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

A Bad Man is Hard to Break: Revelation and Redemption in “Breaking Bad”

AMC/Blaine Levy

Kathryn from 'Through a Glass Brightly' - published on 11/28/13

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. 

Keep reading on the next page

As Schnauz said, there is certainly a distinction to be made between revelation and redemption. Revelation is simply a step that must be taken for redemption to be possible. Once we sinners see ourselves clearly, we should be moved to repentance; and it is from there that we merit redemption. Like Walter White, O'Connor's characters experience revelations about their true natures; but the difference is that they don't stop there. Because they are repentant, the moment at which they are shocked by violence they are also purged and restored by grace. Humility brings them to their knees as they finally look beyond themselves for their salvation. As I watched the final scenes of Breaking Bad, I wondered what it would look like if he suddenly repented. Maybe he'll finally try the blue meth. Maybe it will affect him the way that beer and that sleeping pill did when he tearfully but enigmatically confessed his sins to his son and to Jesse earlier in the series. Maybe he'll double over heaving sobs laced with violent coughing until he collapsesWell, he doesn't. It's not surprising that he doesn't, just tragic.  

But there is a silver lining to this gruesome tale: we have plenty of reason to hope that Jesse Pinkman will be saved—that he will embrace full repentance and live a good life, even the life of the world to come. And interestingly, that might not have been true if not for his relationship with Walt. I imagine that if Jesse had been killed after season one as the writers originally intended, he probably would have gone out like Combo or Victor—taken like a thief in the night and missing the higher good—the something beyond, the transcendent meaning in light of which to re-order one's life. Had he never reunited with his former chemistry teacher at all, he might have lived out the rest of his days just like Badger and Skinny Pete, who've never murdered anyone, but whose souls can be bought for one hundred thousand dollars:

BADGER: You know, I don't exactly know how to feel about all this.

SKINNY PETE: For real, yo. Whole thing felt kind of shady, you know, like morality-wise?

BADGER: Totally.

(Walt holds up the money)

WALT: How do you feel now?

(They take the money)

SKINNY PETE: Better.

BADGER: Yeah, definitely improving.

 I saw Richard III recently with my husband and he reminded me of this very similar interchange:

FIRST MURDER: Remember our reward when the deed's done.

SECOND MURDERER: Zounds, he dies! I had forgotten the reward.

FIRST MURDERER: Where's thy conscience now?

SECOND MURDERER: O, in the Duke of Glouchester's purse.

FIRST MURDERER:  So, when he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.

SECOND MURDERER: (my paraphrasing) Yeah, basically.  

Jesse could have easily ended up one of those guys. But thanks to his misadventures with Walt, he realizes that he can and must resist the temptation of blood money and thus has many opportunities for lightening and self-understanding. Those moments move him to repent of the bad deeds that he commits. His conscience rips him open, filling him with shame and regret. His heart is not hardened like Walt's, or blinded like Badger's and Skinny Pete's, but is instead wrapped in barbed wire. That boy needs Confession so hard. Thank God he knows it on some level. 

Did anyone but me notice that some of the imagery from the last episode seemed to identify Jesse with Jesus? That flashback scene of him woodworking to render his cherished box was remarkably similar to the scene inThe Passion of the Christ where Jesus is making a table. The cinematography matches so well—the lighting, the camera movement, and especially the dramatic cut to Jesse chained up in the lab which lined up with the cut to Jesus chained up in the custody of the Sanhedrin.

In both scenes, two different forms of self-gift are expressed: Jesus and Jesse freely using their talents to work and create art juxtaposed with imprisonment for the love of another (the whole human race/Brock). I can't be sure if Vince Gilliagan had this in mind. But what he has made is good art, and so it participates in the Paschal Mystery even despite intentionally. I love being Catholic. 

A bad man is hard to break, but not impossible. This is what Flannery O'Connor teaches so well and what Vince Gilligan shows us in part. God can overcome even the worst criminals if only allowed in, like the Good Thief hanging next to Jesus. There are always opportunities for repentance in light of a higher good (i.e. God)—opportunities to withdraw one's will from past acts. But Walter White embraces darkness by indulging in self-worship, thus hardening himself against love. His self-knowledge leads to less and less regret, and never leads to repentance. Grace cannot enter into Walt's soul he clings to his brokenness, even when he sees it. It's the best thing he thinks he has: he is good at the empire business. He has been called an Everyman because the viewing audience can really sympathize with him in the beginning of the story. But Jesse is also an Everyman—a sinner, made in the image and likeness of God, called to repentance. We just have to pray that we follow a path more like Jesse's than Walt's by the end.

One of best things about Breaking Bad and Flannery O'Connor's work is summed up in this excerpt from the Fresh Air interview:

GOULD: What's interesting, Terry, though, is that in storytelling – […] so much of it is what you leave out, the choices of what you decide not to show. I remember in season one, one of the moments that we were always talking about is, you know, Emilio – the character Emilio gets melted in acid. And then later in the episode, Crazy Eight is dead. And what are they going to do with the body?

And what we decided to do was just have Jesse show up, go into his basement, and have everything perfectly clean. Because we know that Walt knows how to dispose of bodies using acid at that point in the story. And we thought it was sort of – it was more interesting to give the audience just a few pieces, and let them put it together.

There's a quote from Billy Wilder – I'm probably misquoting him – that we would often talk about in the writer's room, which is give the audience two and two, let them make four, and they'll love you forever.

SCHNAUZ: Mm-hmm.

GOULD: And the storytelling is really a collaboration between all of us on the side of making the show and what's going on in the audience's head. And so sometimes we like to keep things a little ambiguous and let people be smart.

O'Connor employs this very same technique, which is why it can be difficult to interpret her motives and meaning. But if you already love Flannery O'Connor, you have a really good chance of loving Breaking Bad. And if you already love Breaking Bad, I'm confident you'll love O'Connor, too.

Originally published on Through a Glass Brightly.

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