I have been meaning to post on this topic for some time. My thoughts on the show will not deal with what I think is the most common take away by Catholic writers I have read about the show–namely, that Walter White is a great example of what happens when someone gives into evil. Personally, that wasn’t what drew me to the show; I don’t need TV to tell me how and why someone is capable of going from good to evil. Real life is enough for that. No, my take on the show as a Catholic is that it is part revenge fantasy, part tragedy–a fantasy of power for the “beta male” section of society, that part of society in modern America that feels like it has lost out even as it has played by the rules, and part tragedy, for the story of Walter White’s obsessions really are at heart about the denial of legitimate desires till they become poisonous and self destructive. And that this is very much related to the problems of the Christian Church in the modern world.
The set up of the show, for those of you who are not familiar with it, concerns Walter White, a high school chemistry down on his luck. He has one child with disabilities, and struggles to support his family from his teaching salary, so he must work nights at a carwash. His intellect is not really appreciated by his students or his family, and his wife basically runs his life. He is a passive, submissive character, with whom it is easy to sympathize, but then things change as he finds out he has cancer, and that it is likely terminal. Walter takes up the offer of his DEA brother in law Hank (an alpha male who looms large in the series) to go on a ride along for a drug bust, and runs into one of his former students, who is a meth cook. From there, he decides to partner up with Jesse, his student, and from their first attempts he begins his descent from mild mannered school teacher to murderous drug lord by the show’s end.
And that was the very essence of the show; I read somewhere that its creator, Vince Gilligan, originally pitched it to AMC executives as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” and part of the shows brilliance is that it makes this transition feel so real, so lifelike. I am certain that my love for the show is partly due to my own experience; whether one identifies with a protagonist or not sometimes turns on this. I am a Ph. D, not out of work but underemployed, as is Walter White when the show begins. Working at a high school with a Ph. D in a field other than education is usually cause for embarrassment, something the show makes clear in a couple of episodes (his brother-in-law Hank refers to him as an “underachiever” at one point, if memory serves). On the other hand, I’m not sure how black Americans felt or fell about the show, but I’m guessing the idea of someone becoming a drug dealer is not perhaps as shocking to them as it is to a white audience.
Be that as it may, the show sets up Walter’s character beautifully in the first couple of episodes. We see him being disrespected by two of his students, forced to work a menial second job to support his family; his son, who has a disability, is picked on. When Walt beats the hell out of the kid who does this, we are given a preview of what Walt will eventually become, but also why I think viewers found him likeable, even after he basically becomes a murderer (which is basically in the second or third episode of the series). Walt is the quintessential decent, middle class white guy who has worked hard and played by the rules his whole life but who still winds up on the losing end of things. He is brilliant and learned, but is underpaid and not really respected by those around him, perhaps including his wife Skyler at the outset of the series. Walt is, basically, a likeable loser: one of the things I think the show does brilliantly is portray how American society, for all of its sentimentality about the “little guy,” makes rather sharp and hard divisions between “winners” (those with money, power, prestige) and “losers” (those who lack these things). This is why I think people still liked Walt even after he basically succumbs to evil: he is the loser who sticks it to all those people who have made his life hard or otherwise not taken him seriously (his employers, the cops, his brother-in-law, his competitor Gus Fring, even his wife.) That’s why Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was the perfect sidekick for Walt, since he was also a loser, a talented artist who bombed out of school and became a drug dealer instead. The only major difference is that Walt had a brush with success but pulled out of the company he had helped found, which went on to make billions. Perhaps not having had that kind of brush with success is why, as some commentators have pointed out, Jesse was the closest thing to a moral compass in the show; he often showed remorse and a sense of conscience where Walt seemed to lose his as time went on.
Where does Catholicism come into this? Well, in a couple of ways. One is that when Walt begins cooking meth, you can tell right away he is not really doing this for his family, even though he repeatedly says this is the reason. He tells Jesse that he is doing it to make money for his family, but in one scene early in the first season when Jesse asks Walt how much he needs, Walt thinks for a moment, and responds with one word: “more.” Walt begins with good purposes, but begins pursuing his meth cooking for other purposes: more money, more power, and even more prestige (he wants to be known as “Heisenberg,” the best meth cook around and the guy who knocked off Fring). What is so interesting about this to me is that these are all of the things that Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica (ST II. Q2) that we cannot substitute for our true happiness, which is only found in knowing God. Wealth, honor, fame, pleasure, and power can never serve as our supreme happiness, and yet those are things that Walt craves. But it bears noting that neither Thomas nor the Catholic tradition properly understood condemn those things; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pleasure, or fame. As Thomas says, those things can be either good or evil, but the supreme good–God–can only be good. That is why it is so dangerous to pursue those things in an excessive way.
Now, God is almost completely absent from the show, but in this case, one can see lesser goods taking precedence over the good of family, but also of respect for life, as Walt becomes more and more inured to his criminal life. In one memorable scene, Hank is at the dinner table with Walt and his family, and said something which stuck in my memory. Hank, who pursues “Heisenberg” throughout the series notes that this Heisenberg is supremely talented, and rues how much good he could do if he turned his talents to better purposes. With Walt sitting there, it is a powerful scene, not only because by that point he has become a drug dealer and murderer, but because we as an audience know what Hank doesn’t: Walt had turned his talents to good, but was not really rewarded as he felt he should be. Now, we know Walt is wrong, but we also know that experience: in life, good is not always rewarded as it should be. Given every man his due is the classical definition of justice, but in this life it never works that way. Justice is incomplete in this life. Men and women of virtue get taken advantage of; honest politicians lose to ones who lie and flatter; talentless hacks make millions while genuine artists scrape for a living; those who are abused are ignored and scorned, while their abusers go free. Again, Walt’s problems are not that extreme, but are all the more relatable for that reason. Walt’s grievances are not trivial in themselves, and even as he turns into a monster we still find in him someone whom we can sympathize because they are so universal.
At least as far as American society goes. Our is an intensely aspirational society, one which makes a lot of promises about what types of goals its citizens can achieve, but has little room in its moral imagination for those who fail to achieve theirs. And there is a parallel here, I think, with regards Breaking Bad and Catholicism. Just as Walt loses himself in things that can be good in themselves but are not ultimate, Catholics often lose themselves in certain goods (social justice, liturgy, the approval of others) that block our experience of the ultimate good, overselling them and underselling God. This is all the more poignant as the Catholic Church–with its exclusive claims, enormous dogmas, and outrageous rituals–has traditionally claimed to offer not any of those things, but rather the most audacious claim of all: to offer God himself, that whom is most desirable, most able to satisfy all those disappointed yearnings. And not symbols, mind you, not social substitutes, as if the community of the faithful or its charitable work were somehow equated with God’s presence, nor even the most magnificent liturgy imaginable–no, not in symbols, but in his very being and essence, to possess and be possessed by Him, and to be able to do that exclusively.
Breaking Bad shows what comes of pursuing those goods–and they are goods–to their ultimate end, without any thought for the ultimate end, in a way that should stoke our anger at Walt’s crimes, but also pity, not only at the loss, but at the unnecessariness of it. Walt pursues his own “bliss” in modern terms (Joseph Campbell’s terms!) to the end. In the last episode of the show, when his wife threatens to scream if he reiterates, as he does throughout the show, that he committed all of his crimes for his family, Walt finally comes clean: “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. And…I was alive.” The whole peril and promise of American individualism is on display in that scene, with all of its distortion and expansion of legitimate desires for accomplishment and personal achievement into an idol of self destruction. The only answer to this most powerful adversary I think is to show the mystery of God to those who have been disappointed in life, to the “losers” in our society’s game, to show that there is more than wealth, power, pleasure, and honor to live for, that those things can never satisfy, but only the one who made them all. And, as Catholics, who claim to have sole possession of those mysteries, cannot offer to the suffering of this world anything less, without taking the risk that we too might “break bad” for all of eternity.