"Breaking Bad" for Christians: A Morally Ordered Show

Breaking Bad, the AMC television drama that wrapped up its fifth season this past summer, is one of the most critically-acclaimed shows of the last several years. It recently won its seventh Emmy award and has been touted by many critics as the best show on TV today. Yet in a time when internet outlets such as Patheos allow for Christian commentary on almost every aspect of popular culture, Breaking Bad draws relatively little attention in Christian circles. Why is this?

Certainly, one reason some viewers have stayed away is the show's disturbing central premise. The two lead characters cook and peddle the drug methamphetamine together. Breaking Bad is certainly not family-friendly viewing. It's a dark show, whose mood becomes even darker as it progresses.

Despite this, there are good reasons for Christian viewers (among others) to consider watching. Unlike the cable dramas with which it's often compared, Breaking Bad doesn't set out to flout traditional morality and beliefs, and has some remarkable features. These will be noted below—with spoilers avoided so that interested viewers might catch up with the show through DVD or the usual online outlets while it's on hiatus until next summer.

Breaking Bad's main character is Walter White, played by actor Bryan Cranston. Walt is a brilliant Ph.D. in chemistry, now middle-aged and finding himself teaching science to indifferent high school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When we first meet Walt, he's mired in both professional and personal troubles. Money problems are contributing to tensions with his wife. He frets about what the future holds for his teenage son with cerebral palsy. And to top it off, Walt is diagnosed with lung cancer in the pilot episode.

Walt's rash response is to approach his former flunky student Jesse Pinkman, played by actor Aaron Paul, with a business proposition. After barely graduating high school, Jesse has become a small-time drug dealer, and Walt proposes that the two of them team up to cook meth together. At first, Walt tells himself he's cooking meth only to make enough money to fund his cancer treatments, then to provide for his family after he's died. Increasingly, though, Walt's pride and vanity cause his drug empire to grow larger and more damaging and destructive.

Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers and directors do a masterful job telling this story. Certainly the most obvious reason for any viewer to watch the show is because it's simply so well made. There's no self-indulgent filler or ill-advised rabbit trails in the plot. One of the show's experienced actors was once asked what made Breaking Bad distinctive. "It's written within an inch of its life," he said.

Behind all of Breaking Bad's artistic and technical brilliance is a clear and consistent picture of human nature fully consistent with orthodox Christianity. Perhaps no other show has ever presented such an honest and carefully drawn picture of total depravity. This emphasis surely comes from Gilligan himself. Although he now describes himself as "pretty much agnostic," Gilligan continues to bears the imprint of his Catholic upbringing. His show portrays moral decay as part of the natural order of things in a fallen world. "Mr. Chips becomes Scarface" is the pithy way Gilligan puts it when asked to describe Breaking Bad in a single sentence.

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."