Breaking Bad — Because Humanity is Badly Broken

Written by Steve Pauwels on October 8, 2013

A little over a week ago, more than ten million people sat under a mesmerizing humdinger of a theology lesson  — and, chances are, most didn’t even realize it. Those numbers represent viewers who tuned into the much-buzzed-about finale of AMC’s award-winning Breaking Bad (BB), capping five seasons of cautionary dissertation on human nature and the seductively lethal essence of evil.

BB chronicles the experiences of  nebbishy,  terminally-ill high school chemistry teacher Walter White (affectingly portrayed by Bryan Cranston) who gradually morphs into the murderous, meth-amphetemine cooking maestro — and monster — known ominously as “Heisenberg”. Series creator Vince Gilligan summarizes colorfully:”You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”

An occasionally humorous, always no-holds-barred study of the darkness coiled in men and women, the crime drama offers a despairing portrait of  homo sapiens at his worst. And illustrates with heartbreaking brutality the shock-waves wrong choices visit not only upon their choosers, but upon those in their wake, as well. 

“Mr. White”, and many of  the unsavory types he progressively collects around himself over the course of BB‘s arc, are not of the Simon Legree, moustache-twirling stripe. Like Shakespeare’s greatest characters (Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear) they’re not cartoonishly cardboard cut-outs, but oh-so-human players who possess — at least occasionally — certain identifiably admirable qualities. Doesn’t matter, though — their heinous violations against decency end-up destroying them and shattering others, anyway.

Be assured, “heartbreaking brutality” is not overstatement. I have well over forty years of serious television watching under my belt. I’m a serious fan of quality TV. Yet, I can’t shake this parting episode’s thirty second sequence capturing Walt, concealed in a remote location, silently, helplessly watching his disabled and estranged son. The teenager steps off a school bus, hobbles disconsolately up to his front door and disappears inside — and, as we soon discover, forever out of his father’s life. Walt’s expression, his eyes, as he fades from view? Numb, soul-shrivelling despondency. It’s possibly the single most emotionally devastating scene I’ve witnessed on the little screen. Ever. 

And all of it? The fall-out of one man’s blindingly short-sighted, wickedly reckless, and freely taken decisions. These calculations made their debut as relatively minor moral compromises in the program’s pilot but eventually ripened into all-consuming catastrophe – a diabolical process followed by rapt millions over the course of sixty-two episodes. 

It’s not unreasonable to assume legions of these viewers rarely, if ever, crack the Bible, so they’ve doubtless failed to recognize Breaking Bad‘s overriding theme  grippingly reflects a central tenet of historic Christianity: mankind has a sin problem. Individuals are inclined to do bad things — and with woebegone regularity, multitudes pay a fiendish toll for it. The trials and tribulations of Walter White and Company, perhaps unwittingly but still graphically, present Scriptures’ diagnosis of humanity’s dilemma sketched-out on a television storyboard. 

“There is none righteous, no not one,” insists the Psalmist.

Richard John Neuhaus grimly echoes, “Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world.”

What sentient being can deny this quandary? The Hebrew/Christian sacred writings unbalkingly teach it. Human history inarguably showcases it. Personal experience – at least for honest folks — verifies it.

Man’s evil proclivity, G.K. Chesterton attested, is proven everyday by empirical observation: “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. … the fact of sin … [is] as plain as a pikestaff.”

Stem to stern, the Bible flies a hearty “Amen” to this – and  Breaking Bad‘s – gloomy assessment; with one rather game-changing qualification. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians (chapter 2), men “have no hope and [are] without God in the world”. Why?  They are “dead in trespasses and sins … and … without Christ”. Still, there is this piece, disregarded in the presentation of Walt’s wreckage:  “But God … even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ …  that … He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith”.

The Scripture’s verdict on humanity is frank, astringent, but not hopeless. The Bible writers document an entire race’s failure; but also make clear, though cataclysmic, it’s not irreparable. Romans 3: “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith.” 

A longsuffering Creator, marrying the exacting demands of  His holiness with the gob-smacking implications of His mercy, put together a rescue plan for a planetful of Walter Whites. Offering His best — His Son — to embrace the Divine punishment required by humankind’s personal and collective rebellion, God satisfied both His inescapable justice and aching lovingkindness. No cheating here on the Eternal Lawgiver’s part, no sloppy excuse-making for or closing His eyes to millenia of human recalcitrance. Guilt is dealt with legitimately and exhaustively: God the Son endures the requisite death penalty. Tenderhearted pardon is exuberantly offered in the mix. The Benevolent Judge of all the universe thus reveals Himself  as “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

End result? Forgiveness and new life through God’s impossible sacrifice, for those who’ve formerly “broken bad” but now repent and believe.

In one additional regard, Holy Writ’s account of the sin predicament diverges significantly from writer/director Gilligan’s: In the run-up to BB‘s valedictory, AMC began broadcasting a promo featuring a first-episode Mr. White effusing to his class, “Chemistry is the study of — TRANSFORMATION!” While the voice-over sounds, early images of the series’ key principals flicker across the screen. It’s a poignant montage for series-long fans who remember these characters from Breaking Bad‘s maiden days; and how Walt’s villainy would end up transforming them — nightmarishly victimizing them, more accurately — over the fictional rollercoaster to follow.

The trailer functions, ironically, as a mirror image of the Gospel’s own promise of “transformation”.  Only, in the latter case, it’s the supernatural metamorphosis that occurs when sin-soured men — crystal meth kingpins or otherwise —  become servants of God,  pursuing life as He intended, not as evil misdirected. “New creations in Christ,” the Apostle exultantly designates them (2 Cor 5:17);  “His workmanship, created n Christ Jesus for good works”, he announces elsewhere (Eph 2:10). Once breaking bad, but no longer, they’re now forgiven, changed – behaving as new men. 

Audience members whose take-away from this program’s farewell is “Man, Walter White was one bada**! “, jaw-droppingly miss the point. As have those wishful-thinking few who’ve convinced themselves he achieved some kind of redemption in those final scenes: “determining the terms of his own demise” is one explanation being bandied about.

Redemption? As season five closes, with Breaking Bad‘s protagonist sprawled on the floor of a drug lab, alone and staring lifelessly into the camera, one thing is undeniable:Walter White/Heisenberg’s vicious self-will has agonizingly devoured his every, precious possession; and done much the same to those unfortunate enough to have connected with him along the way. They’re irremediably bad breaks – the worst of breaks – for the iconic “Breaking Baddie”, who apparently never gave a thought to the solution God provided for him long ago.

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.