A version of this article was originally published by Center for Faith & Work.
In 2008, we were introduced to a high school chemistry teacher who turned drug dealer after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Breaking Bad‘s Walter White was just an average man who wore unflattering patterned shirts and an awkward mustache. Slowly but surely, however, the mild-mannered husband and father transformed into his alter-ego Heisenberg—the shaved-headed, goatee-sporting prince of crystal meth.
And how appropriate his choice of alias, a nod to physicist Werner Heisenberg. Walt is the anthropomorphization of the Nobel laureate’s uncertainty principle; looselyspeaking, we can know who he is right now, but we cannot be sure from whence he came or where he goes. In The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall writes:
Walt might start off as a sympathetic character, but [the show’s creator Vince] Gilligan knew that there was darkness in his past (we learn that he quit a lucrative business over wounded pride, and later stubbornly chooses to keep cooking meth rather than take money from his ex-partners), and would be far more in the future.
When Walt murders a drug dealer in episode three, we see that “this is who Walter White was all along, and it’s only his changed circumstances that have revealed him as a man capable of these things,” Sepinwall writes. In other words, Walt didn’t become broken—Walt was already broken. Broken on the inside by pride, lust for power and greed, all of which was neatly hidden away until circumstances brought the inner being to light. So Walt wasn’t a bad person because he manufactured narcotics; he manufactured narcotics because he was a bad person, and the long-term effects of unrepentant sin gradually harden him into a ruthless psychopath. Gilligan puts it this way:
The in-between moments really are the story in Breaking Bad. . . . It is the story of metamorphosis, and metamorphosis in real life is slow. It’s the way stalactites grow, you stare at it and there’s nothing, but you come back 100 years later and there’s growth.
The first cook. Drip. Killing Krazy 8. Drip. Stealing methylamine. Drip. Poisoning a little child, blowing up a nursing home, murdering his partner. Drip, drip, drip. With each calcified deposit, what starts off as an instinct to provide for his family mutates into a monstrous obsession to preserve the empire that Walt has established with his own two hands. Walt has been so engulfed by the darkness that he is no longer fully human. And that’s because sin is a force that refuses to let up; like gravity, it relentlessly pulls us inward into itself. As Walt himself says, “If you believe that there’s a hell . . . we’re already pretty much going there. But I’m not gonna lie down until I get there” (from episode 5.07, “Say My Name”). And so, Walt embodies what theologian John Owen mentioned centuries ago in his classic, The Mortification of Sin:
When a lust has remained a long time in the heart, corrupting, festering, and poisoning, it brings the soul into a woeful condition. . . . Such a lust will make a deep imprint on the soul. It will make its company a habit in your affections. It will grow so familiar in your mind and conscience that they are not disturbed at its presence as some strange thing. It will so take advantage in such a state that it will often exert itself without you even taking notice of it at all. Unless a serious course and extraordinary course is taken, a person in this state has no grounds to expect that his latter ends shall be peace.
But Breaking Bad is not just a drama; it is an all-too-realistic depiction of the corrosive effects of sin. Try as we might, we cannot fully distance ourselves from what we see on-screen because the truth is that we are all Walter White. Do we really believe that we are incapable of such depravity, somehow immune to the darkness that festers within us? Sin, that ever vigilant predator, stands ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness—how will even the strongest among us resist its ferocious assault?