Breaking Bad Into Good
This week, I'm glued to screens to catch a glimpse of white smoke from a little chimney. Under that roof is to be found some of the most glorious artwork ever created. And surrounded by the majesty of that art, specks of red in comparison, sit a group of flawed, imperfect men who have pledged to be truthful, faithful, and to let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. Even through flawed creations, God can work. It is one of my favorite images and reminders of why I am so thankful to be Catholic.
This "admission" might merit being called a confession by some. I am not just a fan, but a tremendous admirer of the AMC television series, Breaking Bad. If you're unfamiliar with the series, it centers around Walter White, a gifted scientist-turned high school chemistry teacher. White is played brilliantly by actor Bryan Cranston. When Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, he decides to use his scientific expertise to manufacture high-grade methamphetamine so he can build funds for his in-debt family when he is gone. His family is made up of his wife, Skyler, son Walter, Jr. who has cerebral palsy, and an infant daughter. Further complicating things (or making things more interesting) is Walter's brother-in-law, Hank, who is an agent with the DEA.
Then, there's the character around whom the show really revolves for me: Jesse Pinkman, played beautifully by Aaron Paul. Jesse is a former student of Walt's. He's also a drug dealer. Walt seeks out Jesse as a partner in his enterprise who can help him sell his distinctive blue meth. The writing and character development in this series is some of the best I have ever seen--on television, in cinema, or in literature--and it is especially true for the character, Jesse. It is in Jesse's eyes that we see crime and sin reflected and it is through these reflections and his reactions to these events that we are left to think upon the effects of our own sins upon ourselves and others.
A particular favorite episode of mine is the one titled, Problem Dog. In this episode, Jesse is attending a group for recovering addicts, led by a very "'I'm OK, you're OK' leader." When you find out the leader's past, or rather the way he chooses to frame it, you see he takes that mantra to the extreme beyond what most of its most enthusiastic chanters would agree to accept. At this meeting Jesse makes up a story about having to kill a dog as a way to work through his feelings about his participation in the murder of a human being. The looks around the room begin as sympathetic, complete with nodding heads to still, frozen looks of confusion, followed by horror as Jesse answers their questions. No, the dog wasn't doing anything wrong. He just killed it. This leads to some of the best dialogue written on television as Jesse exposes the logical and moral holes in the philosophy of the leader and then emerges as the moral guidepost of the program. He can no longer see shades of grey, but the reality of objective good and bad.
From the beginning of the show, as Jesse gets deeper into "business" with Walt, we see him descend into chaos and --seemingly-- madness, in a very Heart of Darkness way. It is a more extreme descent than that we see portrayed in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, as Henry Hill gets involved more deeply in the mob underworld. And like Conrad, Scorsese and Copolla (Apocalypse Now), we can recognize the temptations that led to faulty reasoning and weak decisions. Further than that, though, we identify something else about Jesse. It's something that causes us to feel sympathy for him that we might not feel so readily for other characters. Jesse, stoned to numb his senses and quiet his brain, laying on the trash-ridden floor of his house, surrounded by strangers who are there only until the money runs out. How else could one respond to the horrors he's witnessed and worse, the horrors he's actually committed? It's something that came to mind and has stayed with me since I recently finished reading a novel about World War I by Pat Barker.
Regeneration is the first of a trilogy by Pat Barker. In this novel, set in 1917, we find ourselves at Craiglockhart War Hospital where Dr. William Rivers is charged to restore British officers' sanity so they may be sent back to the front. It is masterfully written, as Barker manages to paint a picture of the atrocities of the front--and war in general--through the "patients." Dr. Rivers has a thought turning over in his mind, always at the back, and it waits there for him if he ever stops to fully consider it. Are they all insane? What is madness? Is their reaction not the only normal one after experiencing, witnessing, or even committing such horrors?
After reading it, the novel stayed with me, as a good novel should. It is not just a statement on a particular war or certain acts or players within it, but also a larger examination of how we treat each other, the impact of our actions, and our breathtaking capacity for good and evil. A break down, at some level or another, is it not a relatively normal response? In the case of Breaking Bad, Jesse's breakdown is much more normal than the increase in cold calmness and confidence that grows in Walter White as he becomes more and more devious and commits more crimes and sins, many of them done with Jesse's assistance. In Regneration, are the hospitalized officers not acting more normally relative to the "sane" officers and psychiatrists who seek to cure them so they can be sent back to the war? Of course, there is not a direct comparison of Jesse,who has chosen a life of crime and the soldiers,following orders in war, but one can inspire thoughts about the other which lead to greater wonderings.
Breaking Bad is not easy viewing (but I'm known as a person who can relate almost anything to the Bible, The Godfather, and Shakespeare). It portrays graphic violence, gritty language and activity. But it is real, it never glamorizes sin or crime, and it is compelling. From a technical standpoint, it is masterful drama. From a human standpoint, it is Seeking. At no point do I expect a religious conversion from any of the characters as part of the plot. But, I watch because the search, the seeking--of truth, meaning in life, of that which the seekers cannot name--is there. It is active and it is real. That's what makes compelling viewing and reading. The seeking, the struggle, the humanity. There is hope when we see the search taking place, especially in something like a television show that is hugely popular.
As a Catholic, I see Breaking Bad and Regeneration--as I see my own imperfect world--through Catholic eyes. In Jesse, in the trenches, I see original sin's handiwork. I see longing for Truth, the person--God--not some philosophical abstraction. I see what a lack of beauty does to an individual, a community, a world. I see what selfishness and greed do to corrupt a heart, a family, a nation. And when I turn off the television or close the book, I am grateful. Because for some reason that defies earthly explanation, I found Truth: fully human, fully divine, arms outstretched, hands and feet pierced. He beckoned me, through my faithful grandparents, through my Christian friends, through my longing heart. And in the Catholic Church, I found a line of scholars through the years, including our last Popes, who embraced art, scientific inquiry, and literature. I found the freedom to seek. All the secular and seeking television programs, movies, novels, magazine articles from my past were all part of my journey. They all played a part in my conversion, so when my seeking heart saw the light of faith in those around me--those who "had" that peace for which my heart longed--I was able to recognize the light, and eventually find its true Source.