Editor’s Note: Massive Spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Breaking Bad is one of the most ethically complicated dramas on television today. The series explores themes of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and damantion through the transformation of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin. Calling the series’s thematic landscape a philosophy fails to fully appreciate its religious dimensions; in this essay, I will sketch a few tenets of what we might call the theology of Breaking Bad.
In the beginning, Walter could hardly be a more sympathetic character. He is passionate about his subject (if not about his frequently inattentive students). But one day, he receives a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer that forces him to confront his mortality. With a disabled son and pregnant wife, Walter worries that his death will leave his family impoverished. As he runs the numbers, he realizes that to keep his family comfortable after his death, he would need to make more than a million dollars in just a few months. When he sees a drug bust on television, Walter realizes his best option to make fast cash is to put his chemical expertise to use manufacturing methamphetamine.
Over the course of five seasons, Walter descends deeper and deeper into evil, becoming the ultimate anti-hero. So how does one go from a common chemistry teacher to a murderous drug lord? Or as series creator Vince Gilligan puts it, “What if it was essentially me— in other words—a guy who has never broken a law, barely littered or jaywalked, who has never broken the law in any serious way suddenly finding himself being a meth cook, doing something reprehensible?” Gilligan’s answer takes three primary forms: Walter’s evil deeds are motivated by pride, rationalized with good intentions, and lead him slowly but surely into total depravity.
Ultimately, Walter’s descent is driven by the most formidable and dangerous of sins: pride. His wealthy friends offer to cover the cost of his cancer treatment, in part because they owe him a great intellectual debt, but Walter refuses to go “begging for [their] charity.” He is offended by the very idea of relying on others and spurns the offer.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls pride “The Great Sin” for it “has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began… it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice.” We see in Walter’s case that it is his pride—an unwillingness to accept normal treatment, a refusal to be a charity case even when faced with his own impending death—that starts him on the path toward manufacturing meth. Pride is the catalyst that leads to all of Walter’s other sins.
Of course, Walter would argue that his motivation is actually noble: he rationalizes his behavior by appealing to the need to provide for his family. Here we get one of the most accurate pictures of middle class life on television today. While Walter and his wife Skylar have more than enough—a home, two cars, a pool out back—they still seem to be struggling to make ends meet. Skylar once worked as an accountant but quit after her boss made sexual advances toward her. Left with a single income, their family faces financial insecurity. And there are more expenses on the horizon: between college for the kids, medical care for his disabled son, and leaving enough for his unborn daughter, Walter realizes he would need another two decades to provide for his family on an honest income. Facing mere months to make up the difference, he wonders how he can do right by his family. And this is how he begins to do wrong.
Philosopher Kierkegaard explains why it is that good intentions actually make the situation worse:
When a person turns his back on someone and walks away, it is easy to see which way he is going. That is that! But when a person finds a way of turning his face towards him who he is walking away from, and in so doing walks backwards while appearing to greet the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming, or incessantly saying “Here I am”—though he gets farther and farther away by walking backwards— then it is not so easy to become aware. And so it is with the one who, rich in good intentions and quick to promise, retreats backwards farther and farther from the good.
In Walter’s case, we see that each step— taken in some measure of blindness— leads him closer and closer to perdition. Each step can be rationalized and justified out of an appeal to the superior end he is trying to accomplish.
Whatever his intentions, the evil of Walter’s conduct is undeniable. He uses his extensive training in chemistry to produce methamphetamine, a dangerous drug that destroys the lives of its users. Of all the shows engaging the question of substance abuse today, Breaking Bad is perhaps the most honest in its depiction of addiction’s tragic destructiveness. Walter tries to avoid his culpability in fueling his customers’ addictions, realizing they would get the meth from somewhere anyway. His partnership with drug user and former student Jesse Pinkman spares him from direct contact with his “victims.”
It takes more pressure for Walter to commit personal transgressions. His first act of deliberate violence, killing a drug dealer inside his mobile RV meth lab, is hastily performed in self-defense. We consider self-defense a tragic, if reasonable, excuse for killing. He then hesitates to kill the second drug dealer, Krazy 8, sympathetically giving him a sandwich and beer as he tries to muster up the courage to finish the job. Only when he realizes that Krazy 8 will certainly murder him if he get free does Walter carry out the execution. Even then, the improvised manner of the killing suggests a retreat from cold blooded agression to a more plausible act of self-defense. But this, too, is a small step backward—going from hasty self-defense to calculated self- defense—permitting Walter to become increasingly desensitized to his own sin.
The turning point comes in Season 2, when Walter stands by and allows Jane, Jesse’s goodhearted but troubled girlfriend, to choke to death on her own vomit so that Jesse will remain his partner. Again, Walter can rationalize his action: this is for Jesse’s own good, to save him from further addiction. But this is a thin veneer over his real motivation of keeping his partner around so that he can continue profiting in the meth business.
By the end of Season 3, Walter is asking Jesse to kill a peer in cold blood to save his own skin, as a pre-emptive strike. And by the end of Season 4, Walter recruits an elderly suicide bomber to take out his chief rival, Gus Fring, and ensure his own continued safety. And that’s not the worst of it. To manipulate Jesse, Walter poisons someone close to him and accuses Gus of the crime. We finally learn the extent of Walter’s capacity for betrayal, lies, manipulation, and callous indifference.
Four seasons ago, no one would have expected good old high school teacher Walter White to kill a man in cold blood or to poison a child—probably because the Walter White at the beginning of the story would have immediately refused and denounced such behavior. But his willingness at the beginning to engage in a passive sort of evil (feeding the destructive addiction of others) paves the way for killing in self-defense, committing pre-emptive strikes, and threatening the lives of children to accomplish his ends. The lesson here is that one doesn’t simply Break Bad in an instant; it’s a long process of moral erosion.
In one episode, Walter asks Jesse why they kept cooking meth, even after they had made more money than they could possibly need. He attributes it to simple inertia—the tendency of matter to continue in a state of motion. What Walter encountered was not simply financial inertia, but moral inertia. Once he has thrown out the line between good and evil by indulging pride and behaving inhumanly, it takes a great deal of will-power to stop at killing. Each level of indifference to the suffering of others permits their further dehumanization to the point of becoming mere tools to achieve Walter’s ends. Because each step is made facing backward—with good intentions—it’s difficult to realize when we’ve transgressed inviolable ethical boundaries and become truly evil.
Chuck Klosterman made a good case in his Grantland article that Breaking Bad is unique because Walter White’s sins are “not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It’s a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that’s what matters.” Yet the most important feature of Walter’s transformation is not merely the fact that he chose it, but that he continued to choose evil each step along the way. In terms of his ultimate destination, the earlier decisions were just as harmful as the later ones. As Jackson Cuidon put it, “Walt’s pride at a dinner table is ultimately as important to the villain he becomes as his murder, his lying as corruptive as his violence.”
It’s important here to note that Breaking Bad is not a story of a good person gone wrong; we see nothing in Walter’s character in the first few episodes to suggest that he is an exemplar of virtue. Rather, it’s that finally the opportunity has really opened up for evil, and he chooses to take it. In a Rolling Stone interview, Gilligan explains, Walter’s cancer “means that he is now awake, and this awakening from sleepwalking through the first five decades of his life, this sudden lack of constraint or inhibition, allows him to be the person that he truly is. Unfortunately, the person that he truly is most definitely not all good.” The sinful nature simply lay dormant until being awakened by circumstance.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis offers an illuminating metaphor:
“If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”
Unfortunately, rats rarely stay in a single cellar, but usually spread throughout entire neighborhoods. One infestation permitted to linger affects everyone nearby. Thus, Walter’s sin has tragic consequences for everyone around him. The clearest illustration of this is after Walter lets Jane die.
Jane’s distraught father, an air traffic controller, misdirects two planes. The planes collide directly above Walter’s house, and bodies rain over his entire neighborhood. It’s a clever, if rather blunt, exploration of how Walter’s sin unleashes havoc all around him. Sin is not without serious consequences.
After the crash, Walter finds the plastic eyeball of a teddy bear that fell into his pool and keeps it in his pocket. Like one of those small trinkets of trash that you forget to throw away, the eye continues to haunt him—peeking out from under the bed at him or peering upward at his wife from the dresser drawer. The eye serves as a regular reminder not only of Walt’s transgressions, but also of the devastating consequences that he will never escape.
Gilligan explained during another interview, “If there’s a larger lesson to Breaking Bad, it’s that actions have consequences.” During lunch one day in his trailer, Gilligan said, “If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished… I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
Yet surprisingly, we don’t want Walter to burn in hell. The most incredible thing about the entire story is not simply Walter’s tragic decline, but the capacity of Bryan Cranston, as an actor, to make Walter White still loveable in some sad way. While we recognize the depths of evil to which Walter has sunk, we cannot fully hate him. We sympathize with his motivations; we appreciate how logical each step along the way has been. We hope—as that final shot closes in on the lily of the valley plant in his backyard—that maybe, maybe it really wasn’t Walter who poisoned the child.
In this way, Cranston has provided a plausible example of that threadbare Christian saying, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Even if we hope that he faces some level of justice, we want Walter to make it through okay. We cannot completely loathe him even when his actions are utterly despicable. I worry, given Gilligan’s predilection for justice, that there may be no redemption for Walter.
This, I think, is where the Christian narrative is most helpful: while there is forgiveness, it is hard earned. God doesn’t simply want to wash away the sin—nor would it be consistent with his justice to pretend that the evil has not been committed. Instead, God himself takes on human flesh to offer us a model of true goodness and to save us from sin by his death on the cross. He doesn’t want to wipe us clean on the outside, but to transform our broken hearts from the inside out. Jesus stops our moral inertia and can push us in the opposite direction.
Breaking Bad offers one of the richest insights into human nature on television today. Gilligan slyly signals his overarching theme when Walter stands before his class and tells his students, “Chemistry is… well, technically it’s the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change.” And so, too, Breaking Bad is the study of change—of a change from moral indifference to horrendous evil. It paints a picture of the development of sin in a way unparalleled in today’s television story-telling. And it makes us pause to ask important ethical questions:
• Must sin have consequences?
• Will there be justice in this life?
• How can we resist negative moral inertia?
• How do we avoid breaking bad ourselves?