Finding the good in “Breaking Bad”

I’m not much for television. It just seems like far too much of an investment of time for far too little of a reward.

Plus, I absolutely abhor commercials. For someone like me, who prizes the intellect above almost all else, commercials are a lowest common denominator that I simply cannot tolerate. All of that to say this: I am seldom up to date with the latest popular television drama or sitcom.

But when various friends of mine, independently of each other, started enthusiastically recommending the AMC show “Breaking Bad” to me, I felt I had to at least take a closer look. Fortunately, the first few seasons were just added to Netflix, so I started watching them last weekend and have since become something of a “fan” of the show. Now, I use the term “fan” loosely, because “Breaking Bad” is not the kind of show one watches with the same vigor and enthusiasm as lighter fare.

For example, I eagerly anticipate Saturday afternoon college football games. I schedule social engagements, chores, and even family events around important Oklahoma Sooner match-ups. Don’t call me on the “second Saturday in October” because I won’t even answer the phone.

But one doesn’t eagerly anticipate a show like “Breaking Bad.” To be perfectly blunt, it’s a real downer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, the show is basically about a normal everyday kind of guy named Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher in suburban Albuquerque who learns he’s in the advanced stages of lung cancer. Through a convoluted series of events this ordinary “everyman” up and decides the best course of action to provide for his family after his death is to start selling a highly potent variety of methamphetamine he created using his chemistry expertise.

The show’s title comes from the slang expression for when an ordinarily law-abiding citizen decides to start a life of crime. For someone to “break bad” means to step out from the light of civilization into the shadowed wilds of the outlaw. This is the “villain’s journey” we experience in watching someone with whom anyone can identify, soon descend into the harrowing world of a “professional” criminal.

At first, I admit, I felt a strong pang of sympathy for White. I too have a very young family to provide for and were I to suddenly learn I had advanced stage cancer, I would be desperate to figure out a way to provide for them in the event I were to lose the battle. I can see how making a few hundred thousand dollars in my last days would help ease the burden on those I leave behind.

But the story, not unlike life, isn’t that simple.

One of the things I like the most about “Breaking Bad” is how it shows how intransigent the criminal world is, and that it’s not something you can do “on the side” or without dire consequence. Early on in the series White and his younger accomplice are soon caught up in “kill or be killed” situations, and for all his ethical rationalizations, White is shown to be no more morally superior to any other criminal.

As the story and character arcs develop from one episode to the next, White becomes less the “everyman” we met in the opening chapters and more of a hardened criminal who is willing to do anything and everything to protect his illicit activities. Though I’m not yet caught up with the current episodes (I’m about halfway through Season 3), I’d wager that as the series wears on White becomes increasingly ambitious. I don’t think he’s going to be satisfied with “just enough” (whatever that might mean) but will indulge his pride until it ultimately destroys him.

There’s no spoiler in knowing that… it’s been going on since the beginning with Adam, and even before the beginning with a beautiful archangel named Lucifer.

So why do I watch this, how does this profit me? What can I possibly gain from watching a man slowly descend into a sort of metaphysical lunacy?

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) This is why. Because there but for the grace of God go I, or any of us.

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked. (Psalm 1:1) The Psalms open by describing the “blessed man,” who avoids all contact with evil. When friends ask me for the message of “Breaking Bad,” I reply, “You can’t be just a little bit evil.” Walt begins with the best intentions: to pay for his medical treatments and leave an inheritance for his family. Who could argue with these?

To reach these goals, however, Walt turns to crime. At first, he says he’ll make just enough crystal meth for his financial needs and avoid “truly evil” behavior. He quickly becomes complicit in murder, fraud and organized crime, eventually becoming someone who frightens even fellow criminals.

Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12) The show’s first episode features Walt’s 50th birthday party, his diagnosis with terminal cancer and his wife learning that she’s pregnant. This would be a lot for anyone to deal with, but it soon becomes clear that Walt has given little thought to his legacy, except to resent friends and family who have enjoyed greater career success. When confronted with mortality, he immediately begins plotting to obtain wealth and power, with little reflection on what other values or memories he’ll pass on.

In his pride the wicked does not seek him… He says to himself, “Nothing will shake me.” (Psalm 10:4, 6) In some ways, the whole series has been about Walt’s pride. In Season 1, estranged friends offer to pay for his treatments in full. Rather than admit that he needs help and humbly accept their gift, Walt wants to rely on no one but himself and continues to cook meth.

As a reporter for this newspaper, I cover crime on a daily basis. Not in a far-off and remote ideological sense but a living, working reality. Every day in the police reports I see people in my own community, sometimes people I know or grew up with, who are caught up in this snare. I have no illusions that I am somehow “better” than they are, for the same potential for good and evil abides within us all.

We are free to choose what is right and what “seems right” in a given situation. Each of us is the sum and substance of our choices. “Breaking Bad” vividly depicts how any of us can fall into utter ruin, led not by some random “chance” or fate but as a direct consequence of his own volition.

Who we are and what we become is not an accident or coincidence. I don’t believe in coincidence or luck, save for how each can seem to occur once preparation meets opportunity. To paraphrase Aristotle, excellence is often the result of intent, sincere effort, and intelligent execution.

Our choices, not our chances, determine our destinies.


2 thoughts on “Finding the good in “Breaking Bad”

  1. fantastic writeup, and all the reasons why i love this show. also, i love the journey that Jesse is on. starting out as a punkass chili P meth maker, he enters into this relationship with “Mr. White”, an adult in an authority position that he learns a lot from and respects. Initially, you think Jesse is the bad guy. slowly but amazingly you see he isn’t. he is the good guy in all this. a heart for children, a willingness to serve in order to be loved, he is often so badly manipulated by walt who breaks badder and badder and badder…

    i went to an evangelical christian college in massachusetts, and one of the things drilled into our heads and hearts is “what message is God trying to tell us through this ____” fill in the blank. this novel, this movie, this TV show, this historic event, this personal life event. Where is the Lord’s Word in this situation. and i really think you get that with this. At times, the show is funny, the dynamics between all of the characters are amazing, most specifically that of Jesse and Walt.

    And I hate how I think this is all going to end, but … we know the wages of sin is death, and the choices we make will not liberate us if we opt to follow the wrong path, even if we think it is for the right decision.

    I won’t spoil anything for you. I’m all caught up and just rewatched the first three seasons with my 20 year old daughter… so many things make a lot more sense (and there are some glaring mistakes in the plot!) but all told, it is one of the best written horror stories ever.

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