his evil alter-ego, his instinctive, (on the spot?) choice, is the name of the famous German physicist Werner 'Heisenberg': 

This seemingly arbitrary choice goes on to take on a life of its own as the revered, perplexing, even fear inspiring 'Heisenberg'.
I want to discuss here why indeed this choice of name is no coincidence as it operates on multiple levels.

In my analysis here I shall deal with how it works on (at least) four different levels.

 * I'm not even touching Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which can be both properly and improperly twisted in so many different ways it can be practically tied to almost anything.

** These four levels may (or may not), correspond with the four levels of reading literature (as described among others by Dante): literal, allegorical, moral and mythic. Whether or not precise, this categorization will nonetheless be loosely applied here for convenience purposes.

1) Literal – I'm using this category not for the literal meaning of the word but for its phonetic purpose and properties. While 'Walter' is quite close to 'Werner' the half that Walt actually chooses is quite the opposite. As opposed to a bland, non-distinct, vanilla 'white', Heisenberg has a very German, 'Isengard'-like, menacing sound to it.

2) Allegorical – The second level refers to the immediately obvious association:  Science. Heisenberg is of course the famous Nobel Prize winning physicist, one of the pioneers in the development of Quantum Mechanics. This is indeed an apt choice for Walter White the chemist, as the principles behind modern chemistry are rooted in Quantum Mechanics.

3) Moral – This level relates to the strong thematic connection between the stories of Walter White and Werner Heisenberg. The central theme in both cases is "Moral Ambiguity". The great enigma regarding Werner Heisenberg's life involves his work for the Nazis during WWII in their attempts to develop an Atomic bomb. (If you're interested in Werner Heisenberg's activities for the Nazis, I recommend Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project by Paul Lawrence Rose) Was he working out of loyalty to the German nation? Was he just trying to protect his family? Or was he delicately trying to sabotage the German efforts from the inside?
Was he doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Or maybe, the wrong thing for the wrong reasons? Perhaps a weak case can even be made, that he was doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The parallel to Walt (including the post fact self justification) is painfully apt.

4) Mythic – The final level is a meta – level which actually beautifully connects with the previous three. The common denominator linking the Morally Ambiguous – German - Scientist is the scientific work he was doing on the German BOMB.
You're a time bomb tick-tick-ticking" are Mike's hauntingly precise, words to Walter:

In fact in that very first scene (above) after choosing the name Heisenberg, his first action is to immediately detonate a bomb. Whether or not he wanted to, whether or not he was successful, whether or not he was doing the right thing, 'Heisenberg' and 'the Bomb' are intimately interconnected.

I don’t presume that all of these inferences were conscious choices on the part of the writers. Nevertheless, this stands as a prime example of the painstaking attention to detail, that so pervades almost every aspect of the show.

So, if you ever need to show someone in just one word, how brilliant this show really is, just "Say his Name".

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