A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Crime and Punishment

God help me, I’m still rooting for Walt.

I’m certainly not blind to the evil he has done: the killings he has committed or ordered, the way that lies--even the ones he tells himself--have come to define his life, the destruction his “product” has wreaked on the lives of thousands of people he has never met.  I understand why many viewers are taking, if not pleasure, then a certain degree of righteous satisfaction in the judgment being visited upon him.  What goes around comes around.  Ye reap as ye sow.

Yet from the beginning of the show, there was something in me that connected with Walt.  Not with his choices, to be sure, but with the existential situation that gave rise to those choices.

I’ve done enough men’s ministry to know that the age of 50--Walt’s age at the beginning of the show--is often a crisis point for many men.  By the time a man reaches that age (and I’m getting pretty close), the trajectory of his life is largely set.  From what once may have seemed an infinite array of options, the choices he has made at each stage of his life have progressively narrowed the next set of choices. 

It’s true that those choices allow you to live more intensively rather than extensively, to go deep rather than broad.  There may be less “freedom,” but life is generally richer for having made those choices.

But there are times--usually in the middle of the night when the devil does his best work--when the shadow side of those choices emerges from a dark place in your soul.  You can begin to feel as if you have lost control of your life, that you are merely reading a script that your younger self has written.   You look around and see friends and family members who are no smarter and no more hardworking than you, but who seemed to have grabbed the brass ring while your hand came up empty.  Even if you have advanced in your career, this is often the point at which you realize the number of musical chairs is diminishing and there may not be one left for you when the music stops.

Yes, there are stories of people who have radically reinvented themselves in mid-life.  But that never seems to be you, does it?  Marriage, children, an underwater mortgage, overdue bills that keep your credit rating on the ragged edge of disaster, they all seem like obstacles to the new life you crave and feel you deserve.

This is the point at which many men “break bad” in ways large and small.  While Walt’s cancer is the spark, it is this broader emotional context that provides the tinder.  But in the same way that most college students infatuated with Nietzsche don’t bludgeon the local pawnbroker with an axe, most men suffering from a mid-life crisis do not become lords of a multi-state methamphetamine empire.  Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Walter White is a fictional character whose story is made extreme to illuminate a psychological and spiritual narrative that speaks more universally.  Even the character’s name--Walter White--suggests some kind of everyman, a symbol of the downwardly mobile white middle class whose anger has done much to shape our current politics.

When I saw that I am rooting for Walt, I want to be clear what I mean.  I’m not rooting for him to triumph over his enemies in an orgy of redemptive violence, although I fear that may be where we are headed.  To steal a line said to Michael Corleone by Cardinal Luciani in The Godfather III, Walt’s sins are great.  It is right that he suffers.  His sins are great enough to be beyond any meaningful human forgiveness.

Am I suggesting then, that my desired end would be for Walt, like Raskolnikov, to embrace Jesus Christ?  If Walt were a real person, that would very much be my wish.  Fictionally, though, I’m not sure how Vince Gilligan could pull that off without it seeming false and sentimental.  Sentimentality in art does not advance the cause of Christ.

What I am hoping for is that Walt can encounter God’s forgiveness in a form he can accept, a form that will allow him to acknowledge the true depth of his depravity without despairing of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  It is the hope that Walt can, in some mysterious way, make the words of St. Paul his own: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I believe this is the second person posting on Commonweal notions about how interesting a murderous, lethal drug making/dealing fellow is to "me".  Perhaps, just perhaps, you are capable of imaginging in detail the experience of watching one of your family members slide into crack addiction.  The reality of Walt and his kind lose their academic, existential shine.  But no matter, you get to blog and show the world your, well, worldliness, and the writers and producer get to chat with Charlie Rose on their way to purchasing a new car with their winnings.  And we have a new cult hero.

Forgive me for asking:   Who's Walt?  On what show?

It takes nothing away from the reality of the pain that accompanies watching a family member slide into addiction to identify with the pain that has driven Walter White from Mr. Chips to Scarface. This is not to defend Walt's choices. It is to say that Breaking Bad is brilliant entertainment, literary and mature television, because it's treats evil as the complex phenomenon that it is. Walt isn't a monster who has nothing in common with us. He is one of us who succumbed to a despair that upset his moral compass. For these reasons, I'm always grateful for these discussions here.

An interesting reflection, marred only slightly by an unnecessary implication of race.   I agree that a redeemed Walt is not well-supported.   In fact, I wish the series had ended with last week’s near perfect episode.  The wages of Walt’s sins being his realization that the best thing for his family was his removal from it.   We could fill in our own blanks on how his new life would have been, but it would be some combination of nasty, brutish and short.

I fear the remaining 2 episodes, once the meth high from them wears off, will detract from the story.

Perhaps, just perhaps, you are capable of imaginging in detail the experience of watching one of your family members slide into crack addiction. 

Yes, and addiction is not just addiction to substances. As Gabor Mate explains, addiction is any repeated behaviour, substance related or not, in which a person feels compelled to persist regardless of its negative impact on his or her life or the lives of others.

While Walt is not addicted to meth, he is addicted to power, standing, what he sees as acquisition and the building of an empire. We would call that a workaholic and it is a more "acceptable" form of addiction nothwithstanding what it does to family relationships and basic concepts of fairness and sharing. And we see how this plays out in his life. We see his rationalizations. But, it is hard to judge him because we grow to understand and know him. Jesse is more of a traditional addict, addicted to cocaine and meth and we see his vulnerability and how he too is a victim in many ways. Marie was even addicted to shoplifting early on. Shoplifting can be a form of maladaptive coping with anxiety.

At bottom, most if not all of these, are spiritual problems that we can identify with. Most of us just muddle along somehow living what Thoreau called lives of quiet desparation. There are very few saints to guide and help us. The Church should offer a counter-witness and a means of witnessing to another path, another way of life. We see very few saints in the show with the exception of Hank who I have found a new respect for especially after last weeks episode.

But the program shows us the complexity of all of these characters lives in, yes an entertaining way, but at the same time there are layers of meaning and resonance. 

Fr. K

re: Who is Walt? On what show?


What joy! What bliss for you not to be drowning in pop culture!

Joe: I am glad I am not the only one who does not know what this post is about!

He's a clerk at Oleson's Mercantile on Little House on the Prarie.

Joe, Walt is from Breaking Bad which Molly has been talking about . It is on AMC on Sunday night

Fr. K and Claire"

Seriously though Walter White is a character who when the show begins is a mild mannered high school chemistry teacher with a wife and one son with cerbral palsy and another on the way. He is diagnosed with lung cancer. As a means to make money to afford his treatment, he stumbles upon a former student, Jessie Pinkman. Together they begin selling methamphetamine. Because Walt is a chemist, he knows how to make the product in its purest form and eventually it becomes very lucrative.

From there, he begins to amass more and more money and is drawn further into the criminal underworld. Somewhat unwittingly and somewhat wittingly, he takes on the personna of Heisenberg (an allusion to the German scientist who also came up with the uncertainty principal). The name is not accidental.

His motivation is at first money but then "empire".

He is portrayed in a very compelling way by Brian Cranston. This video is a good synoposis of Walter White's transformation.

I mistakenly thought the show was on HBO, which I don't get.  But last week I discovered it by accident on AMC.  There were two episodes.  i'm hooked (!) now,  And I usually hate make-believe violence. 

In spite of the fact that a metamorphosis such as Walt's is hard to imagine, Cranston, the actor, is c.   The show is a tragedy in the full Greek sense -- about a superior man with a tragic flaw.  Cranston is great enough an actor to make Walt believable, and the others actors and the direction are first rate. 

 ISTM this is TV which is fine art.  A great Western.  I keep thinking of what Pope Francis said in his recent interview -- no matter how much of a disaster a human life is, there is God in it.  So with Walt.  

A clerk in heaven?  Oh crap, I had the wrong Walt.  My apologies.

I'm glad you asked, because I want to know too, and didn't have the courage reveal my ignorance. I'm guessing it's not Walt Disney.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment