Walter White is a 50 year old High School Chemistry Teacher. he’s spent his entire life trying to do what society tells him to and staying within the boundaries. He’s been a loving father and husband and a respectable person in the community. And then Walter gets cancer. He has no savings, his wife is pregnant, and he’s got a teenage son with cerebral palsy…and when death comes knocking he’s realized that he has nothing to leave behind to provide for them. So Walter does what you’d expect him to do.
He starts making meth.
This is the plot for AMC’s wildly popular show Breaking Bad. Chances are, you’ve heard of this show, even if you’ve never watched it. It’s highly acclaimed, well-done, and extra-ordinarily dark. What’s fascinating is the reasoning behind the show. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan said that the reason he wanted to make this show is because in all the stories he’s read and seen through the years, no matter what the subject, most of them have one thing in common. The Protaganist and the Antagonist are fairly static categories. That is, the good guy remains the good guy, and the bad guy remains the bad guy.
But Gilligan’s goal was to create a character who slowly, over time, moved from one category into an entirely different one. He wanted for the audience to have these moments where they would step back and ask themselves, “Wait, why are we rooting for this guy again?” And then realize they had no good reasons. One thing I appreciate about that is that it’s kind of true to life. On any given day I have quite a bit of protagonist and antagonist in me. And so do you. As much as we might try to pretend, babies aren’t born with good and bad labels. And the line of good and evil runs through all of us.
But the real genius of the show, is the philosophy behind it. Vince Gilligan was asked why he created the show. And what he said was so profound, I’ll just post it in it’s entirety:
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 hate the idea of Idi Amin (portrayed in the Last King of Scotland) living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.
Did you catch that? “I feel this need for some sort of Biblical atonement, or justice or something…”
When Jesus was in the heart of his ministry, he was constantly pointing to the world that was around him, showing the disciples and crowds overlaps between their day to day lives and the Kingdom of God. When Paul was here he was quoting Pagan poets and prophets to show the glimpses into the Kingdom of God. I’d like to point to Breaking Bad.
Because it’s more than just a show for the guy who created it. It’s an idea, a hope, that the world will one day be set right. Gilligan went on to say that he made Breaking Bad because he wants to believe there’s a heaven. “But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
I think I go to church with this guy.
In the Old Testament, death was never just a one time event. It was always a process. You could choose the way of life that leads to death, or the way that leads to more life. You could be living, but really be dead. I think that’s what this show does more than anything else. Over and over again, Walter makes these choices that you know are toxic, you under his reasoning, but you know what the outcome is going to be. And then it begins to dawn on you…I do this exact same thing all the time.
To be clear, I don’t cook meth. But I doubt there is a single person who is reading this who doesn’t know what it’s like to be the kind of person that you never set out to be, and wonder how we ever got there in the first place. The Apostle Paul talks about it by saying, the very thing we want to do we just can’t bring ourselves to do, and the thing we don’t want to do, we find that we do it over and over again. This is the human condition. In our better moments, we all know that at different points in our lives, we’ve been people that we would never want others to see.
And this is Vince Gilligan’s gift to the world, it’s a dark show that I don’t recommend. But it’s like Gilligan is holding up a mirror to the world about what it’s like to choose the way of death, and warn us about the consequences that we already know, but pretend will never find us. And every one of us need that reminder.
Because we’re all tempted to chose death, on some level we are all breaking bad.