AMC’s Breaking Bad will end its six year, five season run in the next few weeks and what a run it has been.
Walter White, your average Government school Chemistry teacher has a good job, an intact family, and a happy life. Until that is, he finds out that he has cancer.
Desperate for a way to provide for his family and pay the medical bills, Walter White seeks out the help of a former student— now drug dealer and addict Jesse Pinkman—and together they develop a drug empire.
Forbes (and others) have called Breaking Bad one of the best shows ever made….Ever.
It’s won multiple Emmys and Golden Globes and has built up a fan base that will rival the cosplay of Star Wars at Comic Con’s for years to come.
But why on earth should Christians take notice—and dare I say—learn some things about a story revolving around sin, violence, drugs, and death?
Before we answer that question, we need to know the author’s intention of the series. His name is Vince Gilligan, who is not by any stretch of the imagination a Christian. He said in an interview with the NY Times:
“I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”
As an aside, I am not at all saying that Breaking Bad is a Christian show. It’s not even close. Breaking Bad is very humanist and openly so. It even portrays immorality immorally. But just as Christians can learn how to be amazing heart surgeons from the best secular doctors, so to can we learn how to be better storytellers and filmmakers from the best pagan storytellers and filmmakers. God’s common grace to pagans, even though it’s abused, can teach Christians lessons that ultimately advance the Kingdom of God. Even if it wasn’t the author’s intention.
Vince Gilligan has stated that he wanted to create a series where the main character goes from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” For those who don’t know who Mr. Chips is, just think Mr. Rogers.
Originally the networks rejected the idea. Why on earth would anyone want to watch a show where they despise and ultimately reject the main character. The main cast has to be likable. How can the audience turn on him? After all, we have to sympathize with the main character at all times, even if the main character is doing evil…right?
How many television shows and movies present a plot which embraces evil?
Whether it’s rooting for the criminals in Oceans 11-13, The Fast and The Furious or supporting the vigilante in Batman or The Avengers, or even cheering on those who disobey their parents, such as The Little Mermaid; movies and films are filled with a reversal of good and evil. We often root for the main cast no matter what they are doing. Films trick you into loving evil and hating good. Many times we don’t even realize that we’re doing it.
But the brilliance of Breaking Bad is that we do know who we are cheering for. We initially cheer for the “Drug Dealer”. After all, he’s just trying to make a few bucks here on the side to pay for his medical bills. I mean he has a disabled son and a pregnant wife!
Eventually, Vince Gilligan rebukes you for doing so and as the series progresses, you soon hope for his destruction and you beg Vince to bring down the hammer of justice on Walter White (Mr. Chips), who has now become the very essence of evil in his alter ego Heisenberg (Scarface).
Walter White, in going from Mr. Chips to Scarface, presents to the viewer the tragic consequences of being given over to a debased mind according to Romans 1.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32, ESV)
Breaking Bad is a sad story of a man who let his pride lead him down a path of destruction. We watch Walter White transform into his alter ego, Heisenberg, as he gets more money than anyone could possibly spend in a lifetime, but in the process loses everything, even his soul. He loses his happiness, he loses the love of his wife, he loses the love of his close family members and eventually brings them into harms way.
Breaking Bad doesn’t glorify evil. Far from it. It shows us the consequences of evil. Breaking bad shows us how pride is a virus and how pride goes before the fall.
Vince Gilligan said he once had a long fight with his writing staff over a single, small scene in the fourth episode of the first season. In that episode Walter White was given a way out, his friends from college gave him a life raft, a nice job, health insurance and all of his medical bills paid. All he had to do was say yes.
“Essentially they throw him a life preserver and he says in that fourth episode of the series, essentially, no, and he goes instead back to cooking crystal meth and that was, I think the moment I was most proud of. In the writers room, even though at the time it was not nearly as dramatic, as some of the, many of the things that have happened since, but it was the moment that all of us in the writers room argued a lot, and hashed it out amongst ourselves and said ‘Wait a minute, what…kind of character is this that would turn this down?’ Because this is a good guy, who’s doing bad things, for good reasons, but we realized in that moment that this is a man who is very prideful, to a fault.”1
So Breaking Bad is a Greek tragedy of sorts, and a demonstration of what happens when a man’s pride leads him to destruction.
Unfortunately, (and for a reason beyond my comprehension) Christians have decided that all movies and stories must have happy endings. Perhaps the Christian retail market helped promote that. The Joel Osteen, Oprah, and Chicken Soup books have only helped to perpetuate this false cliché.
The home team doesn’t always win. The husband doesn’t always return to his wife. The person with cancer doesn’t always get healed and sometimes the bad guy gets away. But you wouldn’t know this by watching Christian films, who appear to tell stories which lie about reality and present a world that is just as untrue as it is corny.
But who better to write about the tragedy of being given over than that of Christians? Who better to create villains than those who—unlike Vince Gilligan—have a standard for true evil? Reprobation knows only one happy ending, and that is justice being poured out on the reprobate.
The Bible is filled with many stories of evil but it never honors it. It never allows the reader to sympathize with the one who is doing evil.
David and Bathsheba, (Murder and Adultery).
David and Goliath (Violence and Death).
Samson and Delilah (Adultery, betrayal, shame and disgrace).
So then, why can’t Christians write about these kinds of stories? Honestly, who would do it better than the Christian?
Breaking Bad has opened up the door for Christians to write narratives which show the consequences of evil. It has allowed these stories of justice and non-sympathy towards the main character to become mainstream and popular.
No longer do television series and movies have to glorify evil, but it can teach the consequences of evil. We can write about the destruction of adultery or the deceitfulness of immorality.
So it’s time for Christian screen writers and storytellers to Break Bad. Let us write stories void of hope and filled with despair. Let us be the ones to devise evil plots and show the consequences of sin and humanism. Let us teach the world how to portray immorality, morally.
Because who better to write about Breaking Bad, than those in whom the Spirit is Breaking Good?