Dark wisdom: a Jewish view on ‘Breaking Bad’ finaleby rabbi menachem creditor
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Truth and beauty — perhaps even wisdom — accompanied every devastating turn in the journey that was “Breaking Bad.” As a religious devotee of Vince Gilligan’s masterful narrative, I will be processing its conclusion this past week for some time.
“Breaking Bad,” which received an Emmy for best TV drama just a week before the show’s finale, was an excruciating show to watch. But the pain of having its narrative flow interrupted by commercials was even worse. Thanks to Netflix and iTunes, I binge-watched my way through the entire series during the summer, and watched the finale last Sunday.
The very ways in which we experience culture is a fascinating indicator of our ability to pay attention, to feel connected with one thing. Jewish tradition calls this flow kavanah, or intention. It’s hard to achieve, but once you have, anything less feels like … well, less.
The Talmud makes sure that certain things are experienced in sequence and without interruption, so that engaged participants see that one intense moment needs and feeds off another.
Walter White, the un-hero of the “Breaking Bad” saga, is a rationalist so skilled that, until the very last moments of the six-year journey, he convinces himself that his evil actions are morally justifiable as each terrible one is taken, painstakingly stated as necessary for his family’s welfare. White is compelled over and over to lie, cheat, murder and hurt.
“An act is not good because we feel obligated to do it; it is rather that we feel obliged to do it because it is good,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote. Only at the very end does White acknowledge what was painfully obvious to every other character (and every viewer), when he says: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”
This acknowledgement, and the silent shock of White’s traumatized wife at its sudden blinding honesty, is one of the few lingering hints of redemption in a narrative arc that crossed countless moral lines. It is only through verbally naming our sins in the presence of those we have wronged, Jewish tradition teaches, that we might reach forgiveness.
In Joan Didion’s shocking memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the author explains her need to be alone after the sudden death of her husband: “I myself was in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That is why I needed to be alone.” This magical thinking leads to what playwright Henrik Ibsen called “vital lies,” defined by Daniel Goleman as “soothing mistruths people let themselves believe rather than face the more disturbing realities beneath.”
In this light, perhaps the most devastating moment of “Breaking Bad” occurs when White, exiled, dying from his cancer, reaches out in desperation to his son, grasping at one last chance to fulfill his deluded intention to support his family with his ill-gotten financial gains. His son, finally exposed to the brutal consequences of his father’s choices, just as brutally removes the illusion of righteousness from his father’s eyes, breaking a myth of goodness masterfully woven and endured for too long.
The blood on White’s money is born of sin, its contamination irreversible even by the most skillfully constructed lies. If White had only remained alone in exile, he could have gone on believing the lies. But we aren’t made for such aloneness. He never wanted to be alone, and so he is forced to reconcile his internal illusory self with the Walter White others know. It’s a terrible confrontation, but it’s also not good, we are told, for a person to be alone.
Power has been defined by historian Jon Meacham as “the ability to bend the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image.” This is true goal of Walter White’s work. He isn’t in the money business, or the drug business, but in “the empire business.” A Jewish legend of another empire-builder comes to mind:
After Hadrian, emperor of Rome, conquered the world, he desired to be declared God. Troubled after failing to become God, he was told by his wife, “You can become God, for you are a great and mighty king, and everything is in your power. I suggest one thing: Return God’s deposit and you will become God.” Hadrian asked, “What deposit?” His wife answered, “Your soul.” When Hadrian replied that he was unable, his wife quoted the verse “no person has authority over the day of death” (Ecc. 8:8) and told him “in truth, you are a man, not God.”
In an early episode of “Breaking Bad,” Walter White chooses the street name Heisenberg, adopting his new namesake’s principle of uncertainty. Is he good or bad, teacher or a criminal, savior or angel of death?
From the very beginning of the story, White has been dying and living, lying and, in his own way, tender and loving. Whereas White isn’t certain his dark choices will have been for nothing, we viewers are quite sure: His brilliant creators have given us much to ponder.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.
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