“Breaking Bad” and Evil

Evil is at once everywhere and nowhere. But as Chesterton once remarked, the ubiquity of evil makes original sin (the idea that human nature is morally wounded) a Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. 

At the same time, our familiarity with evil desensitizes us to it. Generation after generation, people lose the ability to be shocked by their own actions. Doing evil can become as natural as breathing. So unless you’re clubbing kittens or running a gulag, the concept of evil is as invisible as oxygen – and to many people as outdated as denim overalls.

I don’t watch much television. It irks me that, in our culture, daily conversations center on the happenings of the past week’s The Bachelor or some tired iteration of the public singing competitions that glut primetime. It makes me miss those college days when sharing one too many beers led to passionate disagreements about the merits of philosophical systems like Thomism versus phenomenology, not whether Juan Pablo should pick the blonde or the brunette.

I confess that intellectual snobbery has kept me from television for many years. But occasionally we can thank God for good peer pressure, which finally convinced me to try the hit series Breaking Bad. The show just won several Emmys Monday night – and deserved to.

Breaking Bad’s five seasons began in 2008 (it’s now available in its entirety on Netflix). The story concerns the newly diagnosed cancer patient and high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White, whose financial problems and anxieties about his mortality lead him to turn his knowledge of the “central science” toward the production of an ultra-pure and world-class methamphetamine. In other words, he becomes a meth cook. His motives are honorable enough: to provide for his family after his death. But Walter’s actions in pursuit of this goal quickly show the insidious nature of moral consequentialism.

The didactic value of Breaking Bad lies in the way it follows the “ends justify the means” morality to its inevitable conclusion, namely that little sins and small compromises eventually lead to the annihilation of conscience and the destruction of a person’s character.

         Evil is everywhere: Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

Early in the series, Walter confronts a dilemma: whether to let a thug to live who knows his secret, or to kill him. In a particularly poignant scene, he makes a list of pros and cons. On one side, “Judeo-Christian values” and “it’s the right thing to do” argue against murder; on the other side, threats to his family and the possibility of getting caught support offing the guy. This is the last time we see Walter’s internal struggle played out so explicitly. (You can guess what happens to the drug dealer).

Thenceforth, no action that would secure Walter’s family is off-limits. Walter quickly abandons his basic bourgeois decency and, by the end of the series, has become so thoroughly evil that his character resembles something closer to Adolf Hitler than Bill Nye the Science Guy.  It makes you shudder. It makes you think about the “banality of evil” (Hannah Arendt’s phrase) and its omnipresence.  Evil, real evil, is everywhere.

Nevertheless, say the word “evil” in public (i.e., to the kind of people who watch The Bachelor) and maybe you will conjure up images of awful things like genocide and sex trafficking – but distant things that don’t involve us.  The concept of evil has become so archaic that, short of something like Nazism, we’re oblivious to the tiny, constant, morally questionable actions in the everyday lives of those around us – and of the person in the mirror. For us, vvil is somewhere else, essentially nowhere. 

Still, the capacity to do great evil smolders like an ember in each of our hearts. To become evil begins with a small compromise here, or a cheating-on-the-taxes there; not confronting one’s flirtatious buddy on the brink of an affair (“it’s none of my business,”), or failing to speak out against some injustice at the office or in society at large out of fear or embarrassment.

There’s a tiny Mother Theresa inside us all. But there’s also a tiny Adolf with maniacal delusions of grandeur – and the potential to let them lose if conditions make it possible. Which is why we have to stay vigilant about our everyday choices. This requires a hefty dose of grace and reliance on something (Someone) higher and stronger than our own willpower.

We are what we repeatedly do. Evil is everywhere: in the marrow and neurons; in the daily decisions. The unchecked thoughts. The undone kindness. The neglected duty. The failure to love. The small betrayal. Things with no immediately perceptible consequences. As Solzhenitsyn famously said: the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

Do good things, and you strengthen your character. Do bad things, and you become Walter White – a regular middle-class guy on the outside, but a devil within.