Like millions of people in America, I have been completely sucked into the AMC original television series Breaking Bad. I stayed away from the show for several years, probably because of a naive presumption that watching AMC meant that I was agreeing to dispense with my youthful generation and move on up (I finally gave up after realizing that The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings had moved onto the channel as regular evening premieres). Nonetheless, a bit late, I have plugged away and found the show to be worthy of the acclaim and the awards that have gone with it. It is, simply put, one of the best shows I have ever watched.
But the show isn’t really the show one finds “entertaining.” I think that’s the wrong word. If that’s what we wanted, we would go find it elsewhere in a cheesy superhero film from the early 2000’s or an action packed Jason Statham piece. No, we don’t watch the show because it’s entertaining. There are better outlets for that. I think we watch the show because it’s there that we see, first hand, the disturbing nature of embodied evil; because we find it intriguing to watch, from a safe distance, the human face of the devil. I think we watch the show because we don’t enjoy watching the building explode as much as we enjoy watching the person who explodes the building and trying to figure out what led him to do it.
This has been the hallmark of our current Hollywood productions as of late. It started with new Batman series and climaxed in The Dark Knight, where the cinematic performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker made you feel uncomfortable and uneasy, largely because there was a silent but demented back story to his origin. But it’s extended beyond this, to the point where so many of our acclaimed cinematic experiences lead us into darker and darker allies composed of people, not symbols. The villain, all of a sudden, is a complex creature with a thorough identity. The villain has a face, a name, a family, a history, and emotions. The villain is…a person.
And this is exactly what Breaking Bad has shown us, and why we are so hooked on it (ironic, for a story about addiction). We are not so much interested in the show as we are interested in Walter White–in watching the man slowly and painfully become, in the words of C.S. Lewis, the “unman.” We are consumed with the becoming of the villain, the progression and assent of the psyche to evil.
Contrary to some of the warnings put out to stay away from such content, I think there is something actually good to take away from this program. For one, it reminds us that it’s easier to demonize a person when we don’t have to look into their eyes. It’s easier to see someone as the eternal villain, the definition of evil itself. But this is not the case with White, as you see a fairly likeable character at the beginning of the series become so trapped and possessed by the money and success. But still, throughout the series, White retains human elements within him which preclude the black and white portrait we are sometimes asked to accept.
Secondly, it reminds us that evil is progressive. Addictions, habits, and sin all flow from unchecked desire and pride. And while this happens quickly for some, most of us evolve into our sin. The Walter White of season one and the Walter White of season five are two very different characters, but through progressive and subtle steps, White ultimately eroded his sense of morality and agreed to becoming the monster we all love to hate. And this, of course, is a warning for us all. We can become numb so that what sin bothered us initially no longer does.
But third, and this may be most important, we never quite lose hope for these characters. We see them as people, and while we learn to hate White because of what he’s become, we plead with him to find redemption, to quit his addictions, and find help and forgiveness in those around him. And this is, of course, what the cross offers. It is never beyond reach, for even the lowest of us.
The fact remains, earthly evil has a human face. It has a name, a personality, a history. And whether we’re talking about fiction or reality, we must recognize that evil is consented to and that we all have the ability to succumb to it and, therefore, to consent to the destruction of our own humanity. As important as this, however, we must realize that Christ redeems humanity. And this means something very radical: Whatever unmanning we doing to ourselves in consenting to sin, Christ can re-man us in consenting to Him.