"Breaking Bad" for Christians: A Morally Ordered Show
The result is a show that Augustine himself, the great authority on sin, would likely appreciate. He would see compelling illustrations of what he knew full well—that sin corrupts and poisons all it touches. He would see portrayals—simultaneously beautiful and chilling—of even Walt's "small" sins causing his heart to shrink and harden over time. And he would see confirmation throughout the show that sinfulness is every person's natural disposition. Most TV shows and movies, even when they do illustrate human fallibility, depict it as matter of chance or outside influence or as a complete mystery. Not Breaking Bad. Echoing Augustine, it suggests that sinfulness is hard-wired into human beings.
So far, this is fully in line with Christian teaching. But it should also be noted that Breaking Bad doesn't show any redemption answering the depravity. Over its first five seasons, the show grows increasingly darker. And judging from recent hints dropped by Gilligan, there doesn't seem to be any light on the horizon. For some viewers, Christian or otherwise, this imbalance may be troubling. Yet judging from contemporary culture—including Christian culture—Breaking Bad's emphasis on sin may be needed today. Many Christians need to be reminded again of Blaise Pascal's observation that "those who have known God without knowing their wretchedness have not glorified Him but have glorified themselves."
The Augustinian view of human sin in Breaking Bad is not its only distinctive feature. The show contains little of the gratuitous language or sex or violence that has become the calling card of recent cable dramas. Some have claimed that cable's ability to "push the envelope" to include such things as beheadings and perpetual profanity for the sake of realism is an inherent good. But Breaking Bad doesn't take this approach. There's nothing done for cheap shock value.
Breaking Bad is also striking for sketching out a world that although dark, is morally ordered. In contrast, many other critically acclaimed dramas are essentially amoral. They tend to depict moral considerations as either irrelevant or simplistic, suggesting that life is too complicated to be constrained into categories of "good" and "bad." When they do show human shortcomings, they're often explained as the product of social construction. But Breaking Bad refuses to treat its characters with condescension. The well-educated Walt, the high school dropout drug peddler, and everyone in between are portrayed as moral beings—not exclusively as the products of their backgrounds.
Finally, Breaking Bad doesn't take the by-now popular route of mocking or dismissing the virtues held by some of its viewers. For decades, secular popular culture has responded to traditional virtues such as duty, work, fidelity, and the protection of family with winks and sneers. Consider, for example, the attitude toward work expressed in The Wire, set in inner-city Baltimore. Many of the show's characters speak of work as part of "the game" rigged by distant, powerful figures. Laborers, politicians, and drug dealers alike are all portrayed as simply trying to get theirs in a cruel economy.
But it's not just secular culture that has had an uneasy relationship with traditional virtues. In recent years, many evangelicals have taken to questioning these things because of the way they can lead to idolatry. To be sure, idolatry is a real danger, but when this approach is taken to extremes, the result is that any focus on work, on productivity, on creativity, on parental authority, or on one's reputation becomes sinful.
James B. LaGrand is a Professor of Modern American Political and Social History, Urban History, Public History and Native American History at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.