3 Things That Are Good About ‘Breaking Bad’

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

A lot has been written about “Breaking Bad,” the popular AMC TV show, since its last episode was airedback in September. The last eight episodes recently arrived on Netflix, so that’s why this analysis comes a little late in the game. Yes, be forewarned — there are spoilers to follow.

“Breaking Bad” is not for everyone. It can be hard to watch. As one person said, you crave it and dread it at the same time. It is about a man (Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston) who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to find a way to make enough money to provide for his family when he’s gone. So he starts manufacturing methamphetamine, and finds out he’s really good at it. He makes a lot of money. His cancer goes away. He makes even more money. Along the way, we witness some heartbreaking scenes, some squeamish violence, and some profound lessons about the moral universe in which we live.

Here are three good things about this show:

1) It vividly portrays how sin can increasingly harden one’s heart. The story of Walt reminded me of the story of Saul in I Samuel. Both were men with great potential and many gifts. Both gave the appearance of moral uprightness — Walt repeatedly claimed his actions were for his family; and Saul often claimed to be serving God (I Sam. 15:20). Both had many opportunities to humble themselves and repent. But they refused. And each time they refused, their hearts got just a little bit harder. This is the power of sin: it enslaves (Rom. 6:16) and it ensnares (Prov. 29:6). And as both Walt and Saul demonstrate, those who harden their heart will fall into calamity (Prov. 28:14).

2) It highlights the fact that all personal choices are significant. At the beginning of the show, Walt is depicted as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher living a quiet life in the suburbs. At the end of the show, he is a ruthless drug kingpin who strikes fear into people’s hearts. “Breaking Bad” takes all five seasons to show us the small, incremental steps that were taken to get Walt from one place to the other. Jackson Cuidon has written an interesting analysis in Christianity Today on the role choices play in “Breaking Bad.”  Our choices are not morally neutral. They change us. As Cuidon writes, “We get shaped by the things we do, or don’t do, even unintentionally, even if you’re not paying attention.” C.S. Lewis wrote something similar: “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. . . all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.” Walt’s choices turned him into the latter.

3) It raises the question of how Walt’s actions can be considered wrong if there is no God. What got me interested in “Breaking Bad” was a quote I saw from the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan. He said: “I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’ ” In other words, we all have an instinctive desire for justice to be served, especially for people as wicked as Walter White. And if there is no hope that things will one day be put right . . . well, here’s how Gilligan says it: “If there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what’s the point of being good?”