The Frightening Moral Logic of Breaking Bad

Where will you be when the Breaking Bad finale airs? God-willing on a couch somewhere. […]

David Zahl / 7.12.13

Where will you be when the Breaking Bad finale airs? God-willing on a couch somewhere. In anticipation of that day, the good people at Christianity Today asked yours truly to write something up about the moral vision of the show. And they kindly gave me permission to post it here. It probably goes without saying but I owe a lot of the following to pollo hermano numero uno, Ethan Richardson:

lospolloscircleYou might not expect an Emmy-nominated tastemaker to tell The New York Times, “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” Yet that’s exactly how Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, summed up his personal philosophy in 2011. The quote should not surprise anyone familiar with the show, which makes its final, infernal push Sunday night.

For four and a half seasons, Gilligan has told the story of Walter White, a docile chemistry teacher who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, turns to cooking methamphetamine (crystal meth) to provide for his family. As he develops a taste for the trade, Walt discovers a gift for deception—and self-deception—taking him down a path that turns “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” as Gilligan’s original pitch put it. Filter that premise through the severity of Cormac McCarthy and the dry humor of the Coen Brothers, and you’re in for a compelling ride.

AMC debuted Breaking Bad when the cable network was fresh off the success of their first foray into original programming, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad appeared to be cast from the same mold. These were television series as serialized novels, exploring both grand visions and intimate corners of characters’ inner and outer lives.

It’s no coincidence that the revitalized format features antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper. The extended run time lends itself to complicated protagonists, whose humanity is never in question but whose behavior keeps viewers guessing. As both perpetrators and victims, they can be reprehensible one moment, vulnerable the next, capable of premeditated malice and violence as well as tenderness and charity.

Breaking Bad may be the apogee of this pattern. When we first meet him, Walt is a fairly decent guy, a bit sullen and overproud, but by no means the villain he is by the end of season four. Breaking Bad embraces the same loosely biblical anthropology as its predecessors: people as neither strictly good nor evil but dual-natured and often in conflict with themselves. And like Mad Men, Breaking Bad works as a commentary on the illusions of the self-made man. In both cases, what looks like an ascent (increased power, wealth, and confidence) is in fact the opposite.

But where Mad Men can play on the charms of postwar Manhattan, Breaking Bad looks to the blighted vistas of present-day Albuquerque and the surrounding desert. As such, it is a far less benign (and popular) affair. If, as critic Daniel Mendelsohn has suggested, Mad Men is partly interested in depicting boomers’ parents to elicit sympathy and even forgiveness, Breaking Bad offers no such mercy.

tumblr_ma7navpZ7J1qzpxx1o2_1280The show has a specific and frightening moral logic: no one gets away with anything. Bad is repaid with bad, escalation with more escalation. Breaking Bad revolves around the least fashionable concept imaginable: wrath. It offers something quite different from the fatalism of The Wire, where things start off ugly and pretty much stay that way. In Breaking Bad, things get steadily worse in proportion to human pride and self-deception.

The further Walt “progresses” in his new career, the more obstacles he overcomes, the more he believes himself to be invincible, and the deeper he descends into a hell of his own making. His attempts to manage his crimes only beget more and worse crime. Intoxicated on the fumes of self-righteousness, Walt consistently mistakes atrocities for victories, and each time we come to detest his maniacal rationalizations a little bit more—not the least of which being his dismissal of right and wrong as the concern of less evolved, less scientific minds.

Most series of this caliber are careful never to pronounce judgment on their characters; [creator and showrunner Vince] Gilligan seems to believe that such judgments are a necessary part of honest characterization. He is brave (or sly) enough to get the viewer to feel the same. We see where Walt is coming from, we may even empathize with him (especially at the beginning), but at no point are we moved to acquit him.

Like all of us, Walt dwells in moral gray areas, but their universality doesn’t make them any less gray—and Gilligan has had the courage not to flinch when the characters reap what they sow. He has placed something unshakably retributive at the heart of his onscreen world: the horror of getting what we deserve, or you might say, a world of Law devoid of Grace… As Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu noted in the LA Review of Books, “In the world of Breaking Bad, reality cannot be constructed by man. Rather, metaphysical truth exists — good and evil, moral and immoral, action and consequence… This is the stuff of the Old Testament.”

Gilligan himself admitted as much in the Times profile: “If there’s a larger lesson to Breaking Bad, it’s that actions have consequences… I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something.”..

In one of season four’s most memorable scenes, the theological implications of Gilligan’s vision become clear. Anguished after committing murder in cold blood, Walt’s long suffering former-student-turned-accomplice Jesse Pinkman attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in hopes of finding some relief. After Jesse shares a thinly veiled version of his own crime, the group leader, himself no stranger to self-induced suffering, articulates the hope of self-acceptance. Jesse’s reaction is telling:

Jesse rejects a world in which there is no consequence or cost to his transgression. [ed. note: that’s not actually what the group leader/Win Duffy is suggesting when he talks about self-acceptance–but it’s definitely what Jesse hears]. He seems to know, instinctively, that clemency must have some basis, that as much as we might wish it were so, absolution cannot be conjured out of thin air, at least not if it is going to address a truly guilty conscience.

Who knows, Jesse might even find himself agreeing with the Christian understanding of forgiveness as something that does not suspend justice so much as assuage and allay it. But in Gilligan’s fundamentally graceless universe, Jesse is left in his despair, with no hope beyond that of making the next score (or getting even with Walt).

Jesse’s agony is ultimately what separates him from his partner. Walt’s true pathology will be just as familiar to those who have read their Bible as Jesse’s desire for propitiation: his staggering capacity for self-justification and the hubris that fuels it—what some might call garden-variety original sin.

Early on, Walt refuses a sincere offer from a former colleague to help him pay for his treatment. Here we catch a glimpse of a man whose low station in life belies an enormous amount of pride. Soon, in an inversion of the Book of Job, Walt leverages his personal suffering to justify entering “the business.” As the factors that ostensibly led him to “break bad” disappear, each justification gives way to the next until he is completely convinced of the righteousness of his cause simply because it is his. How else could a man utter lines such as, “I’m not in the drug business, I’m in the empire business,” with a straight face?

All this thematic potency wouldn’t matter much if the writing weren’t so taut, the performances so spellbinding, the suspense so addictive. But without fail they are, which is why we have every reason to trust that Gilligan and company will bring their parable of pride to a satisfying conclusion. Whether or not that conclusion entails any redemption for Walter White remains to be seen. We certainly shouldn’t count on it, especially since it might compromise the integrity of the show. As we all know, the only way Walter White could ever be redeemed is the same way any of us whom the Law declares broken and bad ever are—by the miracle of God’s grace. Or to paraphrase Vince Gilligan, by something too good not to believe.