On Breaking Bad (2 – Present Absence of Religion)

04-006(Another note extracted from ongoing e-mail discussion. More info: The discussion is with a latecomer to BB, an ex-TV writer formerly in Vince Gilligan’s professional circles, who is trying to piece together the story backwards, as a skeptic, while anticipating the finale.)

Yes: “Holly in danger” would be a good high-emotion plot point, but, rather than having Skyler use it against Walt, I think it would be more likely that Walt redeems himself in some small way, possibly secretly to everyone except Walt and us, sacrificing himself for the child (not a prediction, just a fairly common, often powerful moment in Christian moral fiction). Skyler may be aware of it or come to be aware of the act. Maybe Walt Jr would become aware of it, thus nurturing an element of uncertainty in in his new hatred for his father, who up until a couple months ago was the center of his life and ego ideal.

So, you saw the episode in which Jesse dealt with the meth-head murdering mom and the kid? What makes Jesse seem salvageable, and also makes him vulnerable, is his impulse to salvage the vulnerable, and thus himself. He tries but manifestly fails to save women and children, just like any good sailor, yet, even knowing how destructive meth is, he goes on cooking it anyway, or trying to fulfill his personal agenda – whatever it is at any given time. Even his throwing the money out of his car, trying to give it away, was narcissistic and destructive rather than selfless, an easy way out compared to confessing before society and God or the good.

The girlfriend who just got killed, like the previous girlfriend, also earned her fate within the harsh moral economy of BB by trying to “get away with” living off Jesse’s blood-money. (Her end was fairly kind, though her belief that she could profit from evil without indirectly sustaining it was deluded.) Life at the nice house to whose doorstep Todd came to kill her was originally paid for by Jesse, when he tried to extricate her from life in a neighborhood ravaged by drug-gang violence, thinking that merely separating himself from her would be enough. Both Walt and Todd used her to get to Jesse, demonstrating that the connection had not been and could not be truly severed. Like Walt’s unrealistic, narrow or segregative, artificially isolating, scientific rationalisms, Jesse’s praxis also turned out to be naive, merely wishful.

The characters are almost entirely devoid of religion, including civil religion. Other than a hospital chapel used for privacy, and muttered curses, the only presence of religion in the whole series that I can think of has been Santeria ritual, observed especially by the worst criminals. As for American civil religion/politics, it is also almost completely absent from the series except as law enforcement, or the lame public grieving over Wayfarer 515 (the 167-casualty airplane collision that Walt indirectly caused). These are very telling absences/reductions: The absence of belief is also the absence of any motivation to seek redemption and any place from which redemption might emanate – and the same absence allows BB to function as pure morality tale for an audience that collectively lacks a moral language or in other words lives with the same absences or near-absences.

The very title of the show announces a morality tale, an investigation of “good” and “bad,” with an implicit come-on to enjoy the thrill of “breaking” the rules, before finally being delivered up to the proper message- at which point rather than “breaking to or into the bad,” the show will, one presumes with some confidence, finish “breaking the bad”: Hallelujah! The key challenge for the writers has always been, perhaps until now or next Sunday, preserving the thrill but ensuring the wholesome delivery in a way the morally depraved can accept, for their own good, despite themselves. Medieval morality tales almost certainly worked the same way, but Gilligan and company (probably?) cannot rely either on horned demons dragging Walt down to painted flames of Hell, or on a chorus of the dead appealing for his salvation.

7 comments on “On Breaking Bad (2 – Present Absence of Religion)

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  1. Well the show has started to wear on me, I’m more partial to shows where the evil doers do get their just deserts, too many good people get caught in the White/Pinkman vortex

  2. An ending it was. Initial reaction: I could say it wasn’t one of the better episodes, or that it was one of the most contrived and predictable, but I also acknowledge it probably couldn’t have gone any other way considering that killing the Aryans and Lydia, saving Jesse, solving the share-loot-with-family problem, eluding the law, and finishing Walt required that Walt gain criminal-magical superpowers and enjoy a lot of luck, which, as I’ve noted before, in the form of coincidence or the extremely unlikely announces the appearance of “mysterious forces” that stand within the show for the divine or miraculous, or equally takes it place, but stand in relation to the show, especially in this episode, as the TV writers revealing themselves as merely TV writers.

  3. Well it does make him the Moriarty of the SouthWest, being able to manipulate so many strings, that song was also on the Departed as well, wasn’t it?

  4. I don’t know. Watched THE DEPARTED once, on TV, whenever it was first on. Full music credits probably at the IMDb or Wikipedia.

    The thing is, Walt wasn’t a Moriarty or a combo McGuyver-Moriarty. He just had some skills he could call on under extreme stress. Moriarty was a great genre character, one of the greatest, but Breaking Bad seemed to aspire to be something else, or is treated as something else – as tragic or even tragicomic art, of “significance.” I even think it sometimes succeeded, or at least sustains serious attention. Overall I’d call it hacky and uninspired.

  5. True if anything he was more like Jeckyl and Hyde, he surrendered to his id, and pretended he was doing for some noble goal.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "On Breaking Bad (2 – Present Absence of Religion)"
  1. […] (This post is probably the last I’ll put up based on BB-related e-mails, and probably my last post on BB at all.1 Though my correspondent and I started out from generally opposing stances on the show – me fan, him not – we did reach some agreement both on the last episode “FeLiNa” and on what it revealed about the show as a whole, though I still will never prefer House. This post also expands on my response to Don Miquel in the comments under the prior BB post.) […]

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