Why Catholics will love Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston with series creator Vince Gilligan (PA)

My youngest boy understands my moral cowardice better than most. For years now he has identified me with blanket condemnations of just about everything on television, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Graham Norton Show.

He was therefore surprised when he heard from his mother that I intended to watch the hit TV series Breaking Bad and therefore needed to borrow his box set.

“So what happened?” he asked. “Did some Catholic writer tell Dad it was OK to watch Breaking Bad?” Almost, Rob, almost, but not quite.

Here’s what happened: a couple of weeks ago, I read an enthusiastic review of Breaking Bad by the Sunday Telegraph columnist Jenny McCartney, who is by no means a Catholic, Rob, but, on the contrary, is an honest-to-God Ulster Protestant. Jenny – who graced this space last week – is droll and wise and civilised, the mistress of compassionate common sense. I was sold. But it got better. Immediately after reading Jenny, I saw another commendation of Breaking Bad, this time by the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who is not only a Catholic but a conservative Catholic. (His Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the spread of trash Christianity.)

In any case, armed with a nihil obstat from Jenny and an imprimatur from Mr Douthat, I launched myself into Breaking Bad last week. Wow! I say! Rejoice!

For the first time in years I have been able to watch two hours of uninterrupted television without falling asleep. What we have here is a gripping morality tale, a tragedy, by turns funny, disgusting and terrifying. The central character is Walter White, a kind and likeable high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and, to cover his medical costs and secure his family’s future, decides to start “cooking” crystal meth. In other words, he “breaks bad” – or, to use the language of moral theologians, he freely and deliberately chooses to perform an act which he knows to be gravely wrong. By manufacturing highly addictive drugs he spreads death and misery among the weak, the vulnerable and the stupid. Since he is driven by the belief that his end justify his means, one damned things follows another – the bad gets steadily worse – until Walt is so thoroughly corrupted that the mild-mannered chemistry teacher turns into a ruthless drugs lord. Yet for much of the series we continue to sympathise with him.

What about the “adult” content, though? This is a Catholic newspaper, after all, and some of our older readers may wonder how I cope with the violence, the bad language and the sex. Piece of cake. The violence is graphic but not gratuitous and the bad language is not excessive and does not bother me (it’s not like The Wire where just about the only word I understood was “mudda——”). As for the sex, there is little of it, but since I am watching the series on an iMac in the privacy of my “library”, I am not compelled to stare glumly at my knees during the rude bits, as I would if watching with others, but can employ the simple expedient of clicking on the fast-forwarding button.

Most television is filth, but Breaking Bad is not. Breaking Bad is good, a sobering depiction of how easy it is for a good man to become a bad man. No doubt there will a rave piece about it in L’Osservatore Romano before the series ends on September 29. The Vatican daily is not frightened of popular culture and has already given its blessing to The Simpsons, even going to far as to suggest that Homer is a Catholic.

They’d never say that of Walt, of course, but in the case of Homer it should be acknowledged that he does have a keen moral sense. “If there was anything wrong with gluttony,” he once said, “they’d have made it a sin.”