In the past few years, I’ve realized that serialized television dramas have passed feature films as the best way to tell a story. The potential, I guess, was always there, but TV long suffered from inferior production values and a shortsightedness tied mainly to its form. The idea that TV was a place for less gifted actors and directors became a self-fulfilling prophecy, but then – as has been discussed in a hundred other places – The Sopranos arrived on the scene and showed us what a long-form narrative on TV can look like when it’s done right. HBO pioneered this kind of series, but it soon bled over onto other networks. 24, Lost, Prison Break, Sons of Anarchy, and others populated our screens, demanding that viewers either tune in from the beginning or catch up on DVD (remember that the TV on DVD thing is a relatively new phenomenon, replaced to a large degree by streaming services now) so that the show’s events made sense. Enter AMC. A channel best known for showing second-rate movies on loop (with an occasional The Shawshank Redemption showing thrown in just to keep things respectable), showed up out of nowhere with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and, later, The Walking Dead. They’ve had others, but these three programs have won critical acclaim and viewerships that rival some of HBO’s most prized programming. But more importantly, these shows possess the same quality that only HBO could claim even a decade ago. The acting is top-notch, the stories are complex and engaging, and, like the best novels, they have created characters, settings, and scenes that are given room to breathe and time to develop. As a man who appreciates great onscreen storytelling, I’m thankful for AMC (and Netflix, if it comes to that), and not simply because I can’t afford HBO.
Occasionally, I’m going to take a look at the men of the three AMC shows I mentioned above and decipher as best I can what might be learned from these indelible characters. My hope is to examine the ways we are like these characters, even (and maybe especially) when we shouldn’t be. I will attempt to be as “spoiler-free” as possible, and if I feel the need to mention anything more specific than what is available through a generic synopsis, I will throw a SPOILER ALERT in there for you.
Even if you haven’t watched the show, you may have heard about Bryan Cranston’s work as husband-father-teacher-cancer patient-crystal meth manufacturer Walter White. He’s won a couple of Emmys for his incredible portrayal, and I think that much of what makes his performances so astounding is that he captures perfectly the (initially) delicate balance that Walt maintains between all the personae mentioned above. Through Cranston’s performance, Walt’s most painful vulnerabilities, his most endearing qualities, and his maniacal pursuit of agency in his own life seep out of his pores in every scene. We can learn a lot from Walt.
Lesson #1 When the going gets rough, we will do almost anything to maintain a sense of control in our own lives.
The simplest description of Breaking Bad is that it follows the exploits of a mild-mannered high school science teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth after he receives a bleak cancer diagnosis. Cancer is the camel’s-back-breaking straw in Walt’s life that pushes him to put his chemistry background to (good?) use. The way Walt sees it, he’s played it straight his entire life. His reward? Debt, a son with Cerebral Palsy, a low-paying job as a high school chemistry teacher (and a second job just to make ends meet), and a sinking feeling that bankruptcy is right around the corner. Upon his diagnosis, Walt does what I think a lot of us would do (especially those of us who see it as our duty to provide for our families) and he latches onto the thing nearest at hand that provides him with some sense of control. He can’t undo the past (a major theme in the show – we’ll get there), but he can wrest control of his present away from the fates (or so he believes) and provide security for his family before the cancer gets him. He is the classic man-with-nothing-to-lose. (Or so he believes. Honestly, that should be the show’s title.)
How many of us have felt exactly what Walt feels? We think we’ve done all the right things and we’ve found our reward lacking. Life is rarely scarier than when we feel as though we have lost control over even the most basic aspects of our day-to-day existences. When this happens, we enter dangerous territory. I don’t mean that we’re all on the verge of joining the drug trade when the bills start to pile up, but I do think that these moments provide a fertile environment for abandoning what we know is right, just because it ceases to be easy. Control, we imagine, is good, even if it’s only control over something small or something foolish. We trick ourselves into believing, as Walt does, that we can go it alone and still get to our destination in one piece. I’ve seen this with high school students who start fights because it gets them attention and makes them feel like they’re the ones pulling the strings in their lives.
The problem with Walt’s behavior is not just that it’s extreme, but that it only provides the illusion of control. Our foolish behaviors, however, are never as cut-and-dried as we seem to think they’ll be. Poor decision making in one area of our lives will seep into the rest of them, and no matter how hard we try to compartmentalize (Lord knows Walt does), those walls will weaken and eventually crumble. Like the little white lie that takes ten more ostentatious fibs to cover it up, so to does one bad decision usually necessitate a few more to keep going. In the end, these nasty concoctions come back to bite us, and the idea that we had “nothing to lose” is exposed for the flat lie it always was.
Lesson #2 Things are NOT different “around the next bend.”
Walt tends to reassure himself and others around him that “as soon as X” is accomplished, life will return to normal. But if you’ve watched the show (and even if you haven’t, you can imagine the kinds of things that might happen to a teacher-turned-meth cook to keep a series rolling), you know that Walt left “normal” bleeding by the side of the road fifty miles back. No matter now hard he tries, his dishonesty and dangerous behavior makes it more and more impossible to return to the way things were. The reason for this is that Walt erroneously believes that there exists some mythical point at which he can suddenly put the brakes on and go back to a normal life (give or take a few hundred thousand dollars). The problem is that no such point actually exists. Life never stops coming.
This lesson is the one that hits closest to home for me. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve promised myself that things will slow down/become easier/return to normal once I’ve paid off this debt or gotten through this busy stretch at work or met some other imaginary criteria. Just as one thing comes to an end and it appears as though there is light at the end of the tunnel, but, sure enough, something new arises. Maybe this new thing isn’t as dire or doesn’t cause the same kinds of problems, but it inevitably reminds me that life’s calm stretches are often very temporary, and that we’re better off preparing for those bumpy rides.
Now, I know this makes me sound incredibly pessimistic, but much of the anxiety caused by the thinking I’ve just described is alleviated by the other people in our lives. Our spouses, friends, parents, and siblings often provide us with emotional support, helpful advice, financial assistance, or just a kind ear. All of these things completely change the life’s dynamic. Instead of experiencing the world as an unending series of growing waves crashing into us and taking our legs out from under us, we get to face it in community with other people who have our interests at heart. Walt’s problem is that the people who actually do have his best interest at heart have been shielded from knowing what Walt’s true struggles are. By keeping his wife, son, brother-in-law, and friends on the outside (or, rather, by engaging in behavior that makes it nearly impossible for him to do otherwise), he ensures that every new problem he faces splinters into several problems all at once. The toll on his psyche is immense.
Lesson #3 Doing the “wrong” thing for the “right” reasons is one slippery slope.
During Breaking Bad‘s third season, a fellow meth cook tells Walt that he’s a libertarian, and that “Consenting adults want what they want. At least with me, they’re getting exactly what they pay for.” The leader of a drug ring tells Walt: “A man provides, whether or not he’s respected, appreciated, or even loved” as a way to convince him to dive more deeply into criminal activity. Rationalizations come fast and furious when we need to feel that our worst behaviors are leading somewhere worthwhile, even as we know in the recesses of our minds that they will not. Walt himself is full of rationalizations. He’s had a lot of bad luck, his family needs the money, telling them what he’s doing would only hurt them, etc. One of the great conflicts in Breaking Bad is the internal conflict that rages constantly within Walt, and it boils down to one question, a version of which it seems Walt is constantly asking himself: Can I be a good man and still do such bad things?
At the series’ beginning, He definitely thinks it’s possible, but as time wears on, both Walt and his audience are forced to confront the reality that a transformation is/has taking/taken place. If we agree that there exists some sense of universal morality (a denial of which itself is a pretty common rationalization for selfish behavior; I’m looking at you Ayn Rand), then it’s hard to see how the duality that Walt tries to cultivate can hold up, especially as more time passes and more bad decisions pile up.
This is something we all fight, because that duality exists in all of us. We all do “bad” things, and we’d probably all like to think of ourselves as “good” people. For most of us, it isn’t too difficult a proposition. We acknowledge openly that everyone makes mistakes, and when we do something wrong, it’s easy to file it in the “mistakes” category and move on. Fair enough, perhaps. But what about when those mistakes reveal a pattern of behavior? At what point do mistakes accumulate and become an essential part of how others describe us, or how we would describe ourselves? In the beginning, it was easy for Walt to think of himself as fundamentally different from the other people in the meth trade, but as time wears on, the line separating them gets more and more blurry, until it essentially ceases to exist. (Admission: I’m only halfway through season three; I can’t imagine what Walt will look like by series’ end next year.) I think the same thing is essentially true of us and our bad behaviors. We start with rationalizations, and those get more and more elaborate (like the white lie example, the further in we go, the more convoluted they become). Eventually, the reasons we did the wrong thing stop mattering, and the thing we’ve done is all anyone can see.
For many people (myself included) faith provides a path to deal with all of these shortcomings. In Jesus, there is an airtight picture of capital-G Goodness that snatches the rationalizations from my mind before I can even utter them and holds them up in the clear light of day. It is often frustrating to be reminded so unabashedly that my behavior falls short of the standard set for me, but the alternative – setting a standard for myself – is too fraught with peril to even think about. If this makes me weak, so be it, but I’d rather be a good man sapped of strength than a bad man, my chest puffed out in a display of false power. I don’t think they’ll go there, but I think a Walt-seeks-Christian-redemption storyline would be interesting, if only to show that no matter how far down the slope we slide, we’re never too far gone.