Word On Fire Research Assistant, Jack Thornton, discusses "Breaking Bad," one of the most popular dramas on television, and what it can tell us about the nature of Sin.
A few weeks ago, the last episode of the first half of the final season of AMC’s hit drama, “Breaking Bad,” aired to much anticipation. In spite of the confusing sentence you just read, many viewers watched the episode eagerly and then discussed it with their friends. Over the last few years the show has driven fans and critics wild with enthusiasm, and it is now midway through its final chapter, which will finish next year.
I’ll try and talk about the show without giving away anything specific in case those of you who haven’t seen it want to check it out. Here’s the basic premise.
Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, discovers that he has terminal lung
cancer and does not have much time left on this earth. Facing an imminent death, expensive treatment and the thought of leaving a financially struggling family with even more debt and no one to provide for them, he decides to use his impressive chemistry skills to cook crystal meth, a highly dangerous, addictive and illegal drug. He teams up with a dead-beat ex-student who was already making and peddling meth, and together they cook and distribute the drug to the greater Albuquerque area. As each season progresses Walter gets more and more involved in the drug world, and everything that goes along with it.
I know this seems like a really bleak concept, and it is indeed a very dark, gritty show, but it is also extremely entertaining, well written, brilliantly acted and critically acclaimed. So far it has won 26 television awards, including six Emmys, three of which have gone to actor Bryon Cranston for his role as Walter White. It is was nominated for 13 more awards in last night’s Emmys including Outstanding Drama Series and nods to five of the show’s actors.
But, like all good art, the show does not just entertain. It also expresses something true within its fictional world; it is, in great part, an examination of sin and its effects, especially the sin of pride.
Sin is something of a dirty word in our culture. Even suggesting that someone is sinning, or is a sinner, is often met with guffaws of outrage, even when the suggestion is mild-mannered and true. I would think that most of us have heard, thought or said some form of the sentence, “Don’t judge me, I’m a good person!” at some point or another. It’s not something we modern Westerns like to think about. But just pick up a newspaper, or take a moment to think about everything you did today. Sin exists, sin matters, and “Breaking Bad” confronts this reality head on.
In a way, the treatment of sin in “Breaking Bad” is very similar to John Milton’s in “Paradise Lost,” and Walter White reflects certain aspects of John Milton’s Satan very clearly. In “Paradise Lost,” Milton accomplishes the nearly impossible task of writing Satan as an almost sympathetic character (with an emphasis on pathetic). Unlike Dante’s personification of Satan, where Satan is a monstrous, but ultimately powerless and one dimensional figure trapped in ice, Milton’s Satan is a three dimensional, charismatic, mobile, initially physically beautiful, persuasive, powerful presence. In spite of all these traits, however, Satan is also ultimately powerless against the divine providence that guarantees that doing evil will bring evil to him, and that his every effort to escape the power of God will only ensure his demise. We see Satan, in his pride and arrogance, trying and trying to free himself from God’s power, but every move and decision he makes only lowers him further and further, while simultaneously proving God’s magnificence. It is clear in “Paradise Lost” that every sin and act of pride is ultimately futile and will inevitably destroy the sinner unless they can let go of their pride, admit to their guilt and ask forgiveness.
“Breaking Bad” is less overtly religious than “Paradise Lost,” but the elements I’ve described certainly exist within the universe of the show. The creator of “Breaking Bad,” Vince Gilligan, was raised
Catholic and, while I don’t know if he would say the show is a “Catholic” show, it does seem that the writing reflects some of his upbringing. Gilligan revealed in an interview with The Daily Beast that, "I like the idea that there's a point to it all. I like the idea that if you're really a rotten human being, you don't prosper for it. Not in the end. Day by day, you might, but there's some sort of comeuppance, some kind of karma, whatever you want to call it. Conversely, if, as most of us hope to be, you're a good person, it all kind of works out in the end.”
This sentiment is comes alive in the person of Walter White. Initially, the viewer can sympathize with Walter. The fear of death and the driving desire to provide for one’s family are very powerful, and one can at least sympathize with these emotions even while one condemns his decision to create a dangerous narcotic. But as the show continues it is clear that the central motivation for his actions is not something so noble as the desire to provide for his wife and children. It’s pride. He wants to feel powerful and influential. He wants to be in control of both his own fate and the fate of others. He wants to use his chemistry talents to be the best at something. He wants to be feared. And so, when he is offered a way out, a way to pay for his treatment and legally, safely provide for his family for the rest of their lives, he rejects it because he considers it charity and, in his arrogant opinion, charity is a bad thing.
So, driven by pride, Walter sets out into the world of drug trafficking and with each step falls deeper and deeper into sin and crime. James Joyce in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” observes that falling into one deadly sin opens the door to all the others. For Stephen Dedalus, his first great sin is lust and, through lust, all the other sins come crowding into his soul. Walter White is a perfect example of this truth. He starts with pride, but lust, envy, gluttony, greed, wrath and sloth all follow in various forms. He is clever and charismatic, just like Satan, but every move he makes worsens his situation and his life falls apart as his sins and culpability increase. There is a strong sense, throughout the show, that if Walter could let go of his pride, just once, he could somehow set himself right and atone for his sins. But he hasn’t yet, which is why the overwhelming consensus among fans and critics is that the story will end with his doom and destruction, while some of the more virtuous characters will gain peace and closure.
That’s really the great struggle we all face isn’t it? We are all going to sin again and again and again, but we Catholics believe in a God who is willing to forgive it all if we resolve to be better and to act virtuously. If we don’t, if we consistently try to follow our own path that suits our own needs and desires we will spiral down into a very dark place. Shows like “Breaking Bad” can illuminate this concept if we let them.
Walter White broke bad. Can we break good?