Breaking Bad and the Psalmic value of villains

"We want to make Walt White a truly bad guy. He’s going from being a protagonist to an antagonist. We want to make people question who they’re pulling for, and why."

That’s Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, quoted in USA Today. AMC’s critically acclaimed drama about a high-school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer airs its final episode of 2012 on Sunday. This marks the halfway point of its fifth and final season, which will conclude next summer.

Gilligan has also said he wants to transform Mr. Chips into Scarface. At this point, he’s clearly succeeded. We first met Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher. By Season 5, he’s a hardened criminal, willing to do anything to protect his illegal enterprise.

Murder, crystal meth, a main character on a path to destruction - why would a Christian want to watch this? Unlike many shows and movies, which glamorize or make light of evil, Breaking Bad reflects a deeply Biblical understanding of sin and its consequences. Gilligan, who calls himself an agnostic, has described his personal philosophy this way: “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

As I’ve reflected on the show, I keep returning to the Psalms to describe its wisdom.

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 Skyler (Anna Gunn) 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 10:4a, 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. In this final season, Walt’s pride has reached new heights. He doesn’t want to “merely” beat cancer or provide for his family: he wants wealth, power and respect, and he ultimately doesn’t care about anyone other than himself. Like the hubris of Greek tragedy, I suspect that Walt’s pride will ultimately be his downfall.

While my love for Breaking Bad should be apparent, I'm nonetheless grateful that it's not my sole source of entertainment and moral education. We need positive examples, not just negative ones - heroes we can root for unreservedly, characters we can admire without feeling guilty. Even the few "good guys" on Breaking Bad - I'm thinking in particular of Hank (Dean Norris), Walt's brother-in-law and a DEA agent - are filtered through the twisted perspective of the morally corrupt characters. As part of a balanced media diet, though, Breaking Bad offers a bracing wisdom equaled by few other shows. 

What Do You Think?

  • Have you watched Breaking Bad?
  • What can we learn from fictional depictions of evil?
  • What other television villains have worked in this way?

 

Comments (5)

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Good thoughts. I did want to pick up on one thing you mentioned in your article which was the question, "Why would (a Christian) watch that?"

In my experience there seems to be a need to justify the benefits of any given activity and to quantify the result (or fruit) the activity has borne in your life. It is also a sad commentary on the christian culture when, "Because I enjoy it" fails to satiate the concern.

With Breaking Bad I find an interesting commentary on morality without God. The great thing about stories is that they create a space where we can test our ideas and worldviews. The story does not have to relate to my personal experience for it to be beneficial, very little of Old Testament life looks like mine, the stories just have to be defined enough to contain our ideas and theories.

The people who are failing to engage in Breaking Bad are on one of the best shows in the last decade, and one that poses serious questions for Christians to discuss and apply their biblical worldview against. Thanks for pointing out your personal takeaway from the show, I wish there were more examples of critical engagement of culture this way from Christian writers.
A friend who knows I love this show sent me the article and I could not agree with the author more!!! I am so happy to see someone else saying what I have been telling friends and family! I started out watching it by myself and now my husband and 16 yr old daughter watch it with me and my daughter and I have had some of the best discussions of morality watching this show that we have ever had. It is fascinating to watch, and I am glad to see that my interpretation of what Vince Gilligan was trying to do with the series is accurate - in fact, I've said to my daughter that I can see my beliefs about morality being questioned as this character that I wanted to support has made choices I do not support, and I am afraid I can't continue to "like" him......and then indeed see myself reach that point and then discuss with her exactly where that point is, that you "draw the line". Excellent writing and acting, a real gem for Christians and non-Christians and would make a wonderful discussion topic for a small group! I also really appreciate commenter #1's comment. :)
Thanks, Tristram and Julie. I appreciate the comments.

Julie - I know what you mean about not being about to like Walter White any more. Usually, we think of a "tragedy" meaning that the protagonist falls victim to something horrible. Breaking Bad follows the traditional model of a tragedy, but here the tragedy is the destruction of Walt's character.
Typical cliche response. What about the fact that this man was talented and capable and was left to rot by his former partners, girlfriend and others. People that enriched themselves on the back of his work at graymatter and then threw a bone to him out of pity. There is more to his behaviour than meets the eye. It is not simply pride but dignity. The show also shows the pettiness of people including the people in authority. Intsance is the issue withthe windscreen. More important to keep the law than to show mercy! People emphasize with the character because they understand him and in their gut they want him to win. It is hard not to emphasize with a man that is left with limited avenues. His behaviour as evil as it may be is no worse than the behaviour of greedy pastors that fleece their flock, often hard-working people who are left wandering how it is that evil men treat them like crap, steal from them and prosper while the promises they prophecy are void and empty because they did not come from God. Walter White is every man who is mistreated and spat out. Specially when the man in question is talented and mild. All men have a breaking point. Is this not the point when someone is abused they cross a point where they realise how the world really works and sometimes to protect the lives of many you have to beat some people up. David King of Israel knew this. His life was not peachy. In the end I appreciate that Jesus came from Walter White, perhaps more so. Walter is a real man and so is Pinkman and even Mike. They are criminals in every sense of the word. Yet I would trust their word more than the ersatz substitute that is the current flock of Christendom .
Also for the record in Greek tragedy the abuse of power usually comes from the Divine. It is not the central characters that display the worse behaviour, they simply cope with the consequences of the behaviour of the Gods which are as unpredictable as the sea. Greek myth makes their pantheon of Gods capricious and malevolent. One of the reasons I am a Christian is that Jesus came as a man and suffered as a man without failure. His character indeed reflects the true God who is both wise and long suffering. The Greek gods on the other hand behave more like devils. Greek tragedy is about the finite coping with an unpredictable infinite. As flawed as greek heroes are, they behaviour if often rational and sinful at times. I suggest you read Aeschylus the father of greek tragedy.

 

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