Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Breaking Bad and Catholic theology - Yes, I do believe they are related. :)

And here we have my Breaking Bad musings post. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this show since I watched the finale last week (My immediate, very emotional, reactions are in takes 6 and 7 of my recent 7 Quick Takes post). And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Breaking Bad is a secular show with religious themes - at least in my interpretation. :) This is going to be long, so settle in.

This review WILL have SPOILERS. I will talk about how the show ends, so if you don't want to know that, see you tomorrow. :)

Ok, so what do we have presented in Breaking Bad? At first glance, the premise sounds highly unappealing, to be sure. High school chemistry teacher undergoing a mid-life crisis receives a terminal cancer diagnoses. His family isn't in the best of financial situations, so he concocts a scheme with a former student to use his chemistry talents to cook a highly pure and sought-after form of crystal methamphetamine to make some quick money before he dies. He has a pregnant wife and a teenaged son with cerebral palsy - he wants to leave them with a way to pay off their debt and have a nice future even without him. He already feels like he failed them by going into teaching rather than making a lot of money from his research (which we learn about through a series of flash backs). This is a way to redeem himself before the cancer eats away at him. What could go wrong, right?

Well, everything. Let us dissect...

Breaking Bad is not a show that mentions God, but I see Him everywhere in the story. How so?

(1) Concupiscence - Our inclination to sin as a result of Original Sin (see CCC 1264). We will all sin sometimes. It stands to reason that we will sin MORE when we make a choice to place ourselves in a position of high temptation. So, what happens when you take a person prone to sin (which is any one of us) and place them in a situation rife with opportunities for additional sinful choices?

They will sin A LOT. And one sin leads to another leads to yet another. When you go down that rabbit hole your relative view of good and evil will be affected. Something that you struggled with morally at one time will come easier to you the more you do it.

Back in Season 1, Walt struggled with The Krazy 8 Problem. Here we have a guy he meant to kill because that person was posing an immediate threat to his life. However, when the guy didn't die, he now has a quandary on his hand. Is it moral to kill someone chained up in your basement that is telling you he will do you no harm if you let him go? Is the *possibility* that this guy will harm you and/or your family enough to take his life? Ultimately, Walt finds enough evidence to answer that question with a definite "yes." After that, Walt uses less and less thought before he kills or deliberately harms another person. Come Season 5 he's shooting Mike in cold blood because Mike won't give him the information he wants. Mike is no threat to Walt at this point. But he was presenting an obstacle to Walt's greater plan for the livelihood of the business, and that was enough for Walt to kill him.

Walt continued to pile horrifying choices upon his already sorry lot of poor choices. And that gets easier and easier to do as you surround yourself with ever increasing darkness.

It's interesting to me that the writers have said that they wanted to tell the story of a good man who turned bad. We don't know Walt's moral compass when the show begins, but he was portrayed as pretty benign. However, he obviously had a propensity for evil choices even back then, it just hadn't been put into a context yet in which he could choose to act on it. That's what I see as concupiscence. We all have the ability to make evil choices, and the evil will flourish if we continue to make those same choices. By the same token, we can choose to do good even in the face of evil. That's just much harder to do.

(2) Pride: It Really is One of the 7 Deadly Sins -  When he started off on this cockamamie scheme, Walt wanted to make money for the benefit of his family. Soon though, the money started coming in, and do you know what he said?

It wasn't coming in fast enough. He wanted to make more money, *faster*, and you know where that took them? Right, to Tuco, and a slew of other ruthless drug dealers who beat people to a pulp for sport. That didn't exactly work out seamlessly, did it? So, we have the sin of greed already leading them down a dangerous path.

And Walt took pride in his product - this was the best meth on the market. When we get past the wild-eyed insanity that was Tuco, we have Gus. Gus was civilized and sophisticated. Gus sipped Pinot Grigio and chopped his own garlic. Gus was everything refined that Tuco wasn't. Gus had an operation that was as smooth as silk, a pristine lab where Walt could call the shots, and more money than the lot of them could ever possibly need. And do you know what Walt said?

It wasn't enough. *He* wanted to be in charge, *he* wanted the glory. He wasn't content to be the nameless "cook," he couldn't leave well enough alone. This took him down a path that ultimately meant that it was either him or Gus. Suddenly, it's all about Walt.

As Mike said right before Walt killed him: "We had a good thing, you stupid *&#! We had [Gus], we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork! You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed! It was perfect! But *no*! You just had to blow it up! *You*, and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man! If you'd known your place, we'd all be fine right now!"

(3) Redemption - The reigning question throughout this series is: Will Walt find redemption? In the end, will he realize the error of his ways and turn back into the even tempered man we all knew at the beginning of the show? Bryan Cranston did an amazing job in the role of Walt transforming his physical and emotional appearance. The bald, craggy, unpredictable Walt we see in Season 5 barely resembles the mild mannered chemistry teacher of yore. He ends up truly taking on the characteristics of the drug kingpins he had to knock down to get what he wanted: Power. Is a person who went to the depths that he did to get on top (Season 5's tagline is: "All Hail the King") *beyond* redemption?

Of course not. But ultimately, Walt's pride does not take the backseat that would be necessary for that to happen. He does try to make a few things right for his family before he goes, and he does save Jesse, but Walt doesn't regret the things that he did. He does not show contrition nor humility in the face of death. He dies on his own terms.

(4) Dignity of the Human Person - In a show like this, this theme is pervasive. Corrupted people lose all perspective on the value of human life. People are pawns to them, they either are for them or in their way, and if they are in their way, they are eliminated. As Walt becomes more corrupted, we see Jesse as the beacon of light. Jesse cares, Jesse weeps when people die. Walt will watch Jane die and not help her because she presented an obstacle to his relationship with Jesse. Jesse will go head-to-head with the skillfully dangerous Gus to stop children from being used in drug sales. That's the difference between Walt and Jesse.

Lack of respect for the dignity of the human person is seen is so many areas of our world, particularly at both the beginning and end stages of life. When we don't value the most vulnerable, we will eventually cease to value so many others. Which is a perfect lead in to..

(5) Honor- According to the Catechism (CCC 2479), "Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect." There is no honor among thieves. The scene in "Oxymaridas" when Uncle Jack and gang arrive in the desert to "help" Walt out of his predicament with the DEA is such a perfect example of this. Finally figuring that he is done, Walt begs Uncle Jack to spare his brother-in-law, Hank. Hank is family, and Walt tells himself that he values family above everything else. But you can NEVER trust dangerous and corrupted people. Walt offers Uncle Jack all of his money (which by this point is in the tens of millions) for Hanks' life, and what does Uncle Jack do?

He kills Hank. He knows that he can silence the DEA AND have the money. Walt is in no position to stop him from doing either. He doesn't care about Walt. He cares about himself. For all of his talent and money, Walt cannot buy honor and respect from another corrupted person, and he learns this in a most painful way. When Walt collapses on the ground in despair after Hank is shot, I felt sorry for him. It truly would be an overwhelming burden to know that your actions directly led to this result.

(6) Fatherhood - This is the aspect of Breaking Bad that is most difficult for me to talk about. Jesse is obviously in need of a father figure, since his own cast him out, and he turns to Walt, who betrays his trust time and time again. Then we have Walt, who loves his children, but relentlessly puts his own emotional needs ahead of theirs. He abuses his position as father in so many ways, all while telling himself that he's doing this all for THEM. Neither Walt nor Jesse turn to God as father, and ultimately, both are left wanting.

Walt is able to cobble together a way to assure that his family is financially provided for even despite Uncle Jack's audacious thievery, and his final moments with Skyler are civil, but he does not have the affection and respect of her nor Walt Jr. Little Holly will never know him. When he kidnapped Holly in "Oxymaridas" I thought I was going to lose it. I can't remember crying that hard over a tv show before. It all just hits very close to home as a parent. He wanted to force a relationship with Holly, because that's why he got into this mess to begin with, but there's no going back. She wanted her Mama, the one who has been there with her the most. It broke my heart when Walt said goodbye to her, I know that deep down he loved her and wanted so much more with her. But it was too late, and he knew it.

Jesse is finally free, and can turn his life around, but will he? We don't know, obviously, but he's been so damaged. We have hope for Jesse, but there is still a strong possibility that he will get mixed up in the darkness again. We can only hope that he chooses the light.

In the final moments of the finale, when we could see what was happening, I just felt so sad for Walt. He never really had the power that he wanted, nor the respect of others, and in the end he didn't even have the love of his family. He was alone. I kept thinking of little Holly sleeping like an angel in her crib when Walt last saw her, and here Walt is, dying alone in a chemical lab. Just so, so sad.

It may not be as dramatic, but we have the ability to cause ourselves to be alone like that too. Separated from God, separated from the people we love. This show really brought home to me how choices have real consequences.

It's not a show for the faint of heart, but this is outstanding television. And I'm telling you, very, very Catholic in it's lessons. :)

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