Over the past month, I indulged in every episode of “Breaking Bad”.
The first episode had me hooked. The first episode had me suddenly convinced: Walter White is MacBeth! I saw a man who was slowly choosing moral decay for the sake of success. He was the modern man in all his glory. I believe that is what really made the show so successful. Here was a man who chose the modern motto of “success” and lived out the logical consequences of this choice to the end. He would continually say throughout the Five Seasons that he is doing this for family, but he isn’t. It’s for him. Later in the Fifth Season, we see his true intentions shine forth: it is not about money, it is not about power, it is about the “Empire Business”: it is purely about being successful at being good at something.
And Walter White is good at what he does. Not only is he good at making meth, he is good at self preservation. But that doesn’t justify his actions. Doing something well is not justification for the action itself. That is one of the deep moral themes of the show: actions have consequences and that when we choose evil, when we choose the bad, it leads us down a deep road of moral decay. In fact, the character of Jesse Pinkman is a great counter example to the character of Walter White. Walter is the logical outcome of desiring success because he does a particular thing well. Jesse is a man who’s moral conscience is awakened in the sight of evil. He sees where evil leads, and he wants no part of it.
I think part of the shows deep success is the moral tales of the characters involved. Skyler is a woman who is vindictive, Walter is a man who wants to be self-made, and Jesse thought that the life of Walter was the life to live, but is rather a man who chooses to move away from that path so as to gain true freedom. We see in Hank a man determined for justice but failing to achieve it. In all the characters we see a bit of ourselves, and that, I believe, is how the show had such great success: the characters are the drama of our lives.
Luigi Giussani, in “Religious Awareness in Modern Man” speaks of this move to the divo, the ‘self-made man’ that is prompted by humanism. The great synthesis of the medieval world is the saint: in the saint is the correspondence between man and his destiny. Balthasar would call it the unity between person and mission. Regardless of how we word it, the basis for this synthesis is the Person of Jesus Christ. The saint is not a person good at one thing. The saint is not a specialist. Rather, the saint is a liberal. He chooses the universal call of love over the particular work of bio-chemical engineering, pragmatic philosophy, post-feminist anti-structuralist theology or INSERT SPECIALIZATION HERE. Now, the saint may be good at a specialty. There are saints who were great systematic theologians, who were great doctors, who were great bishops. But the particular was a means to expressing the wholeness of Christian love. They act on their religious sense for wholeness, for completeness, for perfection. They do not deny the limited things of existence, but now see them no longer as an end, but rather as a means for expressing Christian love. The universal call of love is the core of medieval Christian existence.
Such a synthesis was turned on its head in the humanist movement. There the “self-made man” emerges. Suddenly success is not sanctity, but competency. The motto is no longer “we are called to be saints” but rather “we are called to be competent”. But man is unable to be competent in all things. He cannot possibly be a competent doctor, a competent engineer, a competent English teacher, a competent priest, and a competent artist all at the same time. The identity of man is no longer in the universal call of love, but in particular competency. The successful man is no longer the saint, it is the professional.
The great sadness is the reduction of man in such a worldview. Man, in his cry for meaning and perfection, naturally seeks the absolute. But the world stifles this cry by its cri-de-coeur of success. You need to get to the next level of professional excellence. You need to believe in yourself. You need to be the best version of yourself. Notice the sudden turn: it is no longer about love – the world is no longer other-oriented – but rather about the self. Hence, when we lose the ability to look at the world as always “towards another” we look towards ourselves. This is the dramatic turn. This is not, however, the beginning of modernism. That is another issue because modernism deals with a denial of mediation. No, in humanism mediation still has a strong force in man’s worldview. But it becomes increasingly difficult to see God mediating and acting in the world. So humanism is not modernism, but rather the precursor.
This brings me back to Walter White (SPOILER ALERT). He throws himself at this world as a man who is tied to his own self-image. His death makes him see that his life has been lived without purpose, without true meaning. His turn to meth is to seek the humanistic cry of becoming a competent professional. But what truly attracts us to Walter is, ultimately, his demise. His demise is a perfect allegory of the inability of the humanistic worldview to offer meaning. In the end, what is it all worth? Walter’s need to make amends with Skyler, his confession that it was really “all about him” is a demonstration that he has accepted his lot in life: it is meaningless, ultimately. That is the logical conclusion of the humanistic perspective. When we limit the human spirit, when we define being human by “limits” and “specializations” then we necessarily become nihilistic because nihilism is the natural consequence of a worldview in which limits and finitude are the defining markers. We see contingency as really not contingent, but as “just there”. And then, since limit is that which distinguishes us from God, we see that there is no meaning because we refuse the answer the universal thrust of our spirit. We have given into the absurdity of finitude when we crush man’s religious sense.
To look at Walter White, we see the absurdity of existence when defined within the perimeters of humanism. If humanism is right, then we should all become Walter White. But we know it is wrong. Thus we need to rediscover – yet not in a nostalgic way – the medieval synthesis of the thrust for the universal call of love as given in the Christian Gospel. Only there is the finite given its true dignity as a sacrament for the universal love of the Cross. In Christianity, the finitude of this world is not the basis for absurdity, but rather the opportunity of the freedom of love. Thus, we, as Christians, are called to a post-modern synthesis of this medieval ideal. We are to be saints as the medievals were: we are theologians, parents, and doctors, but we are, first and foremost, sons of God the most High and saved by the love of His Son, a love which we now wish to spread forth on the earth.
in Christ through Mary