‘Breaking Bad’: A Christian Parable


breaking-bad-15829-1920x1080For readers interested in an Obamacare column this week, please refer to the 40,000 columns I’ve written on the subject from 2008 to last week.

This one’s about AMC’s smash TV series “Breaking Bad” — the most Christian Hollywood production since Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (Not surprisingly, both were big hits!)

It may seem counterintuitive that a TV show about a meth cook could have a conservative theme, much less a Christian one, but that’s because people think Christian movies are supposed to have camels — or a “Little House on the Prairie” cast. READ THE BIBLE! It’s chockablock with gore, incest, jealousy, murder, love and hate.

Because the Bible tells the truth, the lessons are eternal — which also marks the difference between great literature and passing amusements. Recall that even Jesus usually made his points with stories.

The sweet, soulful druggie on “Breaking Bad,” Jesse Pinkman, illustrates — heartbreakingly — the monumental importance of the cross. Believing he is responsible for his girlfriend Jane’s death by overdose, Jesse goes to some godless hippie rehab center. Naturally, he is still unable to forgive himself.

Perfectly rationally, he concludes: “I learned it in rehab. It’s all about accepting who you really are. I accept who I am. … I’m the bad guy.” He returns to cooking meth. Mayhem, murder and disaster ensue.

There’s only one thing in the world that ever could have allowed Jesse to forgive himself: The understanding that God sent his only son to die for Jesse’s sins, no matter how abominable. To not forgive himself after that would be an insult to God, dismissing what Jesus did on the cross as not such a big deal.

The meth cook’s wife, Skyler, illustrates why Scripture instructs us to flee evil and admonishes: “You shall have no other gods before me.” When Skyler discovers her husband is a meth cook, she stays with him, despite hating him for what he’s done. Eventually she becomes his partner in crime. It worked out badly for her.

The only explanation for Skyler’s decision to stay is that she still loves Walt and — as she tells her divorce lawyer — she is desperate to prevent her son from finding out his father is a meth cook. Her husband and son have become her “gods,” whom she values more than the one true God.

In such cases, Jesus does not mince words: “And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

But the most incessantly proved lesson of “Breaking Bad” is about the greatest sin of all: pride. Other than Dante’s Lucifer or Shakespeare’s Iago — and, of course, the Bible’s Judas — there is no better study of the sin of pride than “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White.

A high school chemistry teacher, Walt starts out as a sympathetic character — even if you don’t totally buy that a basically good guy would turn to cooking methamphetamine to provide for his family before he dies of lung cancer. But throughout five seasons, we watch him become irredeemably evil because of his pride.

Contrarily, Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, is something of a buffoon at the beginning of the series. But because of his godly choices — the polar opposite of Walt’s — he ends up becoming not only an extremely likable person, but a deeply good and heroic one. Even his stupid jokes get funny.

He is the manly one.

It’s Hank whom Walt’s underage son calls after being arrested for trying to buy beer. Hank’s the one who warns the son about drug use by taking him to meet Wendy the meth-addict whore. Hank is the voice of gentle rectitude when Walt monstrously gets his son so drunk he throws up into the pool.

Along with some normal human imperfections, Hank embodies all the Christian virtues — patience, diligence, humility, kindness. Indeed, Hank is the only character who always seems to be helping everyone else with their problems — shoplifting, marital separation, cancer, “fugue” states — rather than burdening them with his own.

(In accordance with Hollywood’s modern Hays Code prohibiting any realistic depiction of Christianity, there is none in “Breaking Bad” — which is even weirder than the fact that everyone on the show is still using flip phones. In real life, Hank, Skyler and Jesse would have been throwing themselves on their knees, praying to Jesus — in which case the series would have ended with my favorite five minutes of television ever, other than the first Romney-Obama debate: Hank arresting Walt.)

What’s so fabulous about Walt’s descent into darkness is that the audience is tricked into joining Walt’s temporizing — at least through his first few steps.

One of the earliest and most subtly cruel of Walt’s bad acts (subtle only in the sense that no one dies) is his allowing a high school janitor to be humiliated and arrested in front of the entire school, accused of stealing the lab equipment that Walt himself had purloined to make meth.

We’ve met the janitor before. He was kind to Walt, cleaning up after finding him throwing up in a school bathroom from the chemo, and offering him chewing gum.

But we went along with the sacrifice of this good man, barely giving it another thought. Yes, it was a tough break for him, but at least our hero Walt was off the hook! The important thing was, Walt was safe from the inquiries of his bloodhound brother-in-law. Whew!

Worst of all, when Walt watches Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane, choke to death on her own vomit — inadvertently caused by Walt’s jostling Jesse, flipping Jane onto her back — we rejoice. We don’t even wince, as we did with the blameless janitor. Jane was trouble: She had blackmailed Walt and threatened to blackmail him again. She also had turned Jesse onto heroin. Good. She’s dead.

In this way, the viewers are tricked into being co-conspirators with Walt. But, luckily, we are only observers. We can escape Walt’s choices. He can’t.

Soon, we begin to realize that Walt’s first malevolent acts — the ones we went along with! — made it easier for him to rationalize the next one and the next, until there’s no limit to what he won’t do, including violently attacking his wife, kidnapping his infant daughter, ordering the murder of his virtual-son, Jesse, and, perhaps most sinisterly, coldly informing Jesse that he had stood and watched as Jane choked to death.

He hadn’t made any of these increasingly depraved moral choices for “his family” — as he finally admits in the last episode. It was for himself, to feed his pride.

Walt followed his “personal ethics” — which Pope Francis has reportedly said is good enough for God. “Breaking Bad” demonstrates what the Proverbs teach: There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. 

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  • Jonas Miseh

    Load of nonsense.

    • patron

      Yep. I hate when people read too much into stories. It can never be just a good plot, it has to be something else.

      There also have been more obvious biblical parallels in TV shows, like Rome. In Boardwalk Empire, scenes exist where Steve Buscemi acts as an outright demon with no messiah in site. The card game with Rothstein shows this brillantly. Last season Buscemi “interloped” into the realm of billionaires to see Andrew Mellon, who threw him out like garbage as if he descended into a lower level of hell well outside his power.

      Breaking Bad excellently mixed great acting and writing with high production, but the best show ever on TV? Personally I like Family Tree better. It does more with much less. I’ve outgrown the initial shock of gore and crime and would rather watch an encouraging portrayal of humanity.

  • R. Magnus

    Good analysis. I came up with parts of it on my own but didn’t put it all together like this. Thanx.

  • Albert Gray

    spot on analysis.
    walt’s descent into hell and the evil culture of the world of drugs is one of the reasons I stopped watching ‘breaking bad’ around season 4.
    I began to lose interest in the series as the sympathetic persona of season 1 walt morphed into the ‘black hat’ bad guy walt of the later chapters of BBad…

  • vulgar_imposter

    Coulter is an idiot.

    • Boots

      Specifically why? It’s just an opinion piece but if you have any fact based material to prove she’s an idiot I’d be interested in hearing it.

  • CowboyUp

    What I’ve seen of breaking bad was from being in the room when someone else was watching it. There’s enough speed freaks and meth in Georgia that I sure didn’t want to waste time watching a sympathetic show about it. Ann’s analysis makes it more interesting, but I still don’t think I’d waste the time.
    I notice the peanut gallery can’t come up with a substantive objection to Ann’s analysis, as usual.

    • joesph

      cool reply about the peanut gallery…

    • NAHALKIDES

      With all due modesty, better that such objections come late rather than never, and I think I’ve made a pretty good case above. But the fact is that a truly substantive objection to Ann’s analysis, or to Jonah Goldberg’s, would require an enormous amount of time and effort – and we in the “peanut gallery” are after all working for free. Still, you have a point – I’m more dismayed by the reactions to these critical encomia than I was by the original articles themselves, since both Ann and Jonah mean to defend the Conservative cause.

      • CowboyUp

        You hadn’t made yours yet, I was referring to jonas’ and one that was deleted. Your comment is definitely substantive, and thoughtful too.

        • NAHALKIDES

          Thanks.

    • ziggy zoggy

      The show was absolutely NOT sympathetic to meth abuse. It was brilliant in its portrayal of a good man going bad and harming himself and everybody around him in the process – which is why it was enjoyed by so many people.

      You are depriving yourself by refusing to watch it. HeII, I have friend who is only twenty years old and grew up in India, but even with that background he loved the show so much that he used to stream every episode before it aired in Pacific time. There is a reason the show is so popular: It really is as good as they say.

      • CowboyUp

        Good points, and I can’t say you’re wrong, but I’ve never cared for movies or shows about coke, speed, or meth. I’ve seen more of it in real life than I’d care to, and even comedies about hapless stoners have gotten old for me. But I know a lot of people who enjoy BB, and I was surprised at how much I knew of what Ann was talking about just from hearing them talk about it.

        It’s been almost a year since I shut down my satellite connection, and I’ve only missed it once or twice. I’ve always been a readaholic, and I’d be the first to admit I’m a bit of an oddball.

        • ziggy zoggy

          Maybe you will get the DVD set on Christmas!

    • Mo86

      But that’s the thing, it wasn’t sympathetic at all. In fact, that’s the reason why I did not want to watch it when it first came along!

      This show does not glorify drug use at all. It probably could be used to show kids why it’s NOT good to do drugs. “Do you want to end up like that?”

      I highly recommend it.

  • John Wilson

    Ann Coulter has written a lot of sick things in her life, but the sickest might be her notion here that, speaking for the entire audience, “we rejoice” when Walt watches a woman die choking on her vomit and does nothing to help. Is this a metaphor for Ann Coulter’s ideal health care plan? This moment in the show is meant to finally prove that Walt is capable of great evil, and only a sociopath would rejoice at it.

    • Guy Fromage

      Just as with “censorship,” vis-a-vis that blood-soaked Weatherman, you just don’t get it, do you?

    • A Z

      “speaking for the entire audience, “we rejoice” when Walt watches a woman die choking on her vomit and does nothing to help.”

      What do you want. 70% of the audience rejoiced, 20% were horrified & 10% were undecided?

      If Walt is a protagonist that we care about and I think most of us did during the pilot episode, then Coulter is basically correct when she says “we rejoice”.

      Since ALL people are wired to be tribal, I bet psychologists could proved that most of us rejoiced.

      • NAHALKIDES

        What it actually means is that most people, when watching this program, put their moral and critical faculties on autopilot – a very good way to get lost.

        • A Z

          Your explanation of what people do is correct (for many people).

          I still think Coulter’s take on Breaking Bad as a morality tale is convincing also. I think it is true even if the writers did not mean it as a morality tale.

          Sometimes writes learn their craft well enough to implicitly use all the ancient archetypes even if they fail to understand those archetypes. George Lucas comes to mind. He discusses archetypes with Joesph Campbell when developing Star Wars. Yet his politics show that he has learned nothing explicitly.

          The same goes for Berthold Brecht. He wrote Mother Courage.

  • joesph

    I only watched two or three episodes and did watch, by some fluke of chance, this last episode…..Thanx Ann for the analysis as I may just watch all of the episodes in a one or two day marathon…

  • okokok

    what a word salad of garbage and ignorance. She is getting even more demented!

  • okokok

    you missed one of the best shows ever; sorry lol lol

  • WW4

    I wouldn’t say “Christian” so much as “biblical.” It’s about the utter destruction of the soul that turns away from the light. “Woe to those who call darkness light, and light, darkness.” Every poor choice made on that show has a consequence that reverberates. Walt really does start cooking meth to keep from saddling his family with financial burden when he gets the cancer diagnosis. But his ego finds out it likes the challenge, the chemistry, and ultimately the power that comes from it–even while he continues to lie to himself about the reasons.

  • A Z

    Someone is going to crib this for Sunday.

  • De Doc

    I have to disagree with Ms. Coulter. The show lacked any sense of redemption, which is a central theme to Christianity. Walter White, while doing some good towards the end (freeing Jesse, seeing that his ill gotten gains go to his kids, and killing the bad guys), there is no doubt that he has strayed into evil too often to be redeemed. Even his parting lines to Skyler (“I did it for me. I was good at it. And I really… I was alive.”) betrayed a sense of supreme selfishness – the thrill of it all trumped the horrific actions he carried out.

    ‘Breaking Bad’ showed more like an Old Testament story. Think King David or Solomon, men who had great intentions, but ultimately fell victim to their desire for power & wealth. Both characters end in pitiable states according to the OT. Whatever good deeds they wrought in earlier life were more than countered by the bad. Of course we need not look only to scripture to find other parallels to Walter White, but also Greek mythology, where excessive pride and unbridled pursuit of wealth and power wreak havoc on many of its characters, e.g. Agamemnon, Achilles, Midas, etc.

  • JacksonPearson

    The Pharisees in Hollywood problems with the “Passion of the Christ” was, that Mel Gibson made an exceptional, truthful, and epically done film, against their wishes. Haven’t seen “Breaking Bad” yet.

  • NAHALKIDES

    This is the second time in as many weeks that an ostensibly Conservative author has stumbled badly over Breaking Bad (Jonah Goldberg in National Review was the first). A thoroughgoing refutation would take thousands of words, and I’m just not going to expend the time and energy right now. But I would like to point out where I think Conservatives are getting tripped up.

    It is impossible to portray acts of evil without showing their immediately destructive consequences – you couldn’t if you tried (and Hollywood certainly has). It does not therefore follow that dramatic depictions of evil are morally Conservative – and this is the point Conservative writers who venture into literary criticism seem to be missing. The reason for this is that art does not appeal solely to the rational, didactic side of the human mind; in fact, even if it did we would have little more than a tautology, since evil is destructive of human well-being by definition (it’s what makes evil, evil), which is why I wrote above that you can’t depict evil without its malign consequences. Nor is argument the primary purpose of art, although it certainly plays a prominent role in the Left-wing tripe Hollywood routinely foists upon us, much to the detriment of the movie or TV shows thus larded with Progressive “philosophy”.

    Much of the time that darkness and evil are portrayed in modern art, they are there to be enjoyed, incredible as that may sound (I like to say that they are “wallowed in”, which I think captures the lazy malfeasance of the viewers who succumb). Sometimes it goes beyond enjoyment to outright rationalization: remember the execrable film Bonnie and Clyde? Much evil was depicted within it, most obviously robbery and murder, yet these two villains were supposed to be the heroes (or anti-heroes, if you prefer, which is actually a more honest way of looking at it). I hope no one here thinks that B & C was therefore somehow Conservative, it was indeed rather anti-Conservative in its inverted morality.

    Breaking Bad is really no different, just longer (at 5 years) and not as structured. By attempting to make Walter White a sympathetic figure, it subtly invites the acceptance of evil. This is not Conservative and it is not Christian – it would be surprising if it were, given the moral and political leanings of Hollywood. The fact that Conservative morality (Christian morality, for the most part, and Coulter seems to assume their identity of meaning) could have saved these characters does not mean that the show’s creators intended anyone to realize that, or that such a realization was their purpose, or even that they
    realized it themselves.

    When Conservative writers find themselves in agreement with the Hollywood Left – the creators and critics who produced this dreck and proclaim it a work of genius – the alarm bells should have gone off. They apparently didn’t – not for Goldberg, who shares too many of the assumptions of today’s intellectual elite, and not for Coulter, who paradoxically opposes those same assumptions but made the mistake of reading into the work something that should have been there, but wasn’t. Conservative writers who aren’t equipped by temperament and training to venture far into literary criticism would be well advised to leave the subject alone.

  • ziggy zoggy

    Sorry. I liked the Walter White character. He was a good man who made bad choices. I won’t condemn somebody like that, even if he was just a fictional character.

    The Hank character WAS an incompetent buffoon – just like most real cops. How many times did the Walter White character save his stupid @$$?

    The “Breaking Bad” creators tried to make him a character that descended into evil but they didn’t. He was a good man – and cool. Most fans of the show watched it because they liked see him do hatd@$$ things and kill scumbags like the character Giancarlo Esposito played.

    And the scenes in the final episode were he used a remote controlled machine gun to wipe out the Aryan Brotherhood meth monsters (or whoever they were) and shielded the obnoxious Jesse character with his own body were great. So was the scene where he told that harridan that he’d poisoned her with ryacin and oh, yeah: she’d be dead within a week, so sad too bad.

  • ziggy zoggy

    The Walt character’s descent into evil was the whole point of the show. It wasn’t a series like “The Sopranos,” where no matter how well each episode was produced, the characters were all unsavory and unsympathetic. It hurt to watch Walt destroy himself.

    You should watch the last season. I think you would like it.

  • nobo

    There’s a reason Shakespeare put “above all to thine own self be true” into the scheming and foolish old character’s mouth.

  • TienBing

    Where conservatives see moral lessons progressives see excuses.

    Walt is a “sympathetic” well meaning character who makes “bad” choices forced upon him by an exploitive “system” that leaves people powerless to the vicissitudes of life. BB is a tragic story of a man forced by an uncaring system, to a life of crime in order to provide for his family. Tune in each episode to watch him desperately struggle with betrayal, authorities and moral dilemmas as he becomes more hopelessly mired in a cruel web of events and circumstance beyond his control. What will he do next? What can he do?

    Intent does not always the govern the end product. I have no idea who the writers are, or anything about their politics, but I doubt seriously this piece of Hollywood entertainment was meant to be a conservative morality tale – regardless of the hidden subtext that Ann and Jonah believe they found.

    Let’s check out Dexter next.

  • catherineinpvb

    . . .but that’s because people think Christian movies are supposed to have camels — or a “Little House on the Prairie” cast. ************

    Maybe paranoia at work; or just tired. . .but given all that we ‘in the hinterlands’; whether, intellectual or geographical; ‘receive’; in the way of bias; overt and cloaked; from Washington political ‘Elites’; Libs in general; and now our own ‘hierarchy’ of Repubs; am now feeling a bit sensitive – and a tad resentful – to see the above rationale. But then; the ‘people’ are not actually identified; so will
    ‘get over it’. . .and per ‘Breaking Bad’; go see it.

  • Mo86

    I was late to the party and have been marathoning it the past few weeks. My eyeballs are ready to fall out. Just watched the final ep a little while ago. And while I had a bit of a different reaction at points (I never really rooted for Walt. Maybe a tiny bit at the very beginning,but he became so rotten so quickly that I ended up hating him very early on) I agree it was brilliant, and for all the reasons stated here.