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Why Catholics will love Breaking Bad

Most telly is filth but Breaking Bad is seriously good

By on Thursday, 29 August 2013

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston with series  creator Vince Gilligan (PA)

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston with series creator Vince Gilligan (PA)

My youngest boy understands my moral cowardice better than most. For years now he has identified me with blanket condemnations of just about everything on television, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Graham Norton Show.

He was therefore surprised when he heard from his mother that I intended to watch the hit TV series Breaking Bad and therefore needed to borrow his box set.

“So what happened?” he asked. “Did some Catholic writer tell Dad it was OK to watch Breaking Bad?” Almost, Rob, almost, but not quite.

Here’s what happened: a couple of weeks ago, I read an enthusiastic review of Breaking Bad by the Sunday Telegraph columnist Jenny McCartney, who is by no means a Catholic, Rob, but, on the contrary, is an honest-to-God Ulster Protestant. Jenny – who graced this space last week – is droll and wise and civilised, the mistress of compassionate common sense. I was sold. But it got better. Immediately after reading Jenny, I saw another commendation of Breaking Bad, this time by the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who is not only a Catholic but a conservative Catholic. (His Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the spread of trash Christianity.)

In any case, armed with a nihil obstat from Jenny and an imprimatur from Mr Douthat, I launched myself into Breaking Bad last week. Wow! I say! Rejoice!

For the first time in years I have been able to watch two hours of uninterrupted television without falling asleep. What we have here is a gripping morality tale, a tragedy, by turns funny, disgusting and terrifying. The central character is Walter White, a kind and likeable high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and, to cover his medical costs and secure his family’s future, decides to start “cooking” crystal meth. In other words, he “breaks bad” – or, to use the language of moral theologians, he freely and deliberately chooses to perform an act which he knows to be gravely wrong. By manufacturing highly addictive drugs he spreads death and misery among the weak, the vulnerable and the stupid. Since he is driven by the belief that his end justify his means, one damned things follows another – the bad gets steadily worse – until Walt is so thoroughly corrupted that the mild-mannered chemistry teacher turns into a ruthless drugs lord. Yet for much of the series we continue to sympathise with him.

What about the “adult” content, though? This is a Catholic newspaper, after all, and some of our older readers may wonder how I cope with the violence, the bad language and the sex. Piece of cake. The violence is graphic but not gratuitous and the bad language is not excessive and does not bother me (it’s not like The Wire where just about the only word I understood was “mudda——”). As for the sex, there is little of it, but since I am watching the series on an iMac in the privacy of my “library”, I am not compelled to stare glumly at my knees during the rude bits, as I would if watching with others, but can employ the simple expedient of clicking on the fast-forwarding button.

Most television is filth, but Breaking Bad is not. Breaking Bad is good, a sobering depiction of how easy it is for a good man to become a bad man. No doubt there will a rave piece about it in L’Osservatore Romano before the series ends on September 29. The Vatican daily is not frightened of popular culture and has already given its blessing to The Simpsons, even going to far as to suggest that Homer is a Catholic.

They’d never say that of Walt, of course, but in the case of Homer it should be acknowledged that he does have a keen moral sense. “If there was anything wrong with gluttony,” he once said, “they’d have made it a sin.”

  • ardenjm

    Ah, but Walter White isn’t a good man doing bad things.

    Walter White is more complicated than that.

    In a flash back to his first serious relationship with Gretchen – who goes on to marry Schwarz his erstwhile business partner – Walter White is looking at a board of complicated equations and says “there’s something missing here.”

    And Gretchen asks: “What about the soul?”

    To which an incredulous and mocking Walter White replies: “The soul? There’s nothing but chemistry here.”

    Walter started to break bad a long, long time before he cooked his first batch of crystal meth. He becomes, progressively, nothing but chemistry….
    We’ll see as the series reaches its climax whether anything can change him. But if cancer can’t, if killing a child can’t, if murdering scores of people can’t – I doubt anything can.
    In a sense then, he was always a monster.
    The only difference is that Breaking Bad shows to us what happens when a monster decides to leave its cage…


  • Benedict Carter

    Throw the bloody box out into the rubbish. I haven’t watched TV for many years and don’t miss it a bit. Test Matches and rugby internationals can be watched live online.

  • ardenjm

    I didn’t watch Breaking Bad on TV either.
    I watched it online.

    Shakespeare, Sophocles, Chekhov and Racine can be watched online….
    For sure – Breaking Bad isn’t at the level of these greats.
    But, you know, it aint too far off when it comes to exploring perennial moral questions, choices, responsibilities and consequences.
    More, in any case, than during your average (albeit exciting and worth while) Test match…

  • kentgeordie

    Surely that scene is with Skyler, not Gretchen?

  • ardenjm

    Click on the link…

  • kentgeordie

    I stand corrected. We see what we want/expect to see.

  • Johnny

    You are so manly! Wow. Just wow.

  • $20596475

    I have not watched this programme, and had not even heard of it before I read this piece. I tend not to watch dramas, movies or “reality” TV.

    However the idea that “most television is filth” seems an odd concept as I don’t see any in the documentaries, political analysis and sport that I do watch.

    Being selective seems easy and obvious. Used properly TV is a wonderful window on the world. Reject it completely and you deliberately narrow your perspective. The internet is also a great asset but cutting off your access to TV on principal makes no sense to me.

  • johnhenry

    Yes, BC is quite manly. RN actually. I wish I could say the same. How about you, Johnny? Anyway, when, in the year 2, my grandmother died at 101, I put a bullet through her TV, on which we used to watch hockey, but which (hockey) I never liked and have never missed since – well, except when Canada won gold at the Olympics in 2010. Back in 2002, I said to myself, “That’s possibly the most manly thing you’ve ever done, JH”.

    TV is just about the worst invention there ever was. As for Breaking Bad, the author of this blog must be, what – 30 or something? Yes, I’ve seen it on DVD, because my 36 year old son is an enthusiast; but TV is a crummy thing that people eventually grow out of, or should. Breaking Bad has zero redeeming qualities, except as cheap entertainment. Whose time is so superfluous that he can throw it away on stuff like that?

  • johnhenry

    “Shakespeare, Sophocles, Chekhov and Racine can be watched online…”
    Are you the old Jacques Arden that I used to respect? Anyone who watches what was meant to be read – if not seen live – is deprived.

  • Benedict Carter

    You shot your TV, johnhenry?

    Excellent! :-)

  • johnny

    I want to do that as well!

  • Johnny

    Is he a Registered Nurse? That’s not manly!

  • johnhenry

    You make a persuasive case for TV in moderation, MC, but in the end, I don’t buy it. I make a distinction between watching videos and watching TV. The former leaves me in charge. The latter makes me captive to someone else’s agenda. TV News, for example, is so heavily freighted in favour of a leftist agenda that it qualifies as propaganda. Not to say that right-wing networks like Fox are any better, even if they do appeal to my prejudices. As for productions like Breaking Bad, maybe it’s just a generational thing. Live and let live, eh?

  • johnhenry

    Royal Navy. The proper abbreviation for registered nurse is Reg. N.

  • $20596475

    Watching TV leaves you in charge too. You have the off button! Videos are all subject to production values and the opinions of the writer and director. I thoroughly disagree with your view that TV News is “leftist”, which, as you seem to admit, is just a prejudice. I loath Fox, and completely mistrust everything that Murdoch is associated with. The BBC, in comparison, has no agenda beyond the truth as it perceives it. That you might disagree with some of the views expressed is fine, but at least it’s impartiality is assured by it’s charter.

    I am very happy though with live and let live. I would love that to be the approach of everyone here. Mutual respect and acceptance that other views have validity.

  • maxmarley

    ‘The BBC, in comparison, has no agenda beyond the truth as it perceives it’

    Surely MC that is how we all view truth, a subjective thing. Impartiality is not assured by charter but by observing objective truth

  • johnhenry

    My goodness, you can’t be a resident of the UK, if you think the BBC doesn’t have a leftist agenda. Actually, neither am I – a UKer I mean; but I seem to be more up to speed on British media than you are. Where does the BBC place its employment adverts, for example?

    And what exactly is wrong with “prejudice”.

  • $20596475

    Yes i am a UK resident although I spend half my time elsewhere, so have direct experience of other news services.

    The BBC is NOT leftist. Nor is it rightist. It is entirely objective. All sides of the political spectrum complain that it is biased against them here which, I think, strongly supports my view.

    The BBC places it’s advertisements in places where journalists will read them. There is a traditional marketplace for certain employments here and nothing political should be read into that. It is just the way it is.

    What is wrong with prejudice? Do I really need to explain that? How can anyone reach an informed determination on the merits of any issue if they approach the matter with preformed opinions?

  • $20596475

    That is precisely what the individual journalists who work for the BBC do. They approach their search for the truth impartially

    So much of what is claimed as truth is no such thing. It is one person’s opinion of what they currently believe to be true.

  • Annie

    very, very cool!

  • Johnny

    What’s so royal about it? Do you guys have a non royal navy or is it only the royal one? In that case you could just call it “the navy”…

  • rjt1

    While one can honour the attempt at impartiality, I think one might say there is still a mental framework of reference within which the reporters operate (e.g. ‘liberal’ ‘secularist’). There is no harm in being aware of that.

  • $20596475

    You are, of course, entitled to your opinion but I disagree with it. There are many left wing thinkers who feel that the BBC is a right leaning organisation. I don’t. I think it does a pretty good job of balancing all sides and is really objective in it’s approach. That the output is seemingly “liberal/secularist” is simply reflective of the current balance of public opinion. The BBC has no role to lead public opinion. It has a duty to report, inform and reflect.

  • Bob

    I’m Catholic and I can’t watch this crap.
    TV sucks…plain and simple.