‘Breaking Bad’: A Christian parable
This one’s about AMC’s smash TV series “Breaking Bad” — the most Christian Hollywood production since Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (Not surprisingly, both were big hits!)
It may seem counterintuitive that a TV show about a meth cook could have a conservative theme, much less a Christian one, but that’s because people think Christian movies are supposed to have camels — or a “Little House on the Prairie” cast. Read the Bible! It’s chockablock with gore, incest, jealousy, murder, love and hate.
Because the Bible tells the truth, the lessons are eternal — which also marks the difference between great literature and passing amusements. Recall that even Jesus usually made his points with stories.
The sweet, soulful druggie on “Breaking Bad,” Jesse Pinkman, illustrates — heartbreakingly — the monumental importance of the cross. Believing he is responsible for his girlfriend Jane’s death by overdose, Jesse goes to some godless hippie rehab center. Naturally, he is still unable to forgive himself.
Perfectly rationally, he concludes: “I learned it in rehab. It’s all about accepting who you really are. I accept who I am. … I’m the bad guy.” He returns to cooking meth. Mayhem, murder and disaster ensue.
There’s only one thing in the world that ever could have allowed Jesse to forgive himself: The understanding that God sent his only son to die for Jesse’s sins, no matter how abominable. To not forgive himself after that would be an insult to God, dismissing what Jesus did on the cross as not such a big deal.
The meth cook’s wife, Skyler, illustrates why Scripture instructs us to flee evil and admonishes: “You shall have no other gods before me.” When Skyler discovers her husband is a meth cook, she stays with him, despite hating him for what he’s done. Eventually she becomes his partner in crime. It worked out badly for her.
The only explanation for Skyler’s decision to stay is that she still loves Walt and — as she tells her divorce lawyer — she is desperate to prevent her son from finding out his father is a meth cook. Her husband and son have become her “gods,” whom she values more than the one true God.
In such cases, Jesus does not mince words: “And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
But the most incessantly proved lesson of “Breaking Bad” is about the greatest sin of all: pride. Other than Dante’s Lucifer or Shakespeare’s Iago — and, of course, the Bible’s Judas — there is no better study of the sin of pride than “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White.
A high school chemistry teacher, Walt starts out as a sympathetic character — even if you don’t totally buy that a basically good guy would turn to cooking methamphetamine to provide for his family before he dies of lung cancer. But throughout five seasons, we watch him become irredeemably evil because of his pride.
Contrarily, Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, is something of a buffoon at the beginning of the series. But because of his godly choices — the polar opposite of Walt’s — he ends up becoming not only an extremely likable person, but a deeply good and heroic one. Even his stupid jokes get funny.
He is the manly one.
It’s Hank whom Walt’s underage son calls after being arrested for trying to buy beer. Hank’s the one who warns the son about drug use by taking him to meet Wendy the meth-addict whore. Hank is the voice of gentle rectitude when Walt monstrously gets his son so drunk he throws up into the pool.
Along with some normal human imperfections, Hank embodies all the Christian virtues — patience, diligence, humility, kindness. Indeed, Hank is the only character who always seems to be helping everyone else with their problems — shoplifting, marital separation, cancer, “fugue” states — rather than burdening them with his own.
(In accordance with Hollywood’s modern Hays Code prohibiting any realistic depiction of Christianity, there is none in “Breaking Bad” — which is even weirder than the fact that everyone on the show is still using flip phones. In real life, Hank, Skyler and Jesse would have been throwing themselves on their knees, praying to Jesus — in which case the series would have ended with my favorite five minutes of television ever, other than the first Romney-Obama debate: Hank arresting Walt.)
What’s so fabulous about Walt’s descent into darkness is that the audience is tricked into joining Walt’s temporizing — at least through his first few steps.
One of the earliest and most subtly cruel of Walt’s bad acts (subtle only in the sense that no one dies) is his allowing a high school janitor to be humiliated and arrested in front of the entire school, accused of stealing the lab equipment that Walt himself had purloined to make meth.
We’ve met the janitor before. He was kind to Walt, cleaning up after finding him throwing up in a school bathroom from the chemo, and offering him chewing gum.
But we went along with the sacrifice of this good man, barely giving it another thought. Yes, it was a tough break for him, but at least our hero Walt was off the hook! The important thing was, Walt was safe from the inquiries of his bloodhound brother-in-law. Whew!
Worst of all, when Walt watches Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane, choke to death on her own vomit — inadvertently caused by Walt’s jostling Jesse, flipping Jane onto her back — we rejoice. We don’t even wince, as we did with the blameless janitor. Jane was trouble: She had blackmailed Walt and threatened to blackmail him again. She also had turned Jesse onto heroin. Good. She’s dead.
In this way, the viewers are tricked into being co-conspirators with Walt. But, luckily, we are only observers. We can escape Walt’s choices. He can’t.
Soon, we begin to realize that Walt’s first malevolent acts — the ones we went along with! — made it easier for him to rationalize the next one and the next, until there’s no limit to what he won’t do, including violently attacking his wife, kidnapping his infant daughter, ordering the murder of his virtual-son, Jesse, and, perhaps most sinisterly, coldly informing Jesse that he had stood and watched as Jane choked to death.
He hadn’t made any of these increasingly depraved moral choices for “his family” — as he finally admits in the last episode. It was for himself, to feed his pride.
Walt followed his “personal ethics” — which Pope Francis has reportedly said is good enough for God. “Breaking Bad” demonstrates what the Proverbs teach: There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.