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Lessons learned from Breaking Bad
(Spoilers are contained below--but I tend to agree with A.O. Scott on the subject. The show is just as good even if it is spoiled.)
I was totally into the hysteria around the most-talked about TV show last week. I’m a big Breaking Bad fan and I had fun watching the show, anticipating its ending, and talking about it with my friends.
The show ended its five-season, 62-episode run, last Sunday and it was, in fact, a very great ending. Walter White, the show’s anti-hero, a former chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer who turns to cooking meth to provide for him family. He develops enough self-awareness to learn that he was indeed cooking meth and maintaining a drug empire for own ego and satisfaction, after making a bad business deal with a chemistry start-up that became a multi-million dollar corporation. He dies at the end of the series, fitting for a series that many people both loved and hated, met its demise.
The series’ character that had most of the audience’s sympathy, Jesse Pinkman, gets out of the drug game and is freed. Jesse is a meth cook who partners with his former chemistry teacher. Jesse does much of Walter’s dirty work for him, is abused, tormented, and manipulated into oblivion. The audience receives vindication when he escapes the enslavement he found himself in at the end of the show.
The show is rightfully critically acclaimed. Well-written, great acting, intensely driven. I was on the edge of my seat for much of the show’s run and it was fun! But even its Emmy Award won't cause it live forever. The mortality of entertainment, by itself, is shallow--that's why so many of us wish Breaking Bad would never end! But this whole world is going to end, and only our souls will continue to live on.
I hope, though, we don’t just think Breaking Bad is great for us just because it feels good when we consume it. I guess that’s what a show about meth should teach us. Of course, the sociological ramifications of meth use are rarely discussed in the program, at all.
This show is about the rise and fall of Walter White. That is the central premise of the show. Amazingly, he begins the show isolated from his family and friends with no sense of himself, and arguably ends the show even more distant from his family, having dragged them through the horror of the drug business, murders, and other crimes, with a little bit of an arrogant satisfaction. He manipulated his friends who had a successful start-up without him, he killed not one but two of his major competitors, and it all ended on his terms. Walter White, frighteningly enough, didn’t learn a thing—satisfied with the desperately perishable. The premise of the show is that Walter White is fighting lung cancer, so he’s trying to be remembered into eternity. His goal eventually became to immortalize himself—but his strategy was questionable.
Jesus doesn’t think so—he asked us, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, but forfeit their sou?” As Walter White dies in the meth lab he built, he is proud that his name will live on (“remember my name” was the slogan for the second-half of season five). But how long will it live on?
Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, whose name was quite unknown before Breaking Bad, is nearly immortalized himself, as is Bryan Cranston who plays Walter White. But for how long? What impact does even the greatest show ever have on humanity? When it be forgotten? Perhaps as soon as Walter White’s name is forgotten in the fictional Albuquerque where Breaking Bad takes place.
As the fans of the show mourn its end, Cranston is especially quotable when he says “Anything worthwhile is perishable.” A good mentality for someone who is relying of fame and success to immortalize him—both a lesson that Walter White and many of Hollywood’s stars need to learn. It is in fact not worthwhile because it does perish. The things that really matter don’t end. Walter White, abandoning his children and family for his own selfish gain and his own image—the legend of Heisenberg keeps him going (which is fitting when his pseudonym is spray-painted on his burnt out house). The world will remember him, for a time, as an infamous drug lord—but his children, Flynn and Holly, and his wife, Skyler, will never forget him as an evil, wicked man. I pray that Christians around the world are known as peacemakers, lovers, and servants who cared about people and longed for them to experience the hope of Christ.
Jesus saves us from our evil and wickedness—Walter White is as bad as any of us. Jesus saves us from our endless, worldly pursuits. Walter Whites millions of dollars, Vince Gilligan’s success, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s fame, all of it will perish. In his Sermon on the Mount, when he speaks about giving to the needy (which we should do covertly), when we fast we should disguise it, and in fact we have no reason to worry (even if we are diagnosed with lung cancer and don’t have a plan to provide for our family), he says this:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Walter White stored his treasure on earth, and though he managed to violently manipulate some of his former colleagues to make sure it gets laundered to them appropriately, and he loses the rest of it. Jesse, on the other hand, knew how shallow the money was—he threw it all away earlier in the season. Jesse was in the drug scene, and it eroded his soul completely, he had enough of it at the end to turn away from the chance at killing the man that ruined so much of his life.
Jesus gives us the key to be known. It has to do with humble service of him and little else. When he is anointed in the home of Simon the Leper, the woman who offers him her very expensive perfume (to which his disciples say is a waste!), Jesus declares the following to them:
“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
So before we go immortalize Heisenberg and his drug empire and Gilligan and his TV show empire, let’s consider that perhaps humility, self-sacrifice, and following Jesus are really the things that will make us eternal. Not just infamy.