In Hell, We Shall Be Free: On "Breaking Bad" (and Anti-Heroes on Television)

Paul Harvey

A long time ago I blogged about "The Parables Will be Televised," exploring a little bit, and quiet simplistically, about how "religion" (whatever that means) comes through in the long-form television dramas that the Wall Street Journal recently featured in a funny but seriously interesting article on "binge" viewing. Having recently "binge" viewed four seasons of "Breaking Bad" (apparently the single most binge viewed series of any), I could relate.

My earlier post was just an introductory foray into the subject; now it's time to get serious. Thanks to Sara Mayeux, a historian I follow on Twitter, I came across this amazing essay, which I think might be the single best theological analysis of a television drama (and one of the best for movies and television) I've ever read: " 'In Hell, We Shall be Free': On Breaking Bad." It's from the Los Angeles Review of Books. More after the jump.

The Wire: The Complete Fourth SeasonWhile primarily about Breaking Bad, the essay also makes some excellent comparisons and contrasts with a few other notable shows, conveniently enough hitting on all my favorites: The Wire (still the best, imho), Sopranos, and, to a lesser extent, Mad Men. I would have thrown in Deadwood, too, which deals extensively with theologies of anti-heroes and of evil, but I think that show never caught on enough to be recognizable to many in such an essay (Jason Bivins, our resident Deadwood expert, can perhaps weigh in here). Here's just a brief excerpt below from the essay, which not only compares the television shows themselves but also brilliantly uses the character of Satan in Paradise Lost to come to grips with the character of Walter White from Breaking Bad:

At the heart of the social critique is a question of responsibility for “evil” and where to locate it (even though, of course, none of the series refer to “God” or any religious tradition at all). In The Wire, the responsibility lies with the “game” — the logic of the streets, the logic of politics, the “social facts” that weave an all-encompassing, interconnected web. The Sopranos suggests that the locus of responsibility lies in the unconscious of Tony Soprano; its explanation of “evil” is at heart Freudian. . .
Breaking Bad is most similar to The Wire, and indeed is its twin and mirror image. While The Wire explored how the drug trade decimated black urban America, Breaking Bad looks at how drugs infiltrate the other half: suburban white America. A unifying, coherent philosophy is possessed by each, and both execute it propulsively and faithfully. David Simon likened The Wire to a Greek tragedy, by which he meant that sociology is an omnipotent, merciless god that twirls with the fate of mortals. In Breaking Bad the villain is not sociology, but a human being; what destroys the mortals is not a system, but a fellow mortal. This is a human-centered vision of the origin of evil. It is Old Testament at its core.

And a little further down:

If The Wire descends from Aeschylus’s Oresteia and its cycle of never-ending violence and despair that humans cannot transcend without intervention from the gods, then Breaking Bad — in its philosophy of the origin of evil, in its human-centered narrative — most directly traces to John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The essay focuses on one particular episode in Breaking Bad -- one from Season 3, I think, but with binge viewing all the seasons sorta run together -- called Fly, in which the "purity" of Walter White's mega-meth lab is threatened by a fly that he and his assistant just cannot kill. I saw this as an interesting but failed episode (and kind of boring, frankly), as it was too literalist and a bit heavy-handed in its imparting of the parable/message; the authors see it as the linchpin of the philosophy of the series. I'm not quite persuaded, but maybe you will be. 

Unlike The Wire (and see this classic essay by Jacob Weisberg on that show), Breaking Bad starts out more as a black humor farce, with a memorably hilarious first episode where the mobile RV meth lab ends up getting driven crazily by Walt and his young conscripted associate Jessie through the open spaces near Albuquerque, and at least the first half of the first season follows in that vein. Progressively it grows darker and more philosophical, and the character of Walter, driven by what he rationalizes as good intensions, ever more ensnared by the evil of his own creation. 

This is the territory of allegory; the sociological analysis of the show is done as a sidelight (again in contrast to The Wire, in which the entire point is to explore how institutions screw us), and is interesting, but as the episodes progress it's clear that this is a Everyman-descent-into-hell story. And it's one that is almost impossible to stop watching once hooked. 

Anyway, this started just as a link to the essay from the L.A. Review of Books, so check it out. And hey, for you Chuck Klosterman fans out there, he has this excellent essay making his case for why Breaking Bad is a great show, and in some ways better than the others -- because it's the one which most persuasively shows free will in human moral choices. I think there's more of that in The Wire than people often get, but it's a useful discussion.


Albert Wu said…
Thanks so much for your really thoughtful and encouraging comment on our piece! I've subscribed to your blog for a long time and have found it extremely insightful.