Breaking Bad & “What is Man?”

Introduction

On these segments I will be looking at a popular television show or movie, identifying a key theme, and then relating that theme to the Christian worldview and the gospel, the message of Christ crucified. In doing this, I hope to demonstrate how elements of popular culture reflect real choices,  real belief systems, and real worldviews of their authors and writers, and so that we can better understand and appreciate the message of Christianity.

“What is Man?”

  “What is man?” What is man like? Is man just an animal that evolved better than the beasts around us? Or, are we just a vat of chemicals? Is there something special about humanity at all, perhaps that we are rational animals or even creatures made in the image of an infinitely powerful God?

Few questions could be more important to any worldview, and how a worldview answers this question will in part determine the other questions that follow. How man should live and the kinds of decisions he can make is very much influenced by your answer concerning who or what man is.

One reason for Breaking Bad’s incredible popularity is its horrifying portrayal of the self-destruction of one ordinary man, Walter White, played by Brian Cranston. After decades of being mistreated by colleagues and enduring the shame of being a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White decides to strike out as a drug dealer and curator of “blue meth” when he finds out he has lung cancer. He initially hopes to earn enough money producing meth to provide for his family after his death, but as the show progresses it is evident Walter White want to make a name for himself as New Mexico’s most fearsome drug lord. He succeeds, wrecking incredible havoc on his family, New Mexico’s drug dealers, and many innocent people along the way. 

Creator Vince Gilligan states in describing the premise of Walter White’s character:

“You’re going to see that underling humanity, even when he’s making the most devious, terrible decisions, and you need someone who has that humanity—deep down, bedrock humanity—so you say, watching this show, ‘All right, I’ll go for this ride.”

  So what is that deep, bedrock humanity Gilligan speaks of? How would Walter White answer the question, “What is Man”? Does Walt, in fact, answer that question? If you can establish Walter White’s answer to this crucial question, would it matter for anything else that’s happened on the show? Would it shed light on why Walter White does the things he does? 

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“What is Man?” According to the Bible 

In Genesis 1:26-27, God creates all of mankind, both men and women, in His own image, so that all people, regardless of their birth, gender, socioeconomic status, or otherwise have a unique and inherent dignity to them because we are created in God’s image. The text reads, 

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them (Gen 1:26-27).

We are like the animals, in that we have senses, instincts, and needs, but God also set us above the animals by giving us some of His attributes. As God is creative, loving, and rational, so is mankind, being endowed with attributes and abilities unique to God alone that has, by God’s kindness, raised us up above the level of beasts. 

Given that we were made and didn’t just appear out of the primordial soup means that we are subject to the rules of our Creator. Under such a view, we cannot just do anything that we just feel like is good, because our Creator has certain rights over us, expects us to use gifts like creativity, rationality, and love in a way that reflects His character. If we do not, we may expect to be judged accordingly.

“What is Man” According to Walter White

So now, to the first season of Breaking Bad, where we find Walter agonizing over his first real murder. In the show’s first episode, Walter has tricked two drug dealers into breathing poisonous fumes, but only one of them, Emilio, has died.He has tried, somewhat successfully, to destroy Emilio’s body with hydrofluoric acid, and is cleaning up his gloopy remains in the episode’s first few minutes while the other drug dealer, Krazy-8, is  in Jesse’s basement awaiting Walter’s decision whether or not to murder him and dissolve his body, too.

 Considering that Walter had no other choice and certain death loomed ahead for him, Emilio’s death did not present a complicated moral dilemma for Walter. Murdering someone in cold blood, even if they are a violent drug dealer, is very different from killing someone in self-defense, especially once he finds out he bought furniture from Krazy-8’s dad. While he works out a pretty slick pros and cons list, listing out such as issues as “’Murder is Wrong!’” and “Judeo-Christian principles,” the whole column is outweighed by reality that, if Krazy-8 lives, “he’ll murder your entire family”.

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Juxtaposed with Walter and Jesse cleaning up the acid-eaten remains of Emilio is a flashback where Walter speaks with Gretchen Schwartz, an old business partner and apparently an old flame. This scene establishes that Walter has, in many ways, already made his decision years ago.

Here, they are breaking the chemical composition of a human being down into its constituent, chemical parts, and how much of the human body is nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and so on. As they can only account for 99.988042% (or something) of a human being, they have .11958 left over with no other molecules left to account for the difference. Then, as the present day Walter pours a bucket of human sludge down a toilet, Gretchen asks, “There’s got to be more to a man than that!”

Walter then flushes the toilet and the episode returns to Walter’s present day life, and whether or not he should kill Krazy-8. It is not guaranteed that Krazy-8 will murder Walter and his family, but his life is worth nothing in comparison to the lives of Walter’s family.

Seemingly, Walter (and the show’s) strong emphasis on the importance of family settles this issue, but the flashbacks suggest that such a difficult moral choice was settled long ago. Gretchen suggests that the .01% leftover is the human soul, and in the Judeo-Christian idea of the soul, this would be the living breath God poured into Adam when He first made him.

This is a part of humanity that is not susceptible to empirical study in the same way our hearts and our minds are. It is a spirit and not composed of matter, and is distinct and, if humanity does not have it, man may do practically whatever he wants with no consequences looming ahead for him when he dies. Interestingly, Walter immediately shrugs off the possibility that the soul could exist in the body and merely remarks, “this is all chemistry.”

The denial of the soul is a component of the worldview of materialism, which denies all things spiritual and posits that the only things that exist are those we can subject to scientific study. Or that can be flushed down the toilet. When Walter affirms this is only chemistry, as he says in the flashback, he implies that there is no soul that could possibly account for the discrepancy in their calculations.

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“What is Man” & Why Does It Matter?

While one might assume this is only a small issue, as the beliefs that a person have couldn’t possibly influence the way they act. Believing that one does not have a soul implies that nothing of you will live on after you die. And, if nothing lives on after you die, then nothing exists for God, whose existence Walter is not really concerned about anyway, to judge mankind and hold men accountable for the actions they committed during their life on earth. That means we could with impunity do whatever we want. 

Thus, Walter’s belief concerning the nature of man and the acknowledgement of a materialistic worldview, starts a long list of “complicated choices” Walter has to make in order to survive. He murders several drug dealers over the course of the show; he urges Jesse, his partner, to murder a very lonely libertarian chemist; and convinces an old man suffering from a stroke to become a suicide bomber in his own nursing home. Walter, moreover, is totally cool with killing a 10-year-old boy who saw him robbing a train. Then, he engineered the murder of 10 police informants, and called a Neo-Nazi gang out to meet him and his brother-in-law and FDA agent, Hank Shrader, in the middle of the desert. Those Neo-Nazis subsequently murdered Walt’s brother-in-law, because Neo-Nazis hate law enforcement officials. Then, Walter dies in a blaze of glory killing those same Neo-Nazis. 

Without God imparting purpose to Walter’s life or holding man accountable for his actions, then the only things that really do matter are success and survival, and any actions are right providing they further those two ends. Without believing in the soul, of man being created in God’s image, and of a part of man that lives on after death, humanity can go wildly off the deep end and as Jesse puts it, “break bad.”Breaking Bad shows its considerable depth as a television show by connecting Walter’s first murder with Walter’s admission that he did not believe in the existence of a soul that could be judged. That would be all too convenient, wouldn’t it?

In Revelation 20, John the evangelist is given a vision of the Final Judgment, taking place before a White Throne while Jesus Christ, the Judge, reads through books that contain all the sins committed by the unrighteous living and dead and holds them accountable for their deeds. While this presents a terrifying prospect, you have two options: bury your head in the sand, hold to a materialistic worldview, and deny on speculative grounds such an event could never happen. Or, look to Jesus Christ and trust in Him and His merits, who, by dying on a cross, endured the prospect of final judgment on our behalf so we did not have to stand in abject terror before the White Throne. On that day, thanks to the merits and infinite of Jesus Christ, we can rejoice in being rescued from an evil world by our kind and merciful Savior, Christ Jesus. 

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