Breaking Bad or Shifting Bad: A Gospel-Centered Perspective
The Emmy-winning AMC show, Breaking Bad, ended its five-season run Sunday night. It’s a dark show that dramatizes human evil with a premise that depicts evil in our hearts as a movement or trajectory from good to bad—breaking bad.
As I reflect on this intense, brutal drama, I’m asking one primary question from several angles.
“Is movement from good to bad a gospel-centered picture of the human heart in need of grace?”
I have a one-word answer that I’ll develop from a number of perspectives:
A Synopsis: When Life Is Breaking Bad Against You
As Breaking Bad opens, the main character, Walter White is presented as a sympathetic person. He’s hen-pecked and controlled by his wife, Skyler. He’s disrespected by…well…everybody…his students in his high school chemistry class, his wife, his tough-guy DEA agent brother-in-law, his son…
He’s a brilliant (not wise) man who feels as if all his life every choice has been made for him by someone else. He’s failed to grasp opportunities that could have led to millions from a start-up company with his college/grad school best friend and with his love interest. Now he’s in a dead-end job that he feels is well beneath his genius (though high school teachers should be everyone’s hero).
As the show opens, Walter White has also just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Walter White is “every man”—not particularly above average in looks or luck. Life is breaking bad against him. And it’s only natural to feel sympathy for him.
Perhaps that’s because we all have a tendency to feel sympathy for ourselves. Life has a way of breaking bad against us and of beating us down. So, sympathizing with Walt is a way of joining with him in his eventual rage against a world that just keeps knocking him, and us, down.
And how does Walter respond when life breaks bad against him? He starts cooking meth and killing people.
Obviously, cooking meth and killing people is bad. Very bad.
Here’s the problem, however. Walter White was not a good guy upon whom life broke bad. Walter White, like all of us, was born a bad guy. And he lived a bad life long before his meth-cooking, people-killing days.
I’ve mentioned this to a few fans of the show and they have respond incredulously. “What!? Walter White during his pre-meth days is a great guy!”
Really? What indications are there in any flash backs or in any early episodes that Walter White lived for others? Protected others? Was a godly husband to Skyler? A shepherding father to Walt, Jr.?
If you examine the biblical trajectory of godly maleness, of healthy masculinity, it is the opposite of Walter White even before life broke bad and he broke bad(er). Adam was to guard the garden. The representative man/male, Adam was to use his God-given power to empower others. He was to use his wisdom to be God’s under-shepherd advancing God’s loving rule.
Walter White—pre-crisis—never did that. He was a weak man allowing life to overpower him and responding—pre-crisis—with weakness. Yes, he provided financially for his family—a roof over their heads, food on the table. But he was never depicted as a strong man strongly involved with his family, loving his wife and son with godly wisdom.
Walter White didn’t simply “break bad.” He started bad. He lived bad. He was not a model of godly masculinity, of a godly husband, or a godly dad even pre-crisis.
The premise is all wrong. Just because Walter White is a sympathetic character does not mean that he was a good person living a good life. None of us are born good. And none of us can live a good life until we receive a new, good heart—through Christ.
Some may be wondering, but what about Skyler White (Walt’s wife)? What about women? Are you saying that the Bible says women are to sit at home, twiddling their thumbs, and helplessly standing by their man? I never said that. This post is about Walter White and who he is and could be as a man, husband, and father. I could, and may, write about Sklyer. She, too, has a great calling to be an under-shepherd advancing God’s kingdom—out of who she uniquely is as a woman.
But that’s a post for another time. Let’s just not get distracted from the point of this post—Walter never lived a good life out of a good heart for the good of society and the glory of God. That type of life is impossible apart from the gospel—by which our bad life is forgiven and through which our bad heart is made new and good through Christ.
It would be more accurate biblically and psychologically to say that Walter White shifted bad.
He shifted how he responded to life. He shifted how he misused power.
Previously he allowed life and others to overpower him. This is not to be unsympathetic to his difficulties. It is to acknowledge that our difficulties do not have to define us. We have a choice concerning how we respond to what life throws at us, to what life sends our way.
The pre-crisis Walter White was already bad in terms of not leading, not using his God-given power to empower others. Life beat him down and he was overpowered. He succumbed. Surrendered.
But then, with his cancer diagnosis, he’s had enough. As he describes it, for the first time in his life he feels alive—on the throes of death. Facing a combined mid-life and end-of-life crisis, Walt thinks he’s come alive for the first time.
But Walter White is not alive with new life. He’s alive with a new strategy for managing life. And that new strategy is just as self-centered, just as self-protective, and lived just as self-sufficiently as his old life. A bad life is always a life filled with the self sins.
Previously his unwritten strategy was to wimp along and limp along—beaten down and overpowered by life and others.
Now, Walt’s new self-proclaimed strategy is to fight along and destroy along—beating down others and overpowering others. He will never surrender again.
Walter White is not a different person. Walter White is the same man with a different power strategy. He didn’t break bad. He shifted bad. His character shifts from being overpowered and not protecting others to overpowering and not protecting others.
Sure, Walter would argue vehemently that he did all of this for his family. To take care of them. That slogan becomes increasingly laughable to the viewers who are able to see what Walter is blind to. The more he tries to protect and provide for his family, the more danger he puts them in.
And finally (spoiler alert), in the last episode Walter White admits to himself and to Sklyer that it’s always all been about him. “I did this for me.” Why? Because he enjoyed coming alive—alive to what? To a new power strategy—alive to beating others down, to mastering others, instead of being mastered by others.
I suspect that the average viewer is less consciously aware of the fact that Walter White—pre-crisis—also put his family in danger. When a man abdicates the right use of strength—empowering and protecting others, strong and loving engagement with others on a personal level—he is putting his family in danger.
Walter White was never a good shepherd. He was never a good emotional, relational, spiritual provider. He never used his God-given power to empower others. He never cherished and nourished and truly loved and empowered Sklyer. He never mentored and disciple, loved and encouraged—put courage into—and empowered Walt Jr.
He was always choosing to live as a weak man. And weak men have two strategy options—being overpowered and living a wimpy life or overpowering and living a tough-guy life. Both options are wicked, evil, destructive, and abusive.
It’s just that the weak Walter White is less obviously the wicked man.
What’s really happening in the “development” of Walter White’s character is an increasing display of badness. The badness was always in there.
Had the show chosen to keep displaying Weak Wimpy Walter we could have seen the increasingly pitiful existence of an overpowered male. But…that doesn’t sell commercials because it doesn’t attract viewers—unless it’s a situation comedy where overpowered males are the norm and laughed at incessantly.
So, instead, Breaking Bad as a drama chose to keep displaying increasing levels of Tough Guy Walter. His exponentially expanding evil is obvious. Eventually, no matter how much Walter claims it’s about his family, the truth leaks out. Walter White is in the Empire Business.
Beaten down by life, now Walter White will beat down everyone who crosses him. His Achilles heel is obvious. Slight Walter, make him feel insignificant, cause him to be reminded of Weak Wimpy Walter and he can’t help himself. His bravado wins out and he puts his empire, himself, and his family at risk trying to prove he’s a real man—a self-made, self-sufficient man.
But he’s never lived like a real man. He’s never used his power to empower others—whether when Weak Wimpy Walter or when Tough Guy Walter.
A Lost Soul or He Lost His Soul
Character is displayed in how we respond to what happens to us.
All his life, Walt had bad stuff happen to him. A man of godly character and strength would be humbled by this, turn to the all-powerful God of the universe, and ask for help to help others.
Walt didn’t do any of that, of course. Breaking Bad depicts him as a man who lost his soul. Life beat the soul out of him as he kept making worse and worse choices.
But that’s not the gospel reality. Walter didn’t lose his soul. Walter was a lost soul.
Picture the difference by pondering another powerful drama, this one a movie—the classic Western—Unforgiven. In that movie, Clint Eastwood’s character, the aging gunslinger Will Munny, sits under a tree with the young Schofield Kid. They have just each killed a man. The Schofield Kid says, “Well, I guess they had it comin’.” To which Munny replied, “We all have it comin’, Kid.”
We all have it comin’. Those are the words of a man who knows he is a lost soul.
That’s not the message of Breaking Bad. Yes, in the end (another spoiler alert) just about everyone who has done obvious bad, is punished. We are to discern that “really evil people have it coming.”
The problem is—we’re all really evil people—even nice guys like pre-crisis Walter White. Because we’ve all said to God, “I’ll do it my way in my strength for my good. My will be done!”
Long before Walter White was diagnosed with lung cancer, he had been living his entire life with another cancer. The cancer of self—self-sufficiency, self-protection, self-focus, self-effort, and self-will.
In the very end (big-time spoiler alert), Walt dies killing people. He is the angel of vengeance and the agent of judgment.
Contrast the life of Christ. In the end, Christ dies saving people. He is the Angel of the Lord who voluntarily takes on the Father’s holy wrath and willingly becomes the Recipient of our judgment. Jesus dies saying, “Not my will, but Your will be done.”
Jesus didn’t die for nice guys—there aren’t any.
Jesus didn’t die for people who had lost their soul. Jesus died for lost souls—all of us.
Jesus didn’t die for people who broke bad. Jesus died for people who are bad—for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Feeling Alive or Being Given New Life
Breaking Bad was never about a man forced by circumstances to break bad. It was always a show about a man who wanted to feel alive.
Here’s the eternal spoiler alert: Walter White was a dead man walking. No man or woman will ever be alive by self-effort.
It is only by one man—the God-man Jesus Christ—that anyone is ever made alive.
We can attempt to manage our strategies for living or we can surrender to the One who raises the dead.
Join the Conversation
Did Walter White break bad or was he born bad and shifting bad and displaying bad?
What makes a heart bad? What makes a soul lost?
What makes a dead person alive?
RPM Ministries: Equipping You to Change Lives with Christ’s Changeless Truth