‘There’s nothing here but chemistry’: ‘Breaking Bad’ and the philosophy of religion

Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Breaking Bad is a narrative that both celebrates the power of inspiration and the imagination and admonishes us mercilessly regarding their dangers.

cast crew of breaking bad accept emmy award 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
cast crew of breaking bad accept emmy award 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I was in a very strange spot last week trying to think clearly about my philosophy of religion class, which I teach at a small college in Connecticut. This was because the subject matter of the course – what to make of the truth claims of faith traditions, such as “God exists”; “a soul or self exists/does not exist”; “Jesus walked on water”; “this mortal body can be resurrected at the end of time”; etc. – seemed less clear than ever in the wake of fresh, still jarring memories of the television series Breaking Bad, whose finale had just aired the Sunday before.
The updated morality play about Walter White, a once-timid but likeable high school chemistry teacher who devolves into a cruel and brazen drug kingpin, is very popular among my students; for me, its amalgam of often overwhelmingly grim hyperrealism and a creative investigation of the outer reaches of genius has made the series one of our great works of modern art.
In the finale, show creator Vince Gilligan’s and actor Bryan Cranston’s artistry rose to their usual impressive standards of impact.
Literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote that the best characters from literature can be more real than some actual flesh and blood people around us. I’ll give him that: White and his more sympathetically painted accomplice, Jesse Pinkman, have often been more vivid presences in my thoughts than some people I meet or see on the news daily. But this week in my class, these fictional men had to vie with the clout of great Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers such as Maimonides (the Rambam), Thomas Aquinas and Ibn Sina – on the subject of whether God exists.
Since the majority (but not all) of my students know the series, weaving and bobbing to make use of the show’s riveting situations while protecting some class members from spoilers, we considered what the world according to Walter White had to say compared to these thinkers. And at the end of the story, what lesson is Gilligan trying to present to us in offering us up a dead antihero who is but partially redeemed? No fixed answer to the last question emerged; it became clear that any such response can only be arrived at individually by each viewer along the fine line between meaning and meaninglessness that the show occupies. Happily, there is a lot of “DNA evidence” sprinkled throughout the five seasons of the show to trace Gilligan’s basic “moral aesthetic,” if we may call it that, and gather some clues for our personal inquiry.
In a flashback scene in the third episode of the show’s first season, White asked his ex-flame Gretchen a vexed question about the human condition: “Doesn’t it seem like something’s missing?” In response, she offered a perennial religious query: “What about the soul?” “The soul?” Walter replied. “There’s nothing here but chemistry.”
White’s “scientistic” or (dare we say the words?) fundamentalist scientific and materialist worldview is a potent force in the series, but one challenged at every turn by a vast web of apparently non-linear causes and effects that often bear signs of moral retribution. In one of several haunting examples of this, two passenger jets collide directly over White’s house in the finale of Season Two. That calamity is clearly intended to present to viewers the indirect but undeniable result of a series of choices White has made. Such decisions comprise a disastrous closed system based on White trying to protect the interests solely of himself and his immediate family.
Our class didn’t dwell on the show all week. But Breaking Bad provided the conceptual landscape for the problems we tried to address in this section of the course. For a thoughtful atheist in our group, Maimonides (1135-1204) was a helpful mediator in history among his Islamic predecessors who attempted to prove God’s existence using creation as the evidence (such as Ibn Sina (980-1037)), Aquinas (1225-1274) – who, according to the person you talk to, either accepted this Islamic argument or didn’t – and, say, a modern nonbeliever...perhaps even one like Walter White.
Maimonides meticulously argues that while it’s impossible to show the world was created specifically as a premise for proving God’s existence, the concept of creation itself is more plausible and spiritually preferable to its alternatives.
The students seemed to like Maimonides best; maybe it was his combination of mysticism and lawyerly finesse. (I started considering that in his own storytelling, Gilligan has a similar style!) The Rambam was a pillar of a theological approach known as negative theology, an orientation to this field that denies it is possible to claim positive attributes for God – since language and human concepts such as “God is wise” could not possibly be faithful to the infinite nature and oneness of God – and thus engages in negation (or in the case of Maimonides, often even silence) as a means of approaching God.
Aquinas, on the other hand, was suspicious of the Rambam’s methodology (which, I will venture to say, goes somewhat beyond the Christian theologian’s mystical tax bracket).
With Maimonides’ tack as a starting point – because it is either difficult or impossible to demonstrate anything supernatural using logic alone – the admittedly unusual concept of a “poetics of the philosophy of religion” has begun to serve us this fall. In other words, we’ve begun to look at the art or “texture” of some of these bold claims that religions make while reserving final judgment on them.
Too often studying, say, the “Bible as literature” is code language for saying that although we rational people have outgrown the scriptures, they sure do make for a good read! As a more open-minded alternative, we might look at the cross-section of literature and religious ideas – that mysterious thing called “inspiration” – to heighten the odds of making sense of our human predicament.
Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Breaking Bad is a narrative that both celebrates the power of inspiration and the imagination and admonishes us mercilessly regarding their dangers. Shelley (sadly, not her famous husband) can perhaps be understood as among the sanest of the Romantics in her grasp of the moral dimension that must temper the primordial forces of creativity if we are to build a decent life and world.
Similarly, the show’s author offers up a glimpse of what happens when creativity is first not acknowledged – White is an overqualified and underpaid teacher, but also an ingenious inventor who got screwed out of his rightful fortune by unscrupulous partners – and then unleashed in the wrong direction.
In this same vein of limits to the knowledge that humans should pursue, a fond target of heretic-hunters in the Middle Ages and a few centuries afterwards was the presumed class of greedy alchemists literally trying to make gold. Walter White roughly fits the heresy, just with his own branding. It seems no accident that the color of White’s proprietary crystal meth is blue, the archetypal hue of sadness.
From episode to episode, Gilligan makes us feel something in what seems to many of us like a soul but may only be chemistry.
Complementing the consistently realistic and moving depictions of the ensemble cast, Gilligan’s cinematographic signature of painting in the yellows, reds and browns of the American Southwest and his endless experiments with composition and perspective drill to the core of emotional possibilities. Those colors also coalesce very strangely and memorably in a pizza pie lingering on the roof of the White home, an image that has joined the iconic plastic bag of American Beauty as a sort of postmodern Technicolor question mark asking “What does it all mean?” That query embodies a cosmic rhetorical question that sums up the series.
Another of the heavyweights we will study this fall is the German philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 –1834), who argued that religious experience is closely akin in its quality to the appreciation of a work of fine art or music. But art itself— and certainly, a prime example is Breaking Bad – can itself also become a laboratory for investigating the philosophy of religion when the artist is preoccupied with the same problems in which religions take up real estate. Raised Catholic and now an agnostic who, as he says, “would like to believe that there is... more than just us in this universe,” Gilligan has stuffed the five seasons of his show with all manner of religious images: a pair of Mexican cartel leaders making offerings at a macabre shrine to Santa Muerte, patron saint of death; Buddhist monks chanting surreally in a gangster’s hideout; many more.
Tellingly, as I tried to help bring some closure for myself and the class by the week’s end (we’d discussed the show enough), an afterimage of a scene in the third season asserted itself and lingered in my mind: as Walter White descends for the first time into an obvious subterranean hell of a meth lab designed just for him, glimmering white equipment greets his and our gaze, and eerie celestial strings trill ironically. This show is itself a course in the philosophy of religion and the countless twists our world presents as we try to discern meaning around us.The author, in addition to his full-time academic work, separately consults with businesses and individuals in the use of Buddhist principles to improve communication. He tweets as @jiabbot.