Although the credits rolled on the brillant show Breaking Bad last week, I cannot seem to get it off of my mind. Its final episode ran to the high praise most directors hope, but few execute. Vince Gilligan and his team of writers told a fantastic story. For the darkness of its content, it was a shining light of storytelling. Everything from acting to directing to writing came together to be an instant classic.
[This post does not reveal any major spoilers, but some of the show content is discussed, so stop reading if you intend to watch the show and you are concerned about possible spoilers.]
The story of a high school teacher and family man turned meth cook and eventually drug lord forced us to deal with serious themes. The pilot episode brings us into the lives of Walt and his family as things are difficult. Mounting debt combined with a pregnancy and a cancer prognosis that is less than optimistic spells a seemingly insurmountable situation. In Walt’s mind, he cannot leave his family in this horrible situation. He must provide for them. He must leave his namesake and the child on the way a better life.
Family. It gets prime billing in our lives. We work to protect our loved ones, to provide for them, to defend them . . . No one faults Mr. White for this drive to provide and protect his family. The illegal and immoral activity is shaded by a noble and moral drive. The means might not be the best, but they are grounded in the right place. So if you are like me, Walter White gets my favor and is my rooting interest.
As Walt continues to transform, the weight of his rationale rests on its original impetus. Towards the end of the series, Walter and his wife Skyler have a conversation. She has found her way into Walt’s dark world, and she has tried her hand at manipulating outcomes. Unlike Walter, the magic man, whose plans always seem to work out, hers has gone terribly wrong. Left to deal with damage Walt assures her, “You did what you did to protect this family and no one can fault you for that.” Notice the power of rationalization. He has taken a noble and moral pattern and turned it into dangerous ground.
Family was a foil for his actions. He worked hard to stand on the moral high ground, but that ground was gone. The family was a simple justification for his ego, a rationale for power and control.
The truth is all of us fall prey to this kind of thinking. Do not get me wrong, Gilligan’s anti-hero is an exaggerated story, but we are pushed and pulled on all sides to rationalize our actions. Maybe ours lies under the guise of family or holiness or helping others or a number of other moral grounds. All of these noble pursuits can tilt toward our ego.
Ethics, morality, justice, and truth are slippery things. Our ego can find its way into the most legitimate of pursuits. I think Jesus was getting after some of this when he said, do not let mother or brother or sister or wife stand in the way of the kingdom of God. This kind of weird teaching does not necessarily mean we are to withdraw familial relatedness. Just as a statement like “The poor will always be with you,” does not invite us to withdraw our acts of charity. Instead Jesus calls us to rethink how we have put our life together. Jesus demands we learn what it means to live as he lived. The way of Jesus is the way of giving up his will for the sake of others and the world.