On the surface, Breaking Bad is a story about a middle-aged, high school chemistry teacher who’s diagnosed with lung cancer and turns to manufacturing meth to provide financial security for his family before he’s gone.
Initially, you’re rooting for the protagonist, Walter White. While not agreeing with his decision to produce meth, his motivation is understandable and relatable. Most of us would go to great lengths to take care of the ones we love. So we excuse Walter’s trips across the moral state line because, well, he’s dying.
Over the course of several seasons, his descent becomes clearer. His decisions and behavior reveal that this story goes much deeper than originally thought, and a more grandiose premise begins to emerge: this a story driven by a protagonist who gradually evolves into the antagonist.
And we, the viewers, are the ones who must discern how far is too far. Where’s the moral line a hero must cross before he becomes the bad guy? The show dares us to make that judgement—and therein lies the brilliance of the show.
In a piece by the New York Times, the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, gives us a glimpse under the hood of the story:
“If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences… I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something… I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
Gilligan later states…
“I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”
This reminds me of the words of C.S. Lewis,
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
Whether he realizes it or not, Gilligan is stumbling upon a profound truth and this is what makes Breaking Bad so good: It’s an echo of the gospel story.
It explores the reality that we, like Walt, have a bent toward descent and are capable of much more than we realize—for better or for worse. Instinctively, we know there’s a distinction between right and wrong, between justice and injustice, and this is a clue to a much larger story. We know we deserve justice, but hope we get redemption.
As the narrative of Breaking Bad unfolds, I’m curious to see if it ends with justice for Walt, getting what he deserves or redemption, getting what he doesn’t.
Regardless, it’s remarkable storytelling that’s worth watching.