The Theology of Breaking Bad
On September 29th, 2013, the innovative and unnerving series, Breaking Bad, wrapped up its incredible five season run. From the first episode, the show has triggered much controversy among its Christian viewers, and rightly so – it is bursting with heartless violence, graphic sex, strong (although iconic) language and, obviously, constant drug use. Despite its grisly subject matter, it is difficult to deny the strikingly Biblical fundamentals at the center of the show’s thematic conflict. The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, has acknowledged this moral logic by stating, “If there’s a larger lesson to Breaking Bad, it’s that actions have consequences.” The characters of the show consistently make horrifyingly ill-advised choices, which result not only in their own suffering, but in the suffering of those around them. This concept of social sin is often exemplified in the books of the Old Testament and proves that Breaking Bad contains more substance than its subject matter suggests. The central character of the show is Walter White, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher, portrayed by Bryan Cranston. Walt lives with his wife and physically disabled teenaged son in the suburbs of Albuquerque, New Mexico. His existence is authentically middle-class; he lives in a spacious house with a pool in the backyard while working two jobs and barely paying the bills. The monotony of Walt’s life is broken, however, when he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Faced with the issue of providing for his family as well as paying for his medical treatment, Walt enters into the trade of methamphetamine production with one of his former students. From then on, Walt’s conversion from an under-appreciated teacher to the depraved king of a drug empire is both agonizing and entertaining.
The moral erosion of Walter White is a thought-provoking reversal to scriptural theology. In an inversion of the Book of Job, Walt manipulates his own personal suffering and powerlessness to justify his entrance into the drug world. He uses his illness and financial situation as a reason to perform increasingly gruesome acts. Walt likes to see himself as a family-man and therefore excuses his own conceited actions as selfless heroics for the betterment of his family. For example, he stands and watches an unconscious woman choke on her own vomit simply to manipulate his partner, Jesse Pinkman, into remaining in the drug business. As a result, the woman’s father, an air traffic controller, misdirects two planes in his state of grief, causing them to collide right over Walt’s house. Bodies literally fall from the sky. The quick and alarming consequence of Walt’s choice is a stereotypical allusion to the ‘wrath of God’ – a quintessential Old Testament notion. Consequences of this magnitude are often found in the Old Testament. God’s people disobey, God punishes and everyone shares the penalty. But Walt fails to see the communal effect of his actions. His pride causes him to believe that only he will pay for his actions and these continual justifications crystallize his convictions.
Does the presence of Christian teachings justify a believer’s choice to watch Breaking Bad? Probably not. Much of the content is inexcusable in its immorality. But the show delivers an accurate depiction of a Godless man in a Godless world, which is the same world of the Old Testament and the same world that we live in today. The moral teachings of Breaking Bad may not be crystal clear, but we can learn a startling amount if we just look through the cracks.
Breaking Bad is available on Netflix.