Breaking Bad: The Many Faces of Evil

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Evil has many faces. However, we sometimes forget this truth and are taken by surprise. The award-winning show, Breaking Bad, helps us see how complex evil can be. The series is about a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and turns to making crystal meth out of desperation to try and provide a financial safety net for his family long after he is gone. He gets caught in an ever-increasing complex web of evil that catches you by surprise. I am not addicted to crystal meth, but I am addicted to this show because it provides a fascinating account of the multi-faced reality of evil.

One reality check that hits you in the face when watching the show is that good people can make really bad decisions based on trying to do the right thing for those they love. Their bad decisions get the better of them and they go from bad to worse, breaking bad.

Another reality check that hits you in the face when watching the show is that bad people can do really good things to cover their evil. Their good actions get the better of others who can get conned into providing cover for evil to flourish.

One more reality check that hits you in the face when watching the show is that evil can appear very beautiful. We have all seen pictures of the faces of people who have done crystal meth for a long period of time, but somehow or another it doesn’t keep people from making, selling, buying, and using it. Money and thrills are immediate when you own it. Everything’s interesting when you use it. You might not ever imagine that somehow meth will also break you in the end. After all, evil so often appears invincible.

I am not sharing specifics about Breaking Bad because I do not want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t watched it. I encourage you to watch it. It is better than any sermon I’ve heard or given on the identity and potency of evil and its impact. Far from offering ideology-framed homilies that lead us to see everything in black and white, it offers us evil in all its colorful complexity, absurdity, urbane inhumanity, and sheer horror. There is no moral to the story. The story is the moral: watch out for evil; its various masks are staring each of us in the face.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • http://www.pdxtrinity.org Eric Shreves

    The best moral philosophy in contemporary America is happening on Cable TV. The ordinariness of evil is what makes this show prophetic in our era. Most of us have been trained to think of evil as something that “they” are (ie. Nazis, Communists, Sex Trafficers, …..Republicans, Democrats). Whereas evil is in us ordinary people with our mundane daily routines and legitimate needs. It takes root with what ordinary people love most – thier friends, family, and desire to protect and provide for them. These are noble desires….but require tools for discernment and moral vision. I also recommend the Godfather trilogy and currently running Mad Men for serious moral philosphical art. Is anyone watching Walking Dead and reflecting on similar issues?

    • http://www.theofantastique.com John W. Morehead

      Eric, you and Paul have rightly noted that television is a significant forum for moral as well as theological reflection. I would add other elements, including motion pictures, video games, and graphic novels. More specifically, The Walking Dead (not to mention horror and other aspects of the fantastic genres) is exploring ethical, moral, and philosophical questions in a significant way. There are some of us who are watching this program and offering commentary and reflections. I would direct those interested to the anthology volume The Undead and Theology (Pickwick, 2012) edited by Kim Paffenroth and myself. In addition, I have written several blog posts on TWD, looking at it from the perspective of ethics as well as theology. Examples include a piece on ethics (http://www.theofantastique.com/2011/12/01/the-walking-dead-continues-to-wrestle-with-darabonts-ethical-concerns/) and one on theology (http://www.theofantastique.com/2011/10/19/the-walking-dead-goes-to-church-the-search-for-the-divine-in-what-lies-ahead/). Thanks for raising the question and for reflecting on our culture.

      • http://www.theofantastique.com John W. Morehead

        I need to correct my previous comment in that Paul Metzger is obviously offering commentary and reflection on Breaking Bad, not Mad Men as I originally stated.

        • Steve Longan

          Don’t worry about it, John. Most times, that’d be the safe bet with Paul :-)

  • http://www.pdxtrinity.org Eric Shreves

    I should note that these shows require much discernment and may not be appropraite for all people – especially children or people personally affected by addiction. I would only recommend them with caution.

  • http://www.pdxtrinity.org Eric Shreves

    @John – I look forward to reading your blog. Other than the quality of the themes in many of these shows – i am also impressed with the quality of writing, charachter development, and acting (esp in Mad Men and Breaking Bad). Walking Dead could be a great forum not only for moral but also political philosophy.

  • http://www.pdxtrinity.org Eric Shreves

    What do you all think about Addiction as a “setting” of the Breaking Bad story? Fr. Robert Barron has used “additction” as an effective way to enagage contemporary people about the toipic of sin…”Sin as Addiction.”

    • Steve Longan

      I think this is an amazing choice, both as a vehicle for exploring morality, but also as a narrative device for both moving and restraining the story. If you think about a lot of sitcoms, they go to great lengths to get all the characters back to the exact spot where they started the episode. Due to the nature of addiction, it organically simultaneously moves the story along while keeping the characters tethered to force that seeks their stasis.

  • Paul Louis Metzger

    Eric and John,

    Thank you for your reflections, which advance the conversation in various directions.

    Eric, yes, addiction is a key theme in Breaking Bad, as is self-preservation. The two are no doubt related.

  • Guest

    Dr. Metzger, given your profession, this article, and your appreciation for the show, you might like my recently released ebook, The Gospel According to Breaking Bad (http://bit.ly/tgatbbama), that centers on some of the same topics you touch on in this article.

    In fact, I may quote your line in my updated edition when the series is over. This is a great line: “Far from offering ideology-framed homilies that lead us to see everything in black and white, it offers us evil in all its colorful complexity, absurdity, urbane inhumanity, and sheer horror. There is no moral to the story. The story is the moral …. “

    • Paul Louis Metzger

      Hello Mr. Atwood,

      Thank you for letting me know about your book. It sounds quite intriguing, and I look forward to interacting with what you write there. I am glad you found that line from my post to be of benefit to your argument. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the series and see how you bring it all together in the updated version of your volume.

      Best wishes in your writing and editorial work at FaithVillage.com.

    • pmetzger

      Hello Mr. Atwood,

      Thank you for letting me know about your book. It sounds quite intriguing, and I look forward to interacting with what you write there. I am glad you found that line from my post to be of benefit to your argument. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the series and see how you bring it all together in the updated version of your volume.

      Best wishes in your writing and editorial work at FaithVillage.com.


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