There was an event this week that I have been looking forward to all year. While my wife may think it is our anniversary, (and sweetheart I really do love the fact we have been married for a year!) in reality, this week “Breaking Bad” returned to our screens for its final season.
For those who don’t know, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer. In order to cover his bills (at least at first) he starts cooking crystal meth and rises to become a kingpin of the drug world.
Breaking Bad will always be a special show for me. When my own father was diagnosed with cancer, I was dispatched to find a new TV show that my family could watch to help us take our minds off the terrible reality we were facing.
Knowing my family, I knew that the dark humor in Breaking Bad would have a direct appeal to what we were all going through. My family loved it and we found ourselves passing the DVDs around the chemotherapy ward of the Royal Marsden to the nurses and other patients.
As the final nine episodes start this week, it got me thinking about how much Walt can be seen as a modern take on the biblical Job. In the Book of Job, the protagonist starts off as a rich man with everything. Slowly, everything is taken away, until finally, after he is struck with boils, he curses the day he was born. The rest of the Book of Job is a classic theodicy, examining why bad things happen to good people.
In Breaking Bad, the healthy Walt already feels his riches have been taken from him. He left the company that he founded in graduate school, and now he, a world class chemist, is stuck teaching high school chemistry. He is, however, still a diligent father and worker. It is not until Walt is struck with a deadly disease that his journey begins. Here, Walt’s story diverges from that of the biblical Job, telling a different tale of why bad things happen to good people.
A TV show would be dull if Walt had sat and pontificated about the nature of good and evil like Job does. Yet, in many ways his transformation from high school chemist to criminal mastermind mirrors the story of Job in manner if not message.
Job’s friends gather to try to work out what sin he had sinned to earn him such poor fate. There must be a reason for his suffering, they assume, for G-d surely would not punish he who bares no sin. G-d admonishes the friends for their assumption, making clear to us that the way Jobs’ friends deal with his tragedy – assuming he deserved it – is inappropriate.
In contrast, Walt’s friends assume he is a righteous person. Throughout his tough journey, his friends and family try to help him in any way they can – even by offering to pay for his treatment. Walt’s friends assume that Walt is a good man struck by hard times, and it is their role to help rather than question what he must have done wrong to deserve this. Walt, however, is not actually a good person.
In the Book of Job, his suffering is both the story and the message, Job is just a prop. In the end, Job is granted twice his prosperity for his suffering. In Breaking Bad, the suffering helps reveal Walt’s true character. The everyman nature of Walt shows that real “badness” can exist in even the model citizen. While Walt tries to justify his decisions to himself, the arc of the show reveals that he is someone who is truly ”bad.” We will have to wait and see if the show has a happy ending. I doubt it will.