“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Bad Man is Hard to Break: Revelation and Redemption in "Breaking Bad"

*If you want to make the most of this post, I encourage you to take the time to read the four links in the second paragraph. It'll be worth it. Oh, and there are spoilers all over the place so watch out.

NOTE: If you are one of the many people who were curious about all of the Breaking Bad hype, watched the pilot, and then ran away in disgust, I have a few important things to tell you: 1) at first, the creator of the show did not know which network would pick it up, and it seems he leaned in a more HBO direction; then, AMC grabbed it and the whole thing became PG-13-ish instead of R-ish; 2) you have to get through the third episode in order to really have a sense of what the show is about. If you're not hooked by then, you probably never will be.

A few days before I started my blog, I read this by Kendra of "Catholic All Year." It made me talk to (plead with?) my computer screen like never before, because I LOVE Flannery O'Connor and Breaking Bad, and part of my mission in life is to defend them. That's why I want to start a blog, I thought—so someone might actually hear the stuff I'm saying out loud when I have no one around but my napping infant to convince. As I began to dig around to see what has already been said, I found this fantastic response by Haley over at "Carrots for Michaelmas." And Kendra is responding to a brilliant post by Jennifer Fulwiler of "Conversion Diary." Also, I found a very good essay called, "The Theology of Breaking Bad" and you can find it right here. There's great stuff out there already. Yet I feel that there is still more to be said, so let's see what I can cook up with this post.

I'm fascinated that good Christians can have such widely disparate reactions to these two things. I'll never forget the first time I encountered O'Connor in my public high school English class. We were assigned "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." It was violent, shocking, and disturbingand yet it moved me profoundly. My teacher's presentation of the story didn't help at all. She didn't mention that Flannery was a devout Catholic who had intended her stories to depict the action of God's grace. In search of something akin to Jen's piece which might have been called, "Why a story about a grandma getting shot in the chest made me feel closer to God," I asked my dad to read it hoping for a good discussion. He reached the end, looked at me with open mouth and slanted eye as if he were picturing his daughter transforming into one of those goth kids and said, "I hate it." It wasn't until I took a short story class in college that I came across O'Connor again; and that time, I had my Catholic stuff together. At last I was able to see and articulate what made her so great. Then, I began to read her essays, which I think explain perfectly what she is doing as she marries her faith with her art. (I actually think that she will be canonized eventually, and I pray that it happen in my lifetime.)

For me, the experience of watching an episode of Breaking Bad is remarkably similar to the experience of reading an O'Connor short story. It feels like an intense workoutmentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically (I ran around the couch like an excited dog during the Tuco shootout). I admit that I resisted the show for many months just because I was put off by the premise. Crystal meth is just something that I don't want to be a part of my life in any form, I thought. Then, a friend of mine whose opinion I value highly said something very dramatic: "I would pay ten thousand dollars to have never seen a single episode and then start right now." Ok. I'm there. Right away, I found the show utterly captivating, in much the same way Flannery O'Connor has always been. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, was born and raised Catholic. Sadly, he's not practicing now; but I really believe that those baptismal graces are still churning within him, for his show is a spectacular exploration of the corrosive effects of Pride. Pride is the root of all evil and certainly the root of all of Walter White's badness. He has chance after chance to break out of the cycle of lies, corruption, and violence but pride keeps his hand to the grindstone at every turn. There is a full theology underpinning the storyline, as one of the above links lays out. Here I will focus on the theme of redemption using the Christian sense of the term, salvation from sin.

 Almost all of the articles I've read on Breaking Bad say that Walter White is an irredeemable villain. Phrases like "pure evil" and "heading straight to hell" are peppered everywhere. I find this troubling. The Christian Tradition holds that the possibility for redemption exists until the last second of one's life. I love the image in the Purgatorio of the man who lived a horrible life but then was saved by a single tear at the moment of his death. The tear signifies repentancefull repentancenot just fear of hell but love of God, which for Dante means also an abhorrence of the wrong that one has done, precisely because it is wrong and not merely because it is damnable. No human being can be 100% evil because of his or her inherent dignity as a child of God made in His image and likeness. The inherent dignity means we have a will that can turn towards the goodthat was made for the good. It also means we are made for God, who works to turn us. Unfortunately, Walter White himself has never been taught any of this before. He says to his partner Jesse, "If you believe that there’s a hell...we’re already pretty much going there. But I’m not gonna lie down until I get there." This a moment of despair. He doesn't believe it's possible for him to be turned back to the good, or at least he has decided not to. Walt has a sort of Faustian sold-myself-to-the-devil attitude through much of the story. The big question for me leading up to the finale was whether or not he would be swallowed up by Hell Mouth like Dr. Faustus. The final shot of him laying on the floor while the camera pulls back through the rafters was reminiscent of that, I thought. But while the images convey some of the meaning, the songs that plays over those images cover the rest:
Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget or I'd regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue.
 The "baby blue" that has been "kept waiting" is his signature brand of crystal meth with which he has been painfully estranged for many months. Walt spends his last moments on earth gently patting the cooking equipment, quietly smiling, taking in his achievement. Vince Gilligan said Walt is like Gollum and the blue meth is the One Ringhe dies clutching his "Precioussssss." His cancer-induced coughing even sounds like the phlegmy "gollum, gollum" sound. I'm still processing the finale and I'm tempted to just keep typing about it forever; but I'll try to restrain myself for the sake of making a few good points. 

Right after the series ended, I listened to an interview by Terry Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air" with two of the writers of Breaking Bad. I will quote it at length since my treatment of this topic is largely based on the following two excerpts:
GROSS: Well, let's start with the very ending and the clip that we just played. Why was it important at the end to have Walt say yeah, yeah, you were right, it wasn't really about the family, it was about me, I liked it, I liked doing this?
GOULD: We had talked over and over again over the years about when is Walt going to see himself the way we see him? When is he going to have, like, a revelation of what he's done and who he really is? Sometimes there would be a big episode, you know, he let Jane die or something else, and we'd play with the idea of having him start to see himself, and it never felt right. And we came to the realization that once he really sees himself, once he has a full idea of who he is and what he's done, the show's over.
 This immediately made me think of Flannery O'Connor. We find in most if not all of her stories is that violence is paired with illumination; or, something violent happens and then the character finally sees. She even titled one story "Revelation" in which an obnoxious woman is mentally criticizing all of the people around her in a waiting room when she is suddenly stuck in the face by a textbook and told, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog." Shortly thereafter, the woman has a vision of all of the souls who are closer to heaven than she is. In the story I mentioned above, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," an elderly woman has a revelation when she sees the humanity of the "Misfit" who holds a gun up to her head. This single moment of compassion is her salvation. Walter White has a few instances of revelation in the series but he is usually on some inhibition-loosening substance and he doesn't die after any of them. He keeps picking himself up and returning to the well of Pride.

The very next thing said in the Fresh Air interview was this:
GROSS: Well, he had a much more honorable and redemptive end than I was expecting. You know, he tells Skyler he knows it wasn't about family, it was about him, implying that he's been selfish. He makes the police think that she was a victim and never went along with anything involving the meth business. He figures out a way to get money to his family. He kills the white supremacists, and he liberates Jesse.
GOULD: And then he dies, but of course like he has to die at the end, either of the cancer or of a bullet. I was expecting something closer to, like, a Shakespearian tragedy where, like, everyone on the stage is dead, you know.
GOULD: We talked about it. We talked about every possible ending, I think, and that was - I think that was also a favorite I would have really enjoyed if Walt was the last man standing, but it just felt right for him to go out in the end like he did.
SCHNAUZ: You know, it's interesting, I don't really see him redeemed. I just the fact that he sort of accepts what he's done and who he is, that's not redemption to me. I mean, I think ultimately - you know, we all, we talked about the morality of the show a lot while we were working on it, and to me, you know, he's - the actions he's taken are beyond redemption.
There may be some lightening or some understanding that he has, but I think I would distinguish between self-understanding and any kind of redemption.
Even the writers are saying that Walt is "beyond redemption"; but again, this is theologically unsound. The whole concept of redemption is infinitely more incredible and beautiful than Terry Gross's understanding. Schnauz is saying that Walt can't make up for his own sins with a few good deeds. But that is true of all of us. We're all beyond redemption if you count up our sins. That's the whole point of Jesus' death of the cross.

As Schnauz said, there is certainly a distinction to be made between revelation and redemption. Revelation is simply a step that must be taken for redemption to be possible. Once we sinners see ourselves clearly, we should be moved to repentance; and it is from there that we merit redemption. Like Walter White, O'Connor's characters experience revelations about their true natures; but the difference is that they don't stop there. Because they are repentant, the moment at which they are shocked by violence they are also purged and restored by grace. Humility brings them to their knees as they finally look beyond themselves for their salvation. As I watched the final scenes of Breaking Bad, I wondered what it would look like if he suddenly repented. Maybe he'll finally try the blue meth. Maybe it will affect him the way that beer and that sleeping pill did when he tearfully but enigmatically confessed his sins to his son and to Jesse earlier in the series. Maybe he'll double over heaving sobs laced with violent coughing until he collapses. Well, he doesn't. It's not surprising that he doesn't, just tragic. 

But there is a silver lining to this gruesome tale: we have plenty of reason to hope that Jesse Pinkman will be savedthat he will embrace full repentance and live a good life, even the life of the world to come. And interestingly, that might not have been true if not for his relationship with Walt. I imagine that if Jesse had been killed after season one as the writers originally intended, he probably would have gone out like Combo or Victortaken like a thief in the night and missing the higher goodthe something beyond, the transcendent meaning in light of which to re-order one's life. Had he never reunited with his former chemistry teacher at all, he might have lived out the rest of his days just like Badger and Skinny Pete, who've never murdered anyone, but whose souls can be bought for one hundred thousand dollars:

BADGER: You know, I don't exactly know how to feel about all this.
SKINNY PETE: For real, yo. Whole thing felt kind of shady, you know, like morality-wise?
BADGER: Totally.
(Walt holds up the money)
WALT: How do you feel now?
(They take the money)
BADGER: Yeah, definitely improving.
 I saw Richard III recently with my husband and he reminded me of this very similar interchange:
FIRST MURDER: Remember our reward when the deed's done.
SECOND MURDERER: Zounds, he dies! I had forgotten the reward.
FIRST MURDERER: Where's thy conscience now?
SECOND MURDERER: O, in the Duke of Glouchester's purse.
FIRST MURDERER:  So, when he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.
SECOND MURDERER: (my paraphrasing) Yeah, basically.  
Jesse could have easily ended up one of those guys. But thanks to his misadventures with Walt, he realizes that he can and must resist the temptation of blood money and thus has many opportunities for lightening and self-understanding. Those moments move him to repent of the bad deeds that he commits. His conscience rips him open, filling him with shame and regret. His heart is not hardened like Walt's, or blinded like Badger's and Skinny Pete's, but is instead wrapped in barbed wire. That boy needs Confession so hard. Thank God he knows it on some level.

Did anyone but me notice that some of the imagery from the last episode seemed to identify Jesse with Jesus? That flashback scene of him woodworking to render his cherished box was remarkably similar to the scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus is making a table. The cinematography matches so wellthe lighting, the camera movement, and especially the dramatic cut to Jesse chained up in the lab which  lined up with the cut to Jesus chained up in the custody of the Sanhedrin. Just look at this


and tell me it's not crazy-similar to this

In the key of Jesse, "Right?! Yo?!" In both scenes, two different forms of self-gift are expressed: Jesus and Jesse freely using their talents to work and create art juxtaposed with imprisonment for the love of another (the whole human race/Brock). I can't be sure if Vince Gilliagan had this in mind. But what he has made is good art, and so it participates in the Paschal Mystery even despite intentionally. I love being a Christian.

A bad man is hard to break, but not impossible. This is what Flannery O'Connor teaches so well and what Vince Gilligan shows us in part. God can overcome even the worst criminals if only allowed in, like the Good Thief hanging next to Jesus. There are always opportunities for repentance in light of a higher good (i.e. God)opportunities to withdraw one's will from past acts. But Walter White embraces darkness by indulging in self-worship, thus hardening himself against love. His self-knowledge leads to less and less regret, and never leads to repentance. Grace cannot enter into Walt's soul he clings to his brokenness, even when he sees it. It's the best thing he thinks he has: he is good at the empire business. He has been called an Everyman because the viewing audience can really sympathize with him in the beginning of the story. But Jesse is also an Everymana sinner, made in the image and likeness of God, called to repentance. We just have to pray that we follow a path more like Jesse's than Walt's by the end.

One of best things about Breaking Bad and Flannery O'Connor's work is summed up in this excerpt from the Fresh Air interview:
GOULD: What's interesting, Terry, though, is that in storytelling - [...] so much of it is what you leave out, the choices of what you decide not to show. I remember in season one, one of the moments that we were always talking about is, you know, Emilio - the character Emilio gets melted in acid. And then later in the episode, Crazy Eight is dead. And what are they going to do with the body?
And what we decided to do was just have Jesse show up, go into his basement, and have everything perfectly clean. Because we know that Walt knows how to dispose of bodies using acid at that point in the story. And we thought it was sort of - it was more interesting to give the audience just a few pieces, and let them put it together.
There's a quote from Billy Wilder - I'm probably misquoting him - that we would often talk about in the writer's room, which is give the audience two and two, let them make four, and they'll love you forever.
SCHNAUZ: Mm-hmm.
GOULD: And the storytelling is really a collaboration between all of us on the side of making the show and what's going on in the audience's head. And so sometimes we like to keep things a little ambiguous and let people be smart.
O'Connor employs this very same technique, which is why it can be difficult to interpret her motives and meaning. But if you already love Flannery O'Connor (like you, Haley!), you have a really good chance of loving Breaking Bad. And if you already love Breaking Bad (like you, Dad!), I'm confident you'll love O'Connor, too. Let's talk about it, yo.

If you want more on Flannery's faith, I hope you enjoy this paper I wrote.

Next topics: The movie Gravity. Then, Grammy-winners Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire


  1. I totally agree with your disagreement with those who say WW is pure evil. I never, ever, ever, not once, ever responded to him as someone who was pure evil. i wouldn't have watched the show, or stopped watching, the moment i felt that. Part of what makes the show so interesting is that pursuing your passion, as in finding your vocation, is a good thing. And that is what Walter is doing making the meth. Of course, the means and the ends he pursues are also evil. But it is a great artistic representation of what I see as the effect somewhat tragic circumstances and a lack of education can have on a soul that does actually have some greatness.

    1. It just occurred to me that Walt was pursuing purity, which is a good thing -- when applied in accordance with the order of being. Nazis also pursue purity, but in a way that violates the right order of being, which is that all human beings are equal with respect to being human. So Walt and the Nazis both pursue something that is in itself good, but horribly evil in their application of it in the world.

    2. Great points, Beth. I especially like the one about how purely evil characters are uninteresting. I hope more people will come to appreciate the deeper complexity in Walter White.

  2. OK, I'm sold. Daniel tells me that he'll watch the whole series again with me if I want to start. I'm in. Then I'm come back and re-read this!

    1. Huzzah! My goal has been reached. I look forward to talking to you about it as you move through!

  3. Well, I'm mostly just going to sit over here patting myself on the back for inspiring you to start a blog, because this is brilliantly written. I still disagree with you, but you should definitely be doing this!

    I appreciated learning that the first episodes were an anomaly because I was pretty horrified by the "sex" scene between Walter and his wife (although, obviously it spoke volumes) and Jesse and his little friend. In both cases they managed to create sex scenes that showed no skin and yet were terribly degrading. I hated them, which I KNOW is the whole point, but I HATED THEM.

    Okay, sorry. I'm alright.

    It's interesting to note that Downton Abbey suffers from similarly shock-factor immoral scenes in its first episodes (especially the first) the tone of which isn't carried through the rest of the series.

    As I wrote in the post, and will continue to shout from the rooftops no matter how many brilliant people write blog posts brilliantly disagreeing with me: Breaking Bad and Flannery O'Connor are apparently great for some folks and help them to grow in their faith and their love of God and neighbor. I believe that this is the more common position. But for ME that is not the case.

    I want to give a voice to the voiceless minority who wonder why when WE read Flannery O'Connor it makes us want to gouge our eyes out with a spoon just to make sure we never have to feel the way those stories make us feel ever again.

    Watching Breaking Bad makes me feel helpless and defeated, it doesn't work for me. But I'm currently working on a post about how watching The Walking Dead has lifted up out of the depths, out of the miry clay. Faith in Humanity: Restored!

    1. I am honored that you took the time to read my post and now stand covinced that you are right--Flannery O'Connor and Breaking Bad are not for everyone, pure and simple. I do think there might be something to the idea that if someone is a fan of one he or she might also enjoy the other; but I don't want to pester or pressure anyone who isn't interested in either. It's certainly true that there are some things within the "Catholic experience" that others find uplifting but just don't do it for me. I'm happy with this truce, and I thank you for leading me to it.

      I'm looking forward to your post about The Walking Dead! I haven't seen the show but it's probably in my future.

  4. p.s. Some unsolicited advice from someone who has been blogging lo these many months: get rid of the captcha. You'll get more comments and be able to inspire more discussion without it. You'll get some spam, but really Blogger catches almost all of it, they're pretty darn good.

    1. Thank you so much for the tip. I appreciate any wisdom seasoned bloggers are willing to share!

    2. I agree with Kendra! Captcha is the worst and it's almost impossible to comment from a phone with it.

  5. Kathryn, I think is your blog is amazing.

  6. The main argument in favor of Breaking Bad seems to be that it presents a proper moral vision of the universe--evil is portrayed as evil, and good as good. Bad actions have bad consequences, form vices, and ultimately lead to the soul's destruction. However, as you point out, a true Catholic understanding would also recognize that no one is beyond redemption and God's forgiveness. If most viewers and even the creators of the show believe that Walter is irredeemable, then it is sending the wrong message. The other problem I have is that I understand that the show has frequent disturbing images of violence, drug use, and other bad behavior. I believe we need to guard our eyes--a more tasteful program could let us know these things are happening without making us watch it directly. I think there is a danger of becoming desensitized to violence, or conversely, of becoming attracted to it. I think Flannery O'Connor is very different. First of all, she does not give "blood and guts" descriptions of the violent events that occur. Second, when you are reading, you can practice "self-censorship" with your mental images of the events described. With film and television, you have no control, and often do not have time to physically avert your eyes. Anyway, thanks for the post! --Maggie

    1. Maggie: Thank you for this comment. I was awake thinking about it last night. Unfortunately, no art this side of Heaven is going to be perfect. Breaking Bad comes pretty close, but misses the mark by not allowing the possibility of Walt's redemption. Oftentimes, shows or movies that are theologically sound tend to be lacking in production value or good acting or other things like that. Here's a great article exploring this phenomenon:

      When Christian movies come off as lame, they won't impact the secular world. They just preach to the choir or even annoy the choir. The fact is that people from many different walks of life watch Breaking Bad, and I think it's important for Catholics to act as sort of "viewing guides" who can join in the conversation and point out what's wrong while still celebrating what is right.

      Addressing your second point, I'm reminded of what Jennifer Fulwiler of "Conversion Diary" said in her post about the show: "I mentioned the TV show Breaking Bad in yesterday’s post, and it made me a little nervous when a few upstanding Christian ladies said that they’d never heard of it but might check it out on my recommendation. It immediately triggered one of my Dominican Sisters nightmares: I pictured one of the sweet nuns checking in on my blog, seeing my recommendation for the show, and assuming that its title must be short for something like Breaking Bad Habits! She pulls it up during recreation time, and the other sisters walk in to see dead drug dealers and methamphetamine labs on the convent television as she screams in confused horror, “Jen Fulwiler recommended it!!!”

      I have a similar nightmare. As I said in my response to Kendra's comment, I'm convinced that Breaking Bad is not for everyone, and it is definitely the upper limit for me. A friend of mine said the HBO show "The Wire" makes Breaking Bad look like "The Golden Girls". I'm not going to watch The Wire for that reason. I'm not sure how else to put this right now, but I think the violence and other imagery in Breaking Bad makes sense. It is realistic, honest, and therefore appropriate to it's context, and for me that context is something that I can bear. "The Divine Comedy" has some truly disturbing images but I hate to think that some people would choose not to read Dante because of that. I remember screaming in my dorm room as I first read some of the descriptions of punishment in the Inferno, but it sure did make me want to avoid those particular sins at all cost. Breaking Bad had a similar effect on me. I'm convinced more than ever that drugs, greed, lies, and pride can utterly ruin one's life and all the others connected to that life. The show preaches without being preachy, and that is what makes it great.

      What I'd like to say to everyone who has your same concern is this: if you know that you are particularly sensitive to violence and that seeing it will obscure the story for you, then don't watch Breaking Bad. You can get the same messages from the Bible and rely on your own imagination to make the lessons vivid and visceral for you. Maybe some of you could even employ those imaginative talents to create your own art in order to share that experience with the rest of us. Certainly we all could benefit from more of that.

      I hope this is clear and satisfying. Please keep arguing with me if it's not and I'll try again.

    2. I understand. I totally agree that most self-consciously "clean" programming is stupid, and I don't watch that stuff either. People have different tolerance levels for what they can watch, and I have learned that I am on the low end. I remember watching "Requiem for a Dream" in high school, and while I definitely came away convinced that drugs are really bad (as if I didn't know already), I still wish I could unsee some of the terrifying things in that movie.

      Honestly, I have trouble finding anything I enjoy watching, since everything seems either offensive or lame. I think in literature there are many more options--works that tell the truth about reality and human nature in a beautiful and ultimately uplifting way. It occurs to me that most of my favorite movies are literary adaptations--Shakespeare, Austen, Waugh, etc. So...maybe we should just read more books!

  7. I should have said this earlier: I really really don't want to scandalize anyone. I can think of a list of friends and family members who probably shouldn't watch Breaking Bad. I would never let kids watch it, and wouldn't watch it myself if little ones or teenagers are roaming around and may come in the room at any time. If my recommendation hurt any of you, I sincerely apologize and I ask God to blot out those images from your mind. Please forgive me.

  8. I just discovered this piece from Amy Welborn which also links "Breaking Bad" with O'Connor:


    I'm glad others see it!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Very interesting connection with O'Connor. I definitely had not thought of that, but I think it does make sense. I also disagree with the view that Walter White is "pure evil." Do some people really think that? I think one thing the show does brilliantly is help us make sympathetic (although sometimes also enraged) at characters who are involved in extreme moral depravity.

      I think Jesse, in the end, turned out to be the most morally decent character. (Despite his killing of Gale which does tear him up.) He certainly shows the most remorse and never loses his conscience. But I think I'm unsure about how his life will go afterwards; he's suffered so much psychologically that I worry that even with his moral self intact, he will have a deeply scarred life.

      I found the last episode really satisfying in many ways. I think one thing I took away from the show is that especially given the kind of world we live in, resisting temptations and carrying out one's moral requirements may count as living a decent, even admirable life. Of course this thought has the danger of leading to rationalised mediocrity. But Catholic moral theology does distinguish between that which is morally required and the 'supererogatory'--that which is good but not required.

  10. I agree that it would be problematic to present a character as being too bad for even God's mercy but I don't think that happened here. Since Peter Gould is not Catholic perhaps it's a mistake to think that "beyond redemption" means the same thing to him that it does to us. Instead we have to look at his art. Was Walt really presented as being without the possibility of redemption? I don't think so. I think his true moment of revelation came in the last episode. It started when he was in the cabin in the woods, alone with his barrel of money. The moment after his wedding ring fell off was meant to signify, I think, that it had finally hit home to him that he had lost everything. Then he admits to Skyler that everything he did he did for himself. This is the moment where grace could break through. We know he sees his pride, his selfishness and everything they've cost him, and he could go from that revelation to repentance. But he doesn't. He exacts revenge on Jack's clan, makes one last attempt at manipulating Jesse and dies, not with a tear in his eye, but with a fond smile on his face. Walt is beyond redemption not because it would be impossible for God to redeem him, but because he didn't want to be redeemed. Pretty sound theology if you ask me!