Breaking Bad and Walter’s One Ring

Let me write in the clearest terms: this blog contains spoilers. As a viewer who believes loose tongues sink ships, the last thing I want to do is ruin for you the most profound TV drama I’ve ever experienced. Now, I know that’s a bold statement (and I’m not the only one making it), but I’ve been waiting to say so until I the story played out. Now that it’s over, it’s official: Breaking Bad crowns the TV pantheon.

Before this last season Christianity Today ran a review, which described Breaking Bad as a rare example of “biblical anthropology.” Which is to say, Breaking Bad depicts mankind essentially as the Bible says we are: worshipping creatures broken by our idolatry.

Breaking Bad chronicles the indefatigable pride and self-worship of Walter White. What happens when a man faced with terminal cancer determines that he, and he alone, must fix his problems? He will not accept help from friends. He will not share his burden with family. Instead the immanence of death sends him into a free fall, wherein he descends to make himself into a God.  He will save himself. He will save his family. He will control his universe. He is like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, “Better to rule in Hell, than serve in heaven.”

The last season trailer for Breaking Bad panned across the craggy, barren, red, New Mexico desert as Walter White reads Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. 

It is about a man who would make himself into God. Instead he destroys himself and everything he loves. All that remains is his shattered idol. A shell of humanity. It’s no surprise that in an interview with the New York Times, producer Vince Gilligan said, “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”Walter White believes he is ascending into the heavens. He rules like a God. In truth, he descends into a self-made hell. Breaking Bad is a commentary on Romans 1:21, 24,

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. … Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity

When Walt breaks bad in season one, he breaks himself. He fractures himself into two identities: Walter White, loving father, and Heisenberg, meth lord. In seasons 2-5 he break his wife, his friends, and his family. Gilligan won’t let us live in our quaint postmodern fantasy where my evil only effects me.

This is the real world. Sin is contagious. Skyler falls. Hank grows obsessed. Walt causes his murder. Jessi loses his mind. No one goes unpunished. Over five seasons, Walt grows a heart of darkness unlike any other villain depicted in modern television. And this villian’s chief offense? Idolatry.

Why does Walt become Heisenberg? Ostensibly for his idol, family. Walt repeatedly quips that the money is for his kids, that the murders protected his family. But in the final episode he admits his true god to Skyler. He did it for himself. Making meth made him feel alive. He built his own empire, and all who crossed his path despair. He is the king of kings, and lord of lords. He is a Nietzschean superman, brave enough to strike out from the “set” definitions of right and wrong.

But Breaking Bad is the twilight of his idols. It jabs at a postmodern vision of the world. We naively think that whatever makes you feel good and alive, must be good. But the viewer can grant Walt no such boon. You must admit that if you worships the wrong things, namely yourself and your own happiness/desire, you will destroy yourself and everything you love.

In an interview after the show Vince Gilligan described the closing scenes of Breaking Bad as “Walt dying with his precious,” a reference to Lord of the Rings.  Like Walt, Tolkein’s complex and even sympathetic villain, Gollum, is an idolater. He worships the one ring above all else. It is “my precious.” At times goodness spring appears in Gollum’s eyes, but in the end he’s lost. The ring is his life, he choses it before all else.

In his final act of idolatry, Gollum steals the ring, but in the process falls into a gaping volcano. As he plummets to his death, he fondles his ring, smiling, and singing, oblivious to the reality that it destroyed him. Likewise, Walt dies with his precious. He abandons his family, watches his son come home for the last time, then goes to be with the one thing he loves most: making meth.

In the final scene he lovingly caresses a meth vat; we see the life and joy in his face. With his idol he is oblivious to all he’s destroyed and lost. And so he dies.

Walt dies worshipping. And by his death he proves what the Bible explains: if we worship anything besides God, we die. Jeremiah describes our vain efforts to find meaning, happiness, life, and transcendence outside of God as trying to fill a broken jar with water.

Breaking Bad avoids the easy, empty answers of postmodernity: that we can make up or find our meaning for life wherever/however we like. There is such a thing as good, and such a thing as bad, and our relationship to these realities determines our life’s trajectory.

Breaking Bad is a Shakespearean tragedy; he is predestined for death. Walt’s addiction to divine power is his tragic flaw. That’s where Breaking Bad diverges most rom a Biblical Worldview. It’s a world  without the grace of Christ. A world without redemption. A world of law and consequence, but not heaven. And if we lived in a world without Christ’s death and resurrection, then I suppose it would be much like the one Breaking Bad lets us live in. Because in truth, without Jesus we’re all just like Walt.

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