Monday, September 30, 2013

"Pride Goeth Before Destruction": Or, Why I Wouldn't Hesitate to Use "Breaking Bad" in a Sacrament Talk

Spoilers ahead

About 10 years ago, Jana Riess published a Sunstone article entitled "Seek Ye Out the Best Flicks: R-Rated Movies That Have Helped Me Think About the Gospel." She begins it by relaying a testimony she shared in a sacrament meeting in which she talked about the spiritual lessons she derived from the R-rated film The Talented Mr. Ripley, namely "the enormous moral value of seemingly small choices." The title character's first "small moral admission [was] the beginning of a long and increasingly bloody trail of lies and secrets." The film was "sharp" and "intelligent" and "functioned as a particularly riveting sermon, as well as a thing of artistic enjoyment." All in all, Riess felt "that viewing it had changed [her] for the better, and it had caused [her] to be more scrupulous about the tiniest moral decisions."[1]

Ready for the finale: bro-in-law Sei (left), Me (right)
Having just viewed the finale of Breaking Bad, I understand Riess' point completely. The show is violent and disturbing, yet there are deep moral truths to be found within. Christian author Rachel Held Evans wrote last month, "I'm a Christian because Christianity names and addresses sin...In Christianity, evil isn’t something that simply exists “out there” among thieves and murderers and meth makers. No, Christianity teaches the hard truth that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves." This evil, in large part, comes from pride. In his famous Conference talk "Beware of Pride," President Ezra Taft Benson noted, "The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen...Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done...The proud cannot accept the authority of God giving direction to their lives...The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others." 

Pride, its consequences, and the moral recognition of what it is are at the heart of Breaking Bad

Walter White is an overqualified high school chemistry teacher with a surprise baby on the way and a son with cerebral palsy who finds out he has inoperable lung cancer. After going on a drug bust with his DEA brother-in-law Hank, Walt discovers his former student Jesse Pinkman is a drug dealer. Walt eventually teams up with Pinkman to cook crystal meth in order to pay for his expensive treatments and provide for his family once he has passed on. "As he develops a taste for the trade," writes Christianity Today, "Walt discovers a gift for deception—and self-deception—taking him down a path that turns "Mr. Chips into Scarface," as [creator Vince] Gilligan's original pitch put it. Filter that premise through the severity of Cormac McCarthy and the dry humor of the Coen Brothers, and you're in for a compelling ride." Walt undergoes a transformation into the drug kingpin Heisenberg, an identity he adopts early on. Though the moral duality of Walt/Heisenberg is overstated, it does provide a framework that can help viewers see Walt (and others) as "both perpetrators and victims, they can be reprehensible one moment, vulnerable the next, capable of premeditated malice and violence as well as tenderness and charity."

The plot of Breaking Bad is often described as above. What is left out, however, is the Gray Matter factor.

Early on, Walt's former partners offer to pay for his treatments (they even offered him a job at Gray Matter), providing him with the resources to leave his meth cooking days behind him. Seeing it as "charity," Walt refuses (he later provides a nice "f**k you" to one of them for "making millions" and building their "little empire" off his "hard work" and "research"). This disdain for so-called "charity" emerges later when Walt Jr. sets up a donation website for his dad. "Skyler, it's charity," says Walt. Stunned, Skyler responds, "Why do you say that like it's some sort of...dirty word?" Even when Walt and his shady lawyer Saul Goodman use the site to launder his drug money, it still angers Walt that he doesn't get the recognition for "earning" it: "It cannot be blind luck or some imaginary relative who saves us. No, I earned that money! ME!" This is exactly what he displays as he rocks his newborn daughter to sleep, showing her the hidden stacks of cash. ("That's right. Daddy did that.") Even after losing virtually everything, it is Gray Matter that ignites the Heisenberg flame once more.

In the final episode, he confronts his former Gray Matter colleagues and forces them (under the false threat of death) to accept over $9 million in drug money and "donate" it to his son on his 18th birthday. Even in this final confrontation, he makes it clear that they are to donate only that which he has earned. In his goodbye to Skyler, he finally admits, "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive." Whatever other variables there may have been, whatever delusions Walt created for himself, the real answer was simple: his pride and his ego drove him. It destroyed his life and the lives of others.

Pride plays a key role in the Mormon theology of the pre-mortal existence and the fall of Lucifer:

That Satan whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. (Moses 4:1)

It is easy to see the good intentions in Satan's plan: all mankind will be redeemed. It seems he was doing this out of love and concern for others. Yet, the true motive manifests itself: "Give me thine honor" (D&C 29:36). We often justify our actions, our choices based on supposed good intentions and poor circumstances, but do not even realize that we are largely doing so for the benefit of our own self-image.[2] Pride is in all of us. It is frightening and real, as are its consequences. Walter White was the quintessential "everyman." His own spiritual and moral transformation should give us pause.

As one insightful writer explained,

Walter is us. And that is a dangerous message, and it hurts. It hurts to be awakened to choices you didn't know you were failing to make, or making poorly...We want to be fully ourselves already, and for our actions to be extrinsic, non-reflective. To keep separate who we are, our identities, and what we do in our everyday life. But that's not what it means to have character. And it's not what it means to be a human being, created to shift and change dynamically...[Breaking Bad] confronts you with the ugliness of humanity like a Flannery O'Connor story, begging you to look and to look away, to see the outer extreme of an idea so that you'll kick back and respond and fight with it, because engaging is just as much of a choice as anything else...It inoculates you against the idea that you don't matter, or that you're not responsible for your choices. And after you watch it, when broadcast TV tries to sell you on your own powerlessness, you can feel it ring false in your mind. Because once you're conditioned to recognize your own choice, recognize that we as humans have choices, well, it's hard to go back. And you owe yourself a shot.

1. Riess, 2003: 42.

2. For a pristine example of self-image getting in the way of actual care for others, see Nate Oman's points in his "King Benjamin and the Moral Irrelevance of Panhandlers," Times & Seasons (April 6, 2012).

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