10.31.2011

Theological Reflection on Breaking Bad

In late September I was asked to do something of a theological "review" of a tv show for my home church's new 'magazine'.  I happily obliged since I love good tv and because Breaking Bad was in full swing and there was an element of the show that really struck me as profound and I was eager to write about it.

And, since I'm such a giving person, I thought I would share.


An interesting development in TV within the last 10 years has been the portrayal of blatantly immoral (sometimes, evil) characters as good and justified people.  Somehow we accept this portrayal.  Betty leaves Don in Mad Men and we all think she is overreacting – even though it is Don who’s cheating on his wife.  Worse still, Dexter is a show about a serial murderer, yet it seems to convince us that he should not be caught.  Breaking Bad does something similar, the audience knows that Walt is making something evil, that brings destruction in its wake; they show the consequences graphically: overdose, violence, death.  We even get a sense of how he justifies his own actions: In one scene he dismisses a catastrophe by comparing it to even greater, but similar catastrophes, all because he feels responsible.  In light of all of the evidence, he thinks, what he did is not that bad.

Breaking Bad is a serialized crime drama which centres around the chemist Walter White (played by Brian Cranston - Hal in Malcolm in the Middle).  So far the show has aired four seasons with an additional 16 episodes already ‘green lit’ by the cable network, and acknowledged as the final season (possibly split into two - eight episodes each).  Unlike typical network TV shows, Breaking Bad has a single, unifying story arch, meaning that those who come late to the series are better off starting at the beginning.  The creator, Vince Gilligan (X-Files), has known since first pitching the series where this was leading, likening it to his own version of Scarface – a series finale prospect that gives me goosebumps.  And while there is a shortage of chainsaws, and a missing 1963 Cadillac Series 62, it in many ways surpasses its mentor and cousin.

Comparisons are difficult, this isn’t The Shield, The Wire or The Sopranos;  all of which succeeded by merit of being original.  Breaking Bad succeeds by the same merit, offering a look at how one man can make the descent from decent and respected father and husband to being capable of heinous crimes.  The one thing that it does share with all the other shows previously mentioned (except The Wire), including Mad Men and most likely Dexter (the jury isn’t out on that show yet) is that it deals with the downfall and destruction of its protagonist.  Breaking Bad is certainly a dark and brooding show which exists as an exercise in tension and (rapid) release, giving it some of the most intense and frantic scenes in TV history.  It is not a show that is appropriate for everyone, and parents should probably watch the first 4 episodes before deciding whether their teens should see it.  Although the episodes vary dramatically in tone and content, Breaking Bad does depict drug manufacturing, drug use, overdose, violence, gore and offensive language – you’ve been warned.

Through Breaking Bad the writers have concocted a narrative that leads us to believe the protagonist is justified.  We're not much different, studying and criticizing others is always easier (mentally and emotionally) than studying oneself, we are more likely to make compromises with ourselves than we are with the others around us.  Just as we are stuck with Walt’s narrative - and therefore excuse (and sympathize with) him of most his wrong, we are also stuck with our own narrative, that tells us that we also are right and justified.  What we need is a new narrative, one that makes life more than about the self.

Walter White is a loser, even if a likable one.  Once a renowned chemist, he is now a rather timid high school science teacher trying to engage and teach uninterested students, and must resort to washing cars (sometimes his own student’s),  just to pay the mortgage.  His 16 year old son has mild cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte) and his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is unexpectedly pregnant.  Also unexpected: He has just been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, an expensive ordeal.  He is a man who feels so obliged to provide for his family, and would do anything to make it happen.

Walter’s brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), is a DEA agent determined to take drugs off of the streets.  When Walt realized how much money is available in the production of drugs, thanks to Hank sharing a news clip with the family, he starts “cooking” methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) so his medical bills, mortgage and kids’ future education can be paid long after he is dead.  In order to help with distribution he enlists the help of his former high school student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

It would be a mistake to think that Walter is just trying to get money, Walter sees his impending death (and the required bills that go with it) as a loss of control and this is ultimately the reason he feels he needs to start “breaking bad”.  In this thinking there either is no God, or He has no interest in human affairs.  There is no hope, only frantic worry about what the future will hold.  It’s no surprise that God is all but absent from the show and given almost no consideration, not even in the form of the existential question, “why me?”  The only reference to God (that I’m aware of) occurs while Walt is in a hospital waiting room with another cancer patient:

Cancer Patient: It’s like they say, “Man plans and God laughs”

Walter White: That is... such bullshit

CP: Excuse me...?

WW: Never give up control, live life on your own terms.

CP: Yeah...No... I get what you’re saying. But eh... cancer is cancer

WW: The hell with your cancer! I've been living with cancer for the better part of a year. Right from the start it’s a death sentence. That's what they keep telling me. Well guess what?! Every life comes with a death sentence. So every few months I come in here for my regular scan knowing full well that one of these times, hell! maybe even today, I'm gonna hear some bad news, but until then... Who's in charge? Me! That's how I live my life.

Walt’s speech is something of a paradox; he angrily insists that he is in charge.  But we know he has never been in charge.  He can no more control his cancer cells than I can control my own heart beat.  There is a uselessness to attempting control which both the Bible and Breaking Bad pick up on and play with.  For instance, Walter’s drug-making pseudonym is Heisenberg, after Werner Heisenberg, a man known for theorizing the “uncertainty principle” (simply put: the more accurately one property is being measured the less accurately another [related but different] property can be controlled).  As well, chemistry turns into a metaphor for the control Walter desires; as long as the chemistry is “respected” (to use Walter’s term) the outcome is always the same.  The discontinuity between his pseudonym and his chemistry is telling.  When he attempts similar control over his wife Skyler and partner Jesse, the results are always less than “controlled”.

The Bible also gives us a glimpse at what humans striving for control will bring.  Abraham seeks to bring about God’s promise himself; Moses attempts to stick to the formula of what worked in the past and ignores God’s instruction, costing him entrance into the Promised Land; David attempts to cover up his own moral failings and must live with the consequences of his family’s strife.

Proverbs 16:2-3, 9
People may think all their ways are pure,
but motives are weighed by the LORD.
Commit to the LORD whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans.
In their hearts human beings plan their course,
but the LORD establishes their steps.

Nudging people in the “right” direction does not always work, and is often harmful to your relationships.  There is destruction that follows it.  While Walter temporarily gains control of his “professional” life, he loses control of his family.  Instead of loving and being with his family, he abandons them and becomes distant, all for the sake of controlling what is beyond his reach - their well-being after he’s gone.  Henri Nouwen writes:

Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.  Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”  We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?”  Ever since the snake said, “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil” (Genesis 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power.  Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert to the cross.  The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led (In the Name of Jesus, p.77).

The narrative that Breaking Bad tells us is a narrative devoid of God, one in which demands that the protagonist continues using power plays in order to secure his destiny, but is slowly, yet ultimately sealing his fate.  In this narrative Control is god and a tyrant who demands the impossible, leading Walt into unspeakable evil.  While at first killing is an unthinkable necessity, as Walter progresses killing becomes the norm for anyone who gets in his way; if taking a life means gaining the control he has lost, he will not hesitate.  It is within this narrative that Walt needs control.

It’s unlikely that many people are going to turn to a life of crime because of their need for control, but regardless, it will adversely affect your relationship with others and God.  Control and Jesus’ command to “not worry about what tomorrow will bring” (Matthew 6:34) cannot go hand in hand.  Our Christian faith demands a different narrative, one that is not ruled by the tyranny of Control but by the Kingdom of God, a narrative that stretches back to God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, David and us through Jesus Christ.  It’s only through a deep Kingdom narrative that we arrive at the proper thinking about our needs and who looks out for them.  Our Christian faith frees us from the need for control since it is always God who controls the outcomes.  Yes, bad things happen and we should not sit back and do nothing, but God has the longer view and directs the effects of our efforts.  No matter what happens in and around our lives we know this: Christ broke our need to control our lives, not with a greater “power” but with a greater love – a love that sent him to the cross.