A mere decade behind everyone else, I am catching up with the US TV show Breaking Bad, which originally ran from 2008 to 2013. As some readers will doubtless be aware, the series follows the moral decline of Walter White, an intelligent but unfulfilled and somewhat embittered chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer on his 50th birthday. Ostensibly as a way of providing for his family after his death – his teenage son, Walter Junior, has cerebral palsy and his wife is pregnant – he uses his scientific knowledge to become a manufacturer of the dangerous illegal drug methamphetamine.
The overall arc of the five series has the shape of a classic tragedy, inasmuch as an initially sympathetic protagonist is transformed into a moral monster, consumed by his own sins and weaknesses and his inability or unwillingness to resist them. When we are introduced to White, he is a kind of everyman figure, rather beaten down by the vicissitudes of the human condition but maintaining an honest and decent existence. There are moving scenes early on of his tenderness towards Walt Jr. However, through an escalating sequence of poor decisions, he abandons and destroys that life, taking others down with him and ruining the lives of many more.
One of the many waymarkers on his road to perdition, and one of the most interesting from the Catholic perspective, comes early on, during the first series. After a disastrous initial foray into the drug business, White has decided to stay away from the underworld. His friend and former business partner, Elliott Schwartz, now a wealthy businessman, hears of his illness and offers him a job at his company called Gray Matter, whose associated insurance will fund the extremely expensive treatment that White requires. The offer is made purely out of kindness, but White refuses, angrily berating his wife who let Schwartz know about the cancer diagnosis, and later contacts his erstwhile partner in the meth business, with an eye to restarting their drug production, in order to make the required $90,000.
The thoughtful viewer will be left wondering why White chooses this way. Here on a platter, seemingly, is a near-complete answer to his problem; not only money for chemotherapy, but a more prestigious and better-paying job than his underpaid, low-status role at a high school. And yet he rejects it for the uncertain and risky world of drug-dealing. The writers leave White’s motivation at this point as something of an open question. We might conceivably think that he believes the offer from Schwartz is not good enough, that he fears it will not provide for his family after his death. There are, however, many clues suggesting that this is not the main reason.
A more likely culprit is pride, undergirded by resentment, and this is where we really see Breaking Bad’s value as a cautionary tale – a modern parable. Shortly before saying no to Schwartz, he tells his family that he has never felt in control of the direction of his life. Earlier we have seen him angrily resign from his menial part-time job at a car wash, which he regards as humiliating and demeaning. You get a strong sense in the early episodes of White as a man who feels that the world does not appreciate his talents, and that he has not lived up to his potential. This latter fear in particular is heightened by the revelation that his life will soon be at an end.
From the psychological perspective, then, White’s rejection of the Gray Matter job and his embrace of the financially rewarding but morally corrupt world of drugs appears to stem from his desire to assert his own importance and power, to make up for all the slights – real and imagined – that he has suffered. And this impression is confirmed by a justly famous exchange in the final episode, when he reveals to his wife his fundamental impetus: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And … I was alive.”
Part of the drama and sadness of the situation is that we can understand White’s sense of inadequacy and frustration. The experience of receiving bad medical news, or reaching a milestone in one’s life, and looking back with regret over unrealised dreams and the paths not taken, is not uncommon. All the same, most people do not respond by turning to organised crime. White’s downfall, his turn to evil, is to a great degree the result of his enormous pride, which prevents him from accepting help and support when it is offered, and which leads to his attempt to impose himself on the world, regardless of the misery created by his actions. It is his self-regard and arrogance that lead him to believe – absurdly – that he can involve himself in the drug trade without being responsible for violence and bloodshed.
Subsequent events demonstrate the falsity of this view. White has no interest in Christianity, but if he had, he might have known that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
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