the gospel according to breaking bad’s walter white

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Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

the gospel according to breaking bad’s walter white

bryan cranston breaking bad walter white

less than two weeks ago, i could tell you 1 fact about amc’s emmy-winning drama, breaking bad: it was called breaking bad. oh wait, one more: it was on amc. i was pretty sure.

since that time, i’ve devoured approximately 20 hours of the show, comprised of 7 season one episodes and 13 season two episodes.

my initial response to this acknowledgement (or confession, if you will) might be that i was totally worthless during that span of time, making short work of the equivalent to half a work week on late-night tv-show watching.

in the end, though, that evaluation would be hasty. what i discovered was a show so layered and in tune with the rhythm of humanity that it was as if i lived in the world of walter white and his cast of saints and sinners for the last week and a half.

if you don’t know breaking bad, let me attempt to piecemeal together a quick synopsis. walter white—upstanding high school chemistry teacher, husband to unexpectedly pregnant skyler, father to 16-year old walter, jr. who has cerebral palsy—lives in peaceful albuquerque, new mexico where life would seem to be great. but after being diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer, walter’s mundane life goes from bad to worse. with a gloomy—at best—prognosis, walter seek out a former student-turned-drug dealer, jesse pinkman, for a solution. facing the prospect of leaving his family with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, walter partners with jesse in buying a mobile meth lab in the form of an old beat-up rv where they begin cooking pound after pound of crystal methamphetamine.

with walter specializing as the cook and jesse handling the sales, walter soon finds himself sucked into a world for which he didn’t account, where the lines between right and wrong are quickly blurred. this blurring led to a series of harrowing events: murdering and disposing of two drug dealers, missing the birth of his daughter because of a drug deal, declining to save a girl from overdosing because she knew secrets about him, escalating their operation that lead to the murder of one of his guys, causing jesse to basically become a junkie and ultimately, in some kind of cosmic indictment, a plane crash that certainly accounted for many lost lives. undoubtedly, lines were blurred.

ultimately, breaking bad is a human study of how far one man goes to create “good”—the gospel, if you will—and where that quest reaches its limit. vince gilligan, the show’s creator, recently spoke about this phenomenon, saying,

What’s great about human nature is we have an infinite capacity to rationalize our behavior. It’s at the heart of “Breaking Bad.” (It’s) what makes (these characters) empathetic to an audience. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know we rationalize things we do, thoughts we have, hundreds of times a day. “I ran a red light, but nobody got hurt, and I have to get to work to feed my family.” We all rationalize things. Name anything. But those who are capable of rationalizing little can also rationalize big. There are a lot of evil Nazis, but then there were a lot of morally weak Germans who said they were just following orders. “I was part of the killing fields in Cambodia, but if I didn’t do it, somebody else would have, and they would have killed me for refusing.” Where do you draw the line?

where, indeed, do you draw the line?

to delve into, as the title states, the “gospel” according to walter white is to assume paradox. if, in fact, the gospel is the “good news”, then understanding walter white’s gospel becomes very mucky.

when the show begins, we find a man who is willing to do anything for the sake of his family’s future. cooking crystal meth. literally anything. in the beginning, walter is driven by more than just dollar bills. rather, walter is driven by a deep sense of indebtedness to his family. if he lives up to his prognosis of possibly no more than 18 months of life and hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical bills, walter feels driven to provide for his family at all costs. walter positions himself as a self-sacrificing, drug-pushing savior.

something changes, though. as the world crumbles around walter and his actions begin to create a chain of mounting consequences, walter has several opportunities to end the madness and cut ties with the business of meth. that simply doesn’t happen. walter pushes ahead, even when his drug-dealing partner, jesse, demands they quit.

the mild mannered teacher, husband and father—the selfless messiah—became a greedy, self-serving monster.

or so it would seem.

whereas countless deaths have been at the hands of walter or at least due to his actions, there is some kernel of goodness left in walter. buried beneath the seemingly heartless pursuit of power and money, walter and jesse’s relationship take a turn near the end of season 2. for the greater part of their time together, walter and jesse have displayed something no more than a relationship on the verge of implosion. in one of the emotionally compelling scenes of the series, though, walter goes to a drug den, filled with junkies literally scattered throughout. he finds jesse passed out in a stupor and as jesse crumples over weeping, walter holds him before helping him out and getting him into rehab. in that moment, and following a conversation with someone about how much he wants to see his “nephew” get clean, we find that walter cares deeply about the drug dealer he once used to make a few bucks.

don’t get me wrong, walter’s “good news” is hardly good, but i don’t think we’re at the moral end of walter white. there’s something more. it seems as if he’s stuck in a world of lies and death that he’s created, but given his deep-seated desire to do right by his family, i think we’ll see the upstanding citizen make some semblance of an appearance in season 3. i’m not sure if walter can fully return to who he was before, but i think—especially with skyler packing up and taking the family at the end of season 2—walter will begin to make efforts to right the ship.

as much as i like to speculate, one of the truly great things about the show is that it is nearly impossible to predict exactly what will happen. even if we wanted to cast firm conjecture, we still have to wait until march 2010 to find out where walter’s life will go next.

if, in fact, the gospel is good news, then what we can safely predict is that we’ll continue to live in the paradox that breaking bad’s walter white has created.