About a week ago I began this series, exploring moral themes portrayed in the show Breaking Bad. The first post can be found here. Beware—there are many spoilers below, so if you haven't finished the show yet and don't want to know the details, bookmark this page and come back when you finish!
The show, whether intentionally or not, portrays interesting tensions between virtue and vice. Let’s start with Walt. In the beginning he seems to be a virtuous man, displaying the virtue of love in his desire to care for his family and provide for them. However, present more strongly than this virtue of love in Walt is its opposite vice—pride.
Pride is completely focused on self. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, states that in one sense pride is the most grievous of sins (ST, II-II, Q 162, a 6), and that the other vices all stem from pride. It is self-love, in a completely negative sense of the term. Sin always involves, on some level, turning away from God. Since pride is an act of turning in on one’s self, turning away from God is basically in the definition of the vice. Dante, in his Divine Comedy, places pride at the deepest ring of hell and the lowest stage of purgatory.
Love opposes pride because it is completely directed away from self and toward God. Even when we love others we are, in a sense, loving God. The same goes for loving ourselves, in a healthy manner. When we do so, we are loving God by loving what God loves (including ourselves) in a way consistent with that by which God loves.
From the very beginning, we see hints of Walt’s pride—his hesitancy in telling his family about the cancer, his refusal to take the money from Gretchen and Elliot, the way he treats Jesse early on. As the show progresses, his pride takes over and his love-driven motives are completely crushed. More on Walt’s pride and its course in a bit.
Next up: Jesse. Jesse appears to be nothing but vice in the beginning—an immature party-boy living a fast life. He seems to be the poster child for gluttony—desiring more and more and more. More drugs, more women, more fat stacks, yo!
Gluttony is defined by Aquinas as an inordinate desire. The glutton appreciates the good things which God has provided, but his enjoyment of them is disproportionate, thus taking the focus off of God and placing it completely on the thing being indulged. Classically gluttony is paired with food and drink; however, the vice extends beyond what can be digested. The sin in gluttony lies not in the enjoyment of what is being consumed, but rather in the fact that the desire for and enjoyment of these things is prioritized above desire and enjoyment of God. God wants us to be happy. He delights in the fact that we enjoy His gifts. However, these gifts have their proper place in our lives. And the importance of thanking God for what He provides is prime.
Dante places gluttony as the second ring down in hell, and the second ring from the top of the ascent of purgatory—second only to lust. These vices carry less gravity because they involve not so much love of self, but rather an inordinate or out-of-place love of what God has created. Again, a virtuous life should include the enjoyment of God’s gifts—but enjoyment of them in their proper place, with due thanks given to God for these gifts.
So as the show opens up, we are introduced to Jesse the glutton. Before too long Jesse meets Jane. At first, Jane seems to be a turning point for Jesse—a source of good in his life. She gives him someone other than himself to focus on, and we see a different side of the guy. Jane seems to be the key to breaking down Jesse’s gluttony and opening his path to virtue. But this doesn’t last long, of course, as we get to know Jane and see her feeding that gluttony with her heroin use.
Just like Jane with Jesse, we see Walt make a decision that seems to be for the sake of good, but is really nothing but bad. In the first episode, right off the bat, Walter decides to cook meth to earn money for his treatment and for his family—a sort of “white lie” decision, the classic “I’m gonna do this bad thing real quick but it’s gonna lead to good things after!” scheme. In moral decisions, the ends never justify the means. There is no such thing as a “harmless evil decision.” Every action has a consequence—a dictum which also rests at the heart of the show. It’s what initially hooked me into the show. Walt decides to do the evil thing, doing so for the sake of a moral good, and immediately he’s hit with horrible consequences—one death on his hands by the end of that episode, and another person in custody with a difficult decision to make. And it sets off a chain reaction of bad choices and worse consequences, eventually ending with him bleeding out on the floor of a white supremacist meth lab while the camera pans through the rafters. No morally-evil action is consequence-free—regardless of the end to which that decision serves.
Next up: the descent of Walter White. Look for the post to be up soon!