Five lessons about sin from AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’

The breakout show has audiences captivated – and learning about sin in the process.

With Sunday night’s airing of the series finale of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” the show’s audience finally has a complete work from which we can attempt meaningful interpretation.  So what was the show was actually about?

Of course, one of the main elements of the story, perhaps the driving element, was the destructive and ultimate dehumanizing effects of sin.  This point was obvious from the first season of the show as many critics have pointed out.   I think the popularity of the show, however, was a direct result of how the theme of sin’s destruction/dehumanization was worked out through exceptionally well-done storytelling and characterization.

Here are five lessons about sin we can learn from the five seasons of the award-winning show.

1.       Self-destructive behavior often stems from old wounds and festering bitterness.  In the first episode of season one, we meet the character of Walter White, a man deeply embittered by a life that is not the picture of success he had expected in his younger years.  We see him acting out, yelling at Bogdan, his boss at the car-wash, and assaulting the jerks in the store who make fun of son with special needs.  These public explosions betray the infection of discontent and jealousy that had festered long before he ever stumbled upon that meth lab during Hank’s ride-along.

The success of Gray Matters Technologies is a constant reminder throughout the series of “what could have been” for Walter, and the sudden reappearance of Gretchen and Elliot on Charlie Rose in the show’s penultimate episode (“Granite State”) initiates a final transition for Walter that leads to the show’s bloody climax. Their appearance reminds us that this whole mess began with what we might think of a common “domestic” sins stemming from unmet expectations.

2.       Sin doesn’t trickle, it flows.  The hook of season one is the empathy that we feel for a terminally ill, high school chemistry teacher struggling to provide a stable life for his wife, unborn daughter, and teenage son.  Sure, the meth lab production plan is drastic, but his situation is drastic as well, we tell ourselves, and the discontinuity of a buttoned-up suburbanite timidly traveling the dark underworld of Albuquerque’s drug culture provides a bathtub full of exhilarating scenes.

We entertain ourselves with unconscious questions of what we would do given such a choice.  At the outset, we might imagine ourselves in Walter’s place faced with the same decisions, but at some point we find ourselves alienated from him as he develops from protagonist to sympathetic antagonist to true antagonist.

3.       True evil leads to chaos and death.  The production and distribution of “Blue Sky” (Walter’s pure form of crystal methamphetamine) leads to a network of deception, the endangerment of his family, the murder of Krazy 8,  standing idly by while Jane dies of asphyxiation (this event re-emerges with Walter’s “confession” to Jesse before abandoning him to the Nazi gang in the episode “Ozymandias”), the poisoning of young Brock, the bombing of the assisted living facility and the murder of Gus, the shooting of Mike, calling a hit on Jesse, the death of Hank (the anti-Walter), and the show’s bloody finale.

Walter’s utter degradation finds expression when, in the finale, he tells Jesse to shoot him under the pretense that his death would serve Jesse’s need for revenge.  But Jesse isn’t having any of it.  He responds, “Say the words!” forcing Walter to admit that he himself wants to die.  This is the natural end of sin if left unchecked. I was reminded of the demon-possessed man of the Gospels (Mark 5 and Luke 8): his namelessness, his isolation, his self-destructiveness, his absolute lost-ness surrounded by graves.  It is into such a life that Jesus, in stark contrast to the man’s surroundings, speaks life and order.

4.       We lie to ourselves to justify our sin.  Perhaps the greatest self-deception is Walter’s personal mantra repeated throughout the series that everything he does, he does for the good of his family.  His self-righteousness is continually called out by others, and even acknowledged in his own admission to Jesse early in the series when he says that his activities makes him feel “awake.”  Still, he does not confess his true motivation until Skylar confronts him in the series finale, and he admits that he did it all for himself, that “[he] liked it,” and that it made him feel “alive.”

The self-righteousness of the lie was enough to blind him to the fact that he had lost himself and his family over the course of the series.  In the end, however, the veil is pulled back long enough for him to die with the full realization of the destruction he had caused.

5.       Finally, sin is not merely individual; it is communal.  Walter’s plan was meant to be discrete, controlled, and temporary.  If he cared about one thing, it was staying in control and carefully manipulating others to his desired ends, but the series chronicles his failures to control the chaos he creates.  He becomes a character like King Saul whose subtle insecurities at the outset of his reign become systemic national problems, familial alienation, personal fragmentation, and finally fatalism and death.

The only semblance of a conscience in the television series, and therefore the only approximation of a prophetic commentary, is Jesse Pinkman.  He is both drawn to Walter as a father figure, and he loathes him as a lying scoundrel, but in the end he is the witness to the destructive effect Walt’s sin has on everyone within his network of relationships.  Jesse’s liberation from Nazi camp represents one of the few redemptive acts at the end of Sunday’s finale.  He is free from the slavery of Walter White.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not recommending “Breaking Bad” to everyone.  Some of the scenes depict violence and degradation in a way that may be offensive and unwanted to some (this is true of many other cultural texts, see MacbethCrime and Punishment, or Heart of Darkness for starters).  I do believe that the series artfully and successfully depicted the “wages of sin” for a culture that is often uninterested in the consequences of real and present personal evil.  We should be reminded that such a point is valuable and worth making, so much so that the Scriptures are full of examples of similar depictions (see the accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, the story of the judges, the reign of Saul, and the failure of David).

Sin has a telos, but, thank God, the world has a savior.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Titi

Scott Redd
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