The Ethics of Breaking Bad

If there’s one thing that the creators of some of the best shows on tv right now have appeared to agree on it’s this: The black and white, pure good guy vs. pure bad guy plot lines are over. Case in point: Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad.

For those of you who don’t know about Breaking Bad, two things. 1) Watch it. It’s on Netflix Instant. Just, please, watch it. 2) Just for the sake of this post, here’s the gist. Walter, a high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer. He decides to start cooking meth with a former student, Jesse, to help set up his family with all kinds of cash in the wake of his pending death. Cartels get involved. There’s an unfortunate incident with a box cutter. Mayhem essentially ensues.

Here’s the thing about Walter. Initially his motives are pure, even if the actions he takes in response are not. This is the crux of many ethical dilemmas.

Are a person’s intentions or the result the thing that decides where someone is good or evil?

If someone has good intentions, but the results end terribly, is that person evil? Or if someone has bad intentions, but the situation ends up not harming anyone, what do you make of that person? In seemingly every episode each character has the opportunity to make a choice that effects their course of action. As Walter is the main character (I refrain from using protagonist or antagonist because, depending on the episode, he’s both — sometimes simultaneously) he seems to have these decisions come up more often than others.

And that’s why I think Walter is one of the most curious cases of ethics on television today.

There are a number of opportunities for him to get out of the business — at least one each episode. And yet he continues. At least Dexter has the opt-out of him being born the way he is. The survivors in The Walking Dead are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. Every character in The Wire is just trying to survive life in the game. These characters are evil by biology or circumstance respectively. Walter is evil by choice. And that’s the crux of the show.

Take a normal, innocent man. Have a situation come up that has the potential to make him as dark of a villain as there is — not because of his circumstance or biology, but because of his actions. Follow him down that spiral into Hell and then let each viewer decide when he reaches the point of no return.

What’s your take on Breaking Bad? What do you think of Walter? In your opinion, where was his point of no return? Drop a comment in the comments section and let’s have a conversation. [Probably safe to throw out a spoiler alert for the comments section as I plan on giving my take as well. All are forewarned.]

Cheers,
Eric

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The Dark Knight Rises & The Power of Silence

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.” – The Dalai Lama

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite living film directors. He’s done MementoThe PrestigeInception, and the three newest Batmans. His movies always make me think, leave me in suspense, and freak me the heck out. The more I think about it, the things that freak me out most in his movies is the use of silence. In some of the suspenseful, crescendoing scenes in movies, we have been conditioned to expect the music to build up along with the anticipation. But what Chris Nolan does is he often uses silence to do that build up for him.

And it’s terrifying.

For those of you who have seen Dark Knight Rises [and if you haven’t, this won’t be too much of a spoiler] but when Bane is about to come out onto the football field, when he’s walking through the tunnel, don’t you expect some kind of chaotic build up to the frenzy that would take place when he enters the field? Instead, literally all we hear is the voice of a little boy beautifully singing the Star-Spangled Banner. I’ll save the lecture on nationalism in the face of imminent destruction for another day.

The point is, whenever destruction happens, we flock to sounds and chaos and noise. Whenever I’m home alone and scared, I turn on the television just so there’s some background noise going around. Anything but silence.

And when something as terrible as the shooting in Aurora happens, we hurry to make noise. We blame parents. We  blame the media, the internet, rap music. We blame the shooter’s parents, we blame this generation’s parents, we blame all parents. My particular brand of noise was against guns. But we make noise all the same. Anything but silence.

It reminds me of a passage from the Book of Job. After the initial round of sufferings against Job — call it evil’s shock and awe campaign — three of Job’s friends come to him and see that he’s in terrible distress and sadness. Here’s what they do:

12When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their head. 13They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Initially, they make noise. But then they settle into silence. This is the response of the faithful. Immediately after the tragedy in Aurora, a pastor made sweeping declarations that all non-Christians who were killed in that theater are going to hell. I wish he would have just kept silent. That kind of noise is despicable on top of incredibly insensitive.

Why can’t we simply do as Job’s friends did? See people who are suffering and sit down and weep with them? 

We don’t have to explain away their problems, or get them to laugh to escape their pain.

People yelling louder won’t change the fact that 12 people went to a movie to be entertained, and didn’t come out of the theater alive. Dozens more came out injured.

Lest we forget the shooter. We forget that someone became so broken and jaded against the world that he felt the only thing to do was to take tear gas and guns into something as innocent as a movie theater and start shooting.

Certainly as more details emerge, and more evidence comes to light, these conversations need to happen. We need to talk about available mental health resources. We need to talk about why this kind of thing happens.

But for now… we need to recognize, as Chris Nolan does, that there is power in silence. We need to learn to sit with victims of senseless violence and say that it’s terrible and senseless and appalling.

And weep with those who weep.

Cheers,
Eric

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