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Friday, August 5, 2011

Breaking Bad pt. I

What would you do if you discovered you were dying of lung cancer, had crappy insurance, a mundane marriage and career, a special needs child and another on the way? What if you felt like situations beyond your control (e.g., the economy, needs of your family, etc.) determined the shape of your life more than your own conscious decisions? The clock is ticking toward your end and you’ve never felt fully alive. There’s no money for treatment that may extend your life for a few months. You choose not to go through with the treatment. But your family begs you to change your mind.

AMC’s Breaking Bad shows Walter White’s wrestling with the issues of choice, sacrifice, morality and what it means to be a man. Walt makes a truly noble sacrifice out of love for his family to undergo the treatment. He cannot handle the thought that his death and puny pension will leave his family destitute when he’s gone. But he won’t accept charity—he feels that he must earn whatever he receives.

This is when Walt decides to “break bad.” To break bad is to choose to go to the dark side. He becomes a criminal. This is not your usual anti-hero show. Walt supplements his income as a high school chemistry teacher by cooking meth. Although he had always led an upright life and his brother-in-law is a DEA agent, Walt is lured by the big bucks trading hands every day in the drug culture. He produces meth in order to provide for his family; or so he tells himself.

Breaking Bad shows the moral decay of a decent man. It does not glamorize the drug culture—quite the opposite actually. Once he gets in, forces conspire to keep him involved. The series shows the effects of meth on the mind, body and spirit. It shows children of addicts, the crime, corruption and grisly violence that anchor this shadowy world. The lead character becomes more reprehensible with every episode and his moral decay is creeping in to the lives everyone he touches. It’s amazing that anyone would want to watch a show like this. But I love it!

There is a lot to love. The writing is superb. The acting is amazing. Bryan Cranston (Walt) won best actor Emmy for each of the 3 seasons. The cinematography is amazing, the sets believable and the comedy is spot on. But what I really love is that it makes me think. The show is forever presenting moral issues and the consequences of decisions that are motivated out of fear, regret and greed. The show is not preachy, but I’m a preacher and I want to reflect on some of the lessons we can learn from Walter.

Just to get it out of the way, I will just mention the obvious lessons: “Drugs are bad. Mmmmkay?” So is lying and killing. Once you start a secret life, the lies are unending and will trip you up. There is more to life than money and success. You need to have a moral center. I’m drawn to examining the subtle beliefs that are at the root of Walter’s demise. I’ll explore one now and more in the next post.

Walter believes that the primary responsibility of a man is to provide for the physical needs of his family. Hasn’t this always been the unspoken rule? Hasn’t it been built into our genes from caveman days? Walt knows he cannot provide for his family when he is dead. His treatment on a Chemistry teacher’s salary will leave them burdened with debt. This fact makes him believe that he has failed in his primary responsibility to his family. He cannot bear to let them down; he cannot live with his own sense of failure.

This dynamic rings true. Want to know why a pink slip or a downturn in the economy or an unexpected bill is so devastating to a man? It’s not because there is less money for “toys.” It’s more than that. We feel threatened. We may fail at our primary responsibility to provide safety, food, shelter and basic financial security for our loved ones. To feel like you have failed there, makes one feel like he has failed as a human being. It’s more than toys, men lose themselves at the deepest level. When so threatened, like Walter, we are capable of darker things than we’d ever believed.

“Breaking good” (turning to a good life) means that we have to break the myth of primary responsibility. Sometimes we panic and feel like we can never provide enough for those around us. What if the economy tanks? What if there is an uninsured condition, accident, etc.? Suddenly there is no such thing as “enough.” Walt is asked how much money he needs to provide for his family and he simply answers, “More.” We live in a time when men do not have to feel the burden of being the sole providers.

Too many men have thought that if they provided financial resources that was enough. More important than any amount of money we can provide for our families is our time, our example, our honesty, compassion and love.

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