Like many people, I saw all the fuss over the end of the landmark television show Breaking Bad in social media last summer. Since I had not yet watched the show, I didn’t know what was going on, though I did know the premise of it. Over the past six weeks or so, I’ve been watching through all five seasons, and I’ve just recently finished. My conclusion: It’s a gripping show of human desperation, pride, greed, and ultimately sin, which ends up in destruction for all characters involved.
I’ll talk first about the acting and writing before I move on to the themes that so many find interesting in Breaking Bad.
Disclaimer: There are spoilers here. Flee far away if you do not want to read them.
Acting and Plot
The acting by most of the actors is nothing short of top notch. Bryan Cranston is deserving of all those Emmy awards; he captured the descent of Walter White from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to an increasingly conflicted and cold drug lord perfectly. It sounds like a ludicrous story, but the believability that Cranston lends the character makes it work. Of course, the writers did an excellent job too, but Cranston delivers.
Most of the supporting cast do a good job too, though their characters can get admittedly annoying. I found myself ignoring large parts of the show involving scenes just with Walt Jr., Skyler, or Marie because they simply weren’t that interesting. They were interesting insofar as they provided motivation or conflict for Walter, but other than that their characters could be a drag. Even Aaron Paul’s character, Jesse, often got quite old and whiny, though that is not his fault since he didn’t write the part. I found Hank Schrader more endearing as a multilayered character, and I thought Dean Norris gave him the right blend of arrogant macho-ness yet genuine honor and family concern. One of my favorite characters, of course, was Gustavo Fring portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito. Given that my first experience with Esposito as an actor came from the comedy show Community, I was quite impressed that he pulled off a ruthless yet gentlemanly Chilean drug lord. Because of his and Walter’s chess match in Season 4, I think that season is the best one of the series.
Overall, the story is well-crafted with plenty of turns. On a thousand foot level, it of course stretches credulity, but within the confines of the show it moves with a deliberate yet believable pace. You always got the sense that the writers knew where they were going, quite unlike the stumbling finish given to us by Lost. Still, I wasn’t quite thrilled with how much of a sniveling whiner Jesse turned out to be, and the final season’s main antagonists, the white trash Neo-Nazi gang, were simply annoying, quite unlike the more interesting characters such as Gus Fring or even Tuco Salamanca. Nonetheless, there was plenty of drama in that last season, and one of my favorite scenes is when Hank finally confronts Walt in his garage. Superb acting in that scene.
It’s a great series, though naturally some episodes are better than others and some scenes are dull. It’s well worth the watch on Netflix.
Themes: Sin has consequences, and pride cometh before the fall
One of the more striking aspects of the show is that all actions have consequences, particularly evil ones. Those consequences tend to put the characters into even more bad situations where they continue to make more compromising decisions, leading to a downward spiral towards destruction. Quite unlike other shows in our culture, Breaking Bad does not play too many games with morality. There is good and bad, and many characters, especially Walter, “break bad” to the point where the audience ceases to feel sorry for them.
I wish I had the space to cover all the details in the show; there is a lot of insight to be drawn from most of the characters. However, I’ll just stick to reviewing the main character, Walt, and his character development (or really, regression).
Initially, Walter starts cooking meth in order to support his family and pay for his inevitable medical bills after his tragic cancer diagnosis. At this point, while you may not agree with him, you feel sympathy. He doesn’t want to hurt a soul; he just wants to make enough money so that his family is okay after he dies. He even calculates how much money he needs in an early episode to take care of bills and his kids’ college education: Over $700,000 should do it.
However, by the end of the show, he far exceeds that amount but refuses to stop, something Jesse brings up to him in the last season. Why keep going? Walt answers emphatically, “I’m in the empire business.” He doesn’t just want the money; he wants the power and prestige. He knows he makes the best meth in the world and he’s proud of it. You learn throughout the show that he once founded a company with a couple of friends, but due to personal reasons he left the company, only for that company to become a multibillion dollar entity. He checks the company’s worth every week, pining over his lost opportunity and building up bitterness. He could have avoided the whole meth business in the first place if he just accepted those same friends’ offer to pay his medical bills, but he refused to be the product of charity. Eventually, he bought into Gus Fring’s idea that “a man provides,” even if his family no longer loves or appreciates him. Pride kept him going; he was good at something, he knew it, and he was becoming feared and respected. “I’m the one who knocks!”
Somewhere along the way, his family ceased to be his main concern, which he finally admitted in the last episode when he told his depressed wife that he did it all for “me.” He liked it. For once, he was recognized and rewarded for his aptitude after years of languishing away as an unheralded and overqualified high school teacher. For once, he was no longer being walked over but was the one who outsmarted others and enforced his will. In one jarring scene, he tells Jesse that if hell exists, he knows he’s going there after everything he’s done, but he isn’t just going to go there lying down. Even when he knows what he’s doing is evil, he’s still proud that he’s good at it.
The sad irony is that his initial motivation was to provide for his family and to prevent them from having a bad final memory of him as a feeble, sick man who had to rely on charity; in the end, he lost his whole family and they all hated him as a lying, manipulative, and ultimately selfish man. While he finally found a way to get all of his money to his children, they could never know it was from him because they would refuse it. In the end, he found out that all of his money was useless. When he was in hiding from the Feds, he paid the man who hid him $10,000 to stay with him… just to play cards for another hour because he was so lonely.
Where does he end up after his death? Well, here’s a summary:
-Many people dead or their lives ruined, directly or indirectly because of him. This includes his brother-in-law, a single mother (whose kid he poisoned just to manipulate Jesse), and a plane full of people.
-His whole family hates him, a far worse memory than if he struggled to pay off his medical bills.
-Jesse’s life, though not in great shape in the first place, is a mess. Jesse could get his own post, but suffice it to say, while Jesse is assuredly responsible for his own sins, Walt certainly didn’t help.
-His son and his daughter will have to grow up with a cloud hanging over their heads that their dad was the ruthless “Heisenberg.”
While his character is of course a rather extreme example of this, his character arc reminded me of this verse from James:
[B]ut each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15)
Becoming steeped in sin and incredible evil is rarely a moment or a single, offhand choice. In many ways, it can’t be a simple choice like that; Walter in the beginning would never have dreamed of poisoning a child or blowing up a nursing home. Instead, it is a journey full of good intentions, rationalizations, and ultimately sinful desires. As he made compromise after compromise, the line between Walter White, nice chemistry teacher, and Heisenberg, meth cooker, became blurred. Then his sin enveloped him and eventually destroyed him and everything he held dear. It reminds me of so many young Christians who go off to college, never dreaming that they’ll find themselves neck-deep in alcohol and sexual immorality (and even thinking proudly that they will NOT go that way like so many before them), but after so many compromises, that’s exactly where they end up.
For Christians, it is an instructive story. Sure, I’d venture to guess that nobody is going to go from high school teacher to regional drug lord in a year. But the principle that sin grows and grows until it bites us should give us pause. There is no such thing as staying stationary with sin. It is either pulling you downward, or Jesus is pulling you up. Most of us won’t have crazy stories like that portrayed in Breaking Bad, but if the Bible is to believed, we all have broken bad already, and the consequence of that is destruction. Only Jesus is the way out, and a gracious gift he is for people who deserve punishment from a holy God.