Vince Gilligan changed the complexion of television drama when he came up with the idea of Breaking Bad – a show that depicts the transformation of Walter White from impotent, cancer-ridden high-school chemistry teacher to ruthless and insanely Machiavellian drug lord Heisenberg. With the final batch of eight episodes set to air starting August 11 on AMC, I wanted to highlight one of the many intriguing aspects about the show: the pervasiveness of German names and plot points scattered sporadically on air.
Yes, you read that right. The writers seem to have a strange affinity for all things Deutsche, and by the end of this article I hope you’ll be convinced that these connections are no coincidences. Whether these random threads have any major significance going forward remains to be seen, but if I’ve learned one thing watching Gilligan’s work over the years, it’s this: he is extremely detail-oriented and nitpicky, and doesn’t like loose ends.
(Warning: Full spoilers upto the end of the first half of Season Five follow.)
1. Madrigal Electromotive GmbH
This diverse multinational conglomerate that was the parent company of Gustavo Fring’s fast food chicken (and meth) chain was first introduced in the prologue of ‘Kafkaesque’ back in Season 3. As the name indicates, it is based in Germany, where Peter Schuler (the head of the restaurant division) commits suicide in Season 5 episode ‘Madrigal’. Lydia however, Walt’s business liaison for international marketing and distribution of his famed blue meth, is still alive and figures to play a critical role in these last episodes. Interestingly, “Madrigal” is also a common last name in Hispanic and Latino cultures. Can the cross-references get any more insane that that?
2. German Names
Now I have no idea whether the demographic of the New Mexico area includes a lot of descendants of German-speaking immigrants, but the universe of Breaking Bad is overwhelmingly populated by German-sounding family names.
There is Walt’s brother-in-law DEA agent Hank Schrader (anyone remember his homemade beer appropriately branded “Schraderbrau”?). Retired beat cop and Gus’s henchman/fixer/head-of-corporate-security Mike Ehrmantraut (literally “man of honor” in classical German), first introduced in Season 2 finale ‘ABQ’, was a central character throughout the past two seasons before his untimely demise in ‘Say My Name’.
For that matter, if we switch a couple of letters in Gus’s full name, we get Gustav Fringz, a completely plausible German name. There’s actually more to this apparent coincidence, but more on this later.
Remember the nerdy chemist Gale Boetticher? Well, his last name is the anglicized version of common German last name Bötticher. Then we have Walt’s old friends from grad school: Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Schwartz is actually German for “black”, and the combination with Walter’s last name – White – was the inspiration for the name of the startup Walt and Elliot founded: Gray Matter Technologies.
Now the minor characters. Ted, Skyler White’s weaselly boss and illicit lover, sports a surname – Beneke – that’s quite common in Prussian and Polish regions, both of which were the heartland of the erstwhile German Empire. Another one: ASAC George Merkert, Hank’s white-haired, mustachioed DEA boss throughout most of the series until Hank replaces him in ‘Madrigal’. And Dan Wachsberger, the lawyer that Mike hired to manage the hazard payments of Gus’s former employees after Walt stylishly offed Fring in ‘Face-Off’.
Before we forget, what about Walt’s alter-ego Heisenberg? The real Werner Heisenberg was a badass German chemist most famous for discovering the Uncertainty Principle that forms the basis for the contemporary atomic model. Why was he so badass, you ask? Well, Heisenberg worked in secret Nazi labs before and during WWII (remarkably similar to how Walt toiled away underground in Gus’s laundromat-cum-superlab), and – I swear I’m not making this up – died of cancer in 1976.
3. Nazi Germany
Okay, so Nazism has become something of a modern pop culture phenomenon, finding ample use as a convenient metaphor to represent the pinnacle of supervilliany. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone when the odd Hitler (Jesse exclaiming “Well, Heil Hitler bitch!” to Walt back in the episode ‘…And the Bag’s in the River’) or neo-Nazi (Todd’s white supremacist relatives in prison, who come in handy for Walt when he decides to simultaneously murder 10 inmates in ‘Gliding Over All’) reference is dropped.
But there are an unusually high number of them, even for a show this dark and morally ambiguous. Badger, Jesse’s friend and former high-school bandmate in Twaughthammer – also a German-sounding band name, by the way – once explained the real terror behind the absurdity of Nazi Stormtrooper Zombies (“They’re not craving your flesh for the protein, they’re after you because they hate America!”). Even Hank explicitly refers to Nazi Germany in the ‘End Times’ episode.
You’ll find consistent references as far back as the first season, when Walt explained how the massive and seemingly invincible Nazi artillery piece Gustav Gun was destroyed using a bag of thermite. This was just after Walt had conceived the P2P cook method that would yield the famous crystalline blue meth, and (along with Jesse) was planning to steal his first barrel of methylamine from a chemical plant.
4. Gustavo Fring’s Mysterious Past
Gus, the shrewd and intimidating Los Pollos Hermanos owner and meth kingpin of New Mexico was one of the scariest villains on TV, and perhaps the only person who could match Heisenberg move for move and wit for wit. His successful fast food and drug distribution empire is successful not only because he hides in plain sight, but also because he deliberately keeps most of his checkered past secret.
This is what we explicitly know from the show so far: before he immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, he ran a similar chicken restaurant chain in Mexico along with his business (and alleged homosexual) partner Max Arciniega, a chemistry graduate from Universidad de Santiago de Chile. Since the two also dealt in high-quality meth on the side, the Juarez cartel unceremoniously shot Max in front of Gus to teach him a lesson.
However, very little – if anything at all – is known about Gus before he moved to Mexico in 1986. For Fring was a Chilean national, but no record of his childhood exists: something the wily chicken man attributed to General Augusto Pinochet’s government being “notoriously unreliable” with record-keeping.
But we can construct a possible early history for Gus if we indulge in a little speculation. After the Second World War, several prominent intelligence and state security officers sought refuge in Chile along with their families. Once there, they set up a secret mini-colony/pseudo-enclave of German immigrants in Parral of Linares Province, calling it Colonia Dignidad. The colony has a shady history of human rights and child sexual abuses as well as criminal and occult activities, and I’d readily wager that this was where Gus was born and raised.
It makes perfect sense. This is why there are no official records of Gus’s early life: no sensible government would put its international prestige on the line by acknowledging rampant abuse and wrongdoing within its borders. It explains his near-German name, and also provide clues as to the origin of his longstanding relationship with Madrigal Electromotive.
If you have a little extra time on your hands, I seriously recommend checking this out. It’s a chilling description of what must have been a nightmarish childhood for Gus, shaping him into this cold-blooded businessman we became familiar with on the series.
5. Random Tidbits
Like the show, this analysis has turned dark, depressing, and intense very quickly. Let me change the mood before we disappear into a black hole of our collective morally wrong choices. How about Gale Boetticher attempting a hilariously awkward cover of seminal 80s hit Major Tom?
Here’s the original, written and performed by German pop star Peter Schilling:
What do you think? Is there a genuine German undercurrent in the imaginarium of Breaking Bad? Have I missed other hints or clues pointing to an unusually significant role of German-derived artifacts in this show? Or am I reading too much into this concept and need to lay off the “blue stuff”?