Crime and Punishment
J. Peter Nixon September 21, 2013 - 5:57pm
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).