This post contains spoilers…of a show that finished airing nearly 8 years ago.
I recently finished my…what…third time watching through the TV show Breaking Bad.
For those that don’t know, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a non-descript high school science teacher, a family man, who “breaks bad” after being diagnosed with lung cancer, and who starts to manufacture and distribute crystal meth. He does this to provide for his family after he’s gone, but it turns out he’s pretty good at it. This leads to various dealings with elements of the criminal underworld, and over time we see Walt turn several pages and cross several Rubicons in his descent to wickedness.
So why would I choose an entertainment vehicle that glories in wickedness? Why would one who follows biblical Christianity, with its mandate to think on things that are “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8), spend time with a story that has seemingly none of those features?
Well, for one, it’s compelling drama. It’s not preachy. There’s no cheesy moralizing about how certain choices are bad when we can see the consequences of those choices on full display. And I’m not sure that it could rightly be said that it “glories” in wickedness. In fact, there’s no riding into the sunset here. Walt gets what’s coming to him. [Even Jesse, Walt’s partner, who drives off at the end of Breaking Bad, is destined for further adventure in the El Camino movie that follows. And even as Jesse sets to take up a new life in Alaska, is there any one of us who doesn’t think that he’s still carrying his primary problem – himself – with him?] Rather than romanticizing and applauding evil, Breaking Bad presents it in all its unvarnished “badness.” There is a primitive sense of justice here, even if it’s not carried out through the courts and jails.
Most of the time, I enjoy stories of noble triumph. I grew up with Saturday kiddie shows at the local theater, watching Johnny Weissmuller defeat various iterations of bad guys as Tarzan the Ape Man. I’m old enough to remember when Star Wars hit, and we suddenly had one of those epic tales of good vs. evil, and it was clear who the guys in the white hats were. I’ve read at least half a dozen times the most epic tale of them all – Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and have been inspired by Gandalf’s sage counsel, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” We are drawn to such displays of nobility.
Breaking Bad shows no such nobility. It is of the gritty and realistic style of story telling where even the heroes have flaws and the villains hold a measure of understandable pathos. No, check that. There are no heroes in Breaking Bad. There is a “protagonist,” but that does not mean “the good guy.” There is no one who is noble.
And perhaps that is why I can bear to watch Breaking Bad – it confirms my world view of the depravity of humanity. It is the book of Ecclesiastes of television. All is vanity. If there were a biblical sub-title to Breaking Bad, it would be “none righteous, no, not one.”
In a sense, Breaking Bad tells my story, and yours too. There is not one of us who, without the restraining hand of God, would not follow the same path to destruction as Walter White. I can’t watch this show and think, “Oh I’d never do that.” Breaking Bad doesn’t allow me that.
If I watch a tale of epic triumph such as Lord of the Rings, I am able to identify with any number of noble and good characters. I can’t do that with Breaking Bad. If I identify with any of those characters, I am tagged with their wickedness.
In the Christian world-view, this is healthy. Our first step in our redemption is recognition of our need for it. We are all, as my pastor recently said, “wretched little black heart sinners.” We are all breaking bad. It is when we come to the end of our own righteousness, our own nobility, our own sufficiency that we see our need for grace, for Christ.
This is what the law does to us. It tells us how we should love and serve God, mirrors back to us our failure to do so, and directs us to Jesus, the only answer for our unrighteousness. “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).
As long as we think that we are noble heroes in our personal epic adventure, there is no salvation for us. But just as when we see the story of Breaking Bad and recognize that there is no nobility there, we also look at our own tale and see the same. And in this way – seeing the vanity of life apart from God – we seek out the One Righteous Man in the story of mankind, Jesus Christ.
Breaking Bad couldn’t give us the answer. The Bible, telling the story of Jesus, does.