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A Bad Man is Hard to Break: Redemption in “Breaking Bad” and Flannery O’Connor

AMC/Blaine Levy

Kathryn from 'Through a Glass Brightly' - published on 11/28/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Absolutely no one - and I mean no one - is beyond redemption, even if they are self-centered, greedy, and dangerous.

A few months ago, I read "An Open Letter to Break Bad and Flannery O'Connor" by Kendra of "Catholic All Year." It made me talk to (plead with?) my computer screen like never before, because I love Flannery O'Connor and Breaking Bad, and part of my mission in life is to defend them. That's why I wanted to start writing: so someone might actually hear the stuff I'm saying out loud when I have no one around but my napping infant to convince.

I'm fascinated that good Catholics can have such widely disparate reactions to these two things. I'll never forget the first time I encountered O'Connor in my public high school English class. We were assigned "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." It was violent, shocking, and disturbing—and yet it moved me profoundly. My teacher's presentation of the story didn't help at all. She left out the fact that Flannery was a devout Catholic and made no mention of the action of grace or anything like it. In search of something akin to Jen's piece which might have been called, "Why a story about a grandma getting shot in the chest made me feel closer to God," I asked my dad to read it hoping for a good discussion. He reached the end, looked at me with open mouth and slanted eye as if he were picturing his daughter transforming into one of those goth kids and said, "I hate it." It wasn't until I took a short story class in college that I came across O'Connor again; and that time, I had my Catholic stuff together. At last I was able to see and articulate what made her so great. Then, I began to read her essays, which I think explain perfectly what she is doing as she marries her faith with her art. (I actually think that she will be canonized eventually, and I pray that it happens in my lifetime.)

For me, the experience of watching an episode of Breaking Bad is remarkably similar to the experience of reading an O'Connor short story. It feels like an intense workout—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically (I ran around the couch like an excited dog during the Tuco shootout). I admit that I resisted the show for many months just because I was put off by the premise. Crystal meth is just something that I don't want to be a part of my life in any form, I thought. Then, a devout Catholic friend of mine whose opinion I value highly said something very dramatic: "I would pay ten thousand dollars to have never seen a single episode and then start right now."

Ok. I'm there. Right away, I found the show utterly captivating, in much the same way Flannery O'Connor has always been. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, was born and raised Catholic. Sadly, he's not practicing now; but I really believe that those baptismal graces are still churning within him. His show is a spectacular exploration of the corrosive effects of Pride. Pride is the root of all evil and certainly the root of all of Walter White's badness. He has chance after chance to break out of the cycle of lies, corruption, and violence but pride keeps his hand to the grindstone at every turn. There is a full theology underpinning the storyline, as one of the above links lays out. Here I will focus on the theme of redemption using the Christian sense of the term, salvation from sin. 

Almost all of the articles I've read on Breaking Bad say that Walter White is an irredeemable villain. Phrases like "pure evil" and "heading straight to hell" are peppered everywhere. I find this troubling. The Catholic Tradition holds that the possibility for redemption exists until the last second of one's life. I love the image in the Purgatorio of the man who lived a horrible life but then was saved by a single tear at the moment of his death. The tear signifies repentance—full repentance—not just fear of hell but love of God, which for Dante means also an abhorrence of the wrong that one has done, precisely because it is wrong and not merely because it is damnable.

No human being can be 100% evil because of his or her inherent dignity as a child of God made in His image and likeness. The inherent dignity means we have a will that can turn towards the good—that was made for the good. It also means we are made for God, who works to turn us. Unfortunately, Walter White himself has never been taught any of this before. He says to his partner Jesse, "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." This a moment of despair. He doesn't believe it's possible for him to be turned back to the good, or at least he has decided not to. Walt has a sort of Faustian sold-myself-to-the-devil attitude through much of the story. The big question for me leading up to the finale was whether or not he would be swallowed up by Hell Mouth like Dr. Faustus. The final shot of him laying on the floor while the camera pulls back through the rafters was reminiscent of that, I thought. But while the images convey some of the meaning, the songs that plays over those images cover the rest:

Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget or I'd regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue.

The "baby blue" that has been "kept waiting" is his signature brand of crystal meth with which he has been painfully estranged for many months. Walt spends his last moments on earth gently patting the cooking equipment, quietly smiling, taking in his achievement. Vince Gilligan said Walt is like Gollum and the blue meth is the One Ring—he dies clutching his "precioussssss." His cancer-induced coughing even sounds like the phlegmy "gollum, gollum" sound. I'm still processing the finale and I'm tempted to just keep typing about it forever; but I'll try to restrain myself for the sake of making a few good points.  

Right after the series ended, I listened to an interview by Terry Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air" with two of the writers of Breaking Bad. I will quote it at length since my treatment of this topic is largely based on the following two excerpts:

GROSS: Well, let's start with the very ending and the clip that we just played. Why was it important at the end to have Walt say yeah, yeah, you were right, it wasn't really about the family, it was about me, I liked it, I liked doing this?

GOULD: We had talked over and over again over the years about when is Walt going to see himself the way we see him? When is he going to have, like, a revelation of what he's done and who he really is? Sometimes there would be a big episode, you know, he let Jane die or something else, and we'd play with the idea of having him start to see himself, and it never felt right. And we came to the realization that once he really sees himself, once he has a full idea of who he is and what he's done, the show's over.

This immediately made me think of Flannery O'Connor. We find in most if not all of her stories is that violence is paired with illumination; or, something violent happens and then the character finally sees. She even titled one story "Revelation" in which an obnoxious woman is mentally criticizing all of the people around her in a waiting room when she is suddenly stuck in the face by a textbook and told, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog." Shortly thereafter, the woman has a vision of all of the souls who are closer to heaven than she is. In the story I mentioned above, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," an elderly woman has a revelation when she sees the humanity of the "Misfit" who holds a gun up to her head. This single moment of compassion is her salvation. Walter White has a few instances of revelation in the series but he is usually on some inhibition-loosening substance and he doesn't die after any of them. He keeps picking himself up and returning to the well of Pride. 

The very next thing said in the Fresh Air interview was this: 

GROSS: Well, he had a much more honorable and redemptive end than I was expecting. You know, he tells Skyler he knows it wasn't about family, it was about him, implying that he's been selfish. He makes the police think that she was a victim and never went along with anything involving the meth business. He figures out a way to get money to his family. He kills the white supremacists, and he liberates Jesse.

GOULD: And then he dies, but of course like he has to die at the end, either of the cancer or of a bullet. I was expecting something closer to, like, a Shakespearian tragedy where, like, everyone on the stage is dead, you know.

(laughter)

GOULD: We talked about it. We talked about every possible ending, I think, and that was – I think that was also a favorite I would have really enjoyed if Walt was the last man standing, but it just felt right for him to go out in the end like he did.

SCHNAUZ: You know, it's interesting, I don't really see him redeemed. I just the fact that he sort of accepts what he's done and who he is, that's not redemption to me. I mean, I think ultimately – you know, we all, we talked about the morality of the show a lot while we were working on it, and to me, you know, he's – the actions he's taken are beyond redemption.

There may be some lightening or some understanding that he has, but I think I would distinguish between self-understanding and any kind of redemption.

Even the writers are saying that Walt is "beyond redemption"; but again, this is theologically unsound. The whole concept of redemption is infinitely more incredible and beautiful than Terry Gross's understanding. Schnauz is saying that Walt can't make up for his own sins with a few good deeds. But that is true of all of us. We're all beyond redemption if you count up our sins. That's the whole point of Jesus' death of the cross. 

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