*Before knowing anything about Vince Gilligan’s intentions, it struck me early while watching the series that Breaking Bad is making a statement about the nature of evil.*
***SPOILER ALERT: I discuss the TV series Breaking Bad as a whole and the final episodes in the following***
The premise of Breaking Bad is an attention grabber: A high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, after learning he has cancer, starts “cooking” the illegal drug meth (methamphetamine) with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, so he can leave his family with plenty of money before he dies. The show is a perfect blend of character and plot. Fully actualized characters (brought to life by strong acting) and a plot that the series’ creator, Vince Gilligan, has kept fresh after several seasons (unlike so many other TV shows) has made it one of my all-time favorite shows.
Before knowing anything about Vince Gilligan’s intentions, it struck me early while watching the series that Breaking Bad is making a statement about the nature of evil.
Moral relativists deny that there is an actual thing we can call evil, stating that right and wrong are on a sliding scale from culture to culture or even person to person. Where there is some truth in this, I have found that these arguments against the existence of universal evil are primarily weak ones. One only has to bring up such horrible things as cannibalism or the Holocaust or murdered children to quickly see that there are things all people consider evil. We have an innate sense of morality that points towards universal moral laws.
Occasionally, a moral relativist may bring up an objection like: “There are primitive tribes that practice cannibalism, and they don’t think it’s wrong” or “The Nazis didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong.” My response would be that people who break these universal moral laws still know what they’re doing is evil. When I was younger, I read a lot about serial killers. I wanted to know why they did what they did. Some of these serial killers have done unspeakable things that I would not write about here and rather not even think about. Yet, no matter how twisted — mentally and emotionally — these people were, they still had a sense they were doing wrong.
Further, often those who do evil attempt to justify the action by connecting it to something virtuous. For instance, some tribes that practice cannibalism try to justify it by reasoning that it will give the consumer the powers of his enemy for the betterment of the tribe. Even in a culture that practices cannibalism, there is a sense that cannibalism is only done to an enemy. One doesn’t eat grandma simply because he’s hungry and grandma is an easy target.
Likewise, people justify their inhumane treatment of other people in a very simple way: they deny that their enemy is human. Is this not how Nazi Germany justified the horrific things they did during the Jewish Holocaust? So, a Nazi would say treating a fellow Nazi like a Jew is morally wrong, and a member of a cannibalistic tribe would say the sort of cannibalism like American serial killer Jeffery Dahmer did is morally wrong. The innate sense of morality we all have can be suppressed by justifying evil behavior with a morally superior reason or even by removing the humanness of the victims of our evil. The need to justify the evil behavior is evidence of this innate, universal morality.
In Breaking Bad, we see a similar mindset. Walter White, an otherwise moral man, a high school teacher and loving family man, starts cooking and selling meth, an evil act. Walt knows this is evil, but he justifies this as something he must do to provide for his family. In his mind, the end justifies the means. Providing for his family is a good thing; in fact, some of us would say it’s the most natural thing for a man to do for his wife and children. This further shows that evil is dependant on good.
Some Christian philosophers go so far as to argue that evil is not an actual thing, but not in the same way that the moral relativists do. These philosophers’ idea is that evil is simply the absence of good. If God is all-good and holy and the creator of all things, then he could not have created evil. Augustine considered evil as “not something that exists.” Scholar John Frame explains that evil is “a lack, a defect in a good universe… an absence of good where good should be” and “a deprivation of being.” The biblical teaching that the world was created good but corrupted by evil supports this view (Genesis 1:31; 1 Timothy 4:4).
Likewise, in his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that evil cannot exist without good, but good can exist without evil. He explains evil essentially wants things that are not inherently evil — like pleasure, comfort — but pursues them in the wrong way. Walter White is an example of this. He wants to care for his family, even after his death — a good, honorable thing — but he uses an evil means to achieve this good thing. Apologist Frank Turek explains evil as rust: you can’t have rust without a car; take away the car and rust cannot exist. Even money itself is not inherently evil, but some people’s love of it and their means of getting it are evil. Thus, as C.S. Lewis writes, “evil is a parasite, not an original thing.”
But even if a person convinces himself that his evil acts are justified by a greater good, no one can dabble in evil and not be affected by evil. Walter’s plan, at first, was to be in the meth business only long enough to build up a good savings of money for his family and then walk away untouched. Of course, things don’t work out that way. Evil cannot occur in a vacuum.
It’s not long into the first season when Walter and his partner Jesse’s new business gains the attention of rival drug dealers, and soon Walter takes his first life to protect himself, his new venture, and even his family. The entire series is about how Walt’s venture into evil continually snowballs out of his control. By the end of the series, both Walt and Jesse are responsible for taking life, both indirectly and directly. Though a separation exists between them (who cook the meth) and those who willingly buy and use the meth, it’s impossible for Walt and Jesse to remain untouched by their evil, whether it’s conflicts with experienced, hardened criminals or Jesse’s personal struggle with drug abuse.
Further, though Walt claimed throughout the series that he did it all for his family, his family is destroyed by the end of the series: his wife faces legal and financial hardships; his son hates him; Hank, Walt’s brother-in-law (in the most gut-wrenching episode of the whole series) is killed; and Walt dies, never to see his infant daughter grow up. The end doesn’t justify the means, because the means leaves its odor on everything it touches.
Not only this, but throughout the series, we witness the internal changes in Walt and Jesse as well. The series starts with Walt as the harmless family man and schoolteacher and Jesse as the reckless young drug dealer. As the series continues, we witness the transformations in Walt and Jesse. The writers do this masterfully, not overdoing the changes but showing how it progresses gradually. This is the advantage of a TV show with several seasons to allow a story to unfold: they can show change naturally, unlike most movies. Instead of showing Walt abruptly going from family man to Scarface, we witness him shape and morph into “Heisenberg.” We still see the “old,” nice-guy Walt throughout the series, all the way up to his death, but we also recognize how the “new,” bad Walt — Heisenberg — has become who he truly is.
This is how it is with evil. Few good people dabble in evil and suddenly turn into a monster. But as we allow more evil into our lives, evil comes more easily to us. A person will feel a lot more scruples about stealing something the first time, but with repetition comes a deadening of our innate sense of right and wrong. Moreover, evil also progresses from something we do to something we are. Just as Walt developed his Heisenberg personality over time, a person’s actions come to define them.
Finally, in the last episode, Walt admits, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it… I was alive.” But by the time he finally admits it, it’s no surprise to the viewers. We’ve witnessed the change. We’ve recognized that Walt’s pride, ego, and greed had long kept him involved in his illegal venture even when he had opportunities to walk away.
Conversely, by the end of the series, Jesse is no longer a reckless, conscienceless youth, but a weary and scarred (both physically and mentally) man, a sympathetic character, who, despite efforts, can’t escape his connection to Walt and the meth business. As Jesse and Walt change, eventually Jesse becomes the voice of reason, not Walt. Jesse’s mental deterioration grows with each season. Near the end of the series, we witness his mental breakdown when he tosses stacks of money out of his car window as he drives. The fact that Jesse in the last episodes is literally a chained slave to the meth business can be taken as symbolic. It’s easy to conclude that once he escapes at the end of the final episode, Jesse will stay as far away from such evil as possible. But perhaps he will never mentally recover.
According to the Christian worldview, all of us are slaves in chains to sin and have the potential for doing great evil. We can all become Heisenberg. Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Later, in Romans 6:16, Paul tells us that we have only two choices: We can be slaves to sin, which leads to death, or we can follow God and be righteous. Either way, we are following someone — either Satan or God. There’s no third option.
Jesus, the Son of God, said, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Here, Jesus is being clear that true freedom can only be attained through him by accepting the gift of his sacrifice on the cross. Thus, we must align our will with God through Christ: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).