On Breaking Bad, Poor Teacher Pay, and Poor Choices

The other day I watched Breaking Bad for the first time. I may be a johnny-come-lately to the series that has ended, but some good friends, good Catholic friends recommended it to me.

The first friend sparked my interest in watching the series by asking me if I knew who Walter White was. This friend is an alumnus of Thomas Aquinas College, a place where I would not immediately expect to find Walter White fans, but this prayerful young man’s interest in the series intrigued me. Not only did this prayerful alum of TAC like both Breaking Bad and TAC, but, interestingly, Sir Anthony Hopkins also has a fondness for both Thomas Aquinas College and Breaking Bad, and in those two things, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and my friend, both agree.

I told this TAC alum that I did not know who Walter White was. He proceeded to tell me that Walter White (Brian Cranston) is my doppleganger. Or am I his doppleganger? I’m not sure, but while this superficial and selfish reason sparked my interest, it didn’t convince me enough to start watching it at that point. It took another friend to get me to actually sit down and watch it. Nonetheless, little did I know that the physical resemblance was going to have a more-than-superficial impact when I first experienced watching Breaking Bad.

Another Catholic friend, a PhD in moral theology, has watched the series twice. This is a man that I honor. His words, thoughts, and opinions mean a great deal to me. He said that I really should watch the series. He said that one of the artistically brilliant facets of the series is the way that the series is self-reflective. His claim was that the creators of the series have crafted all the cinematography, dialogue, and acting so that the act of watching the series becomes as addicting as the drug that Walter White cooks up.

My friend’s point appears to extend some of the praise that Sir Anthony Hopkins extends to the series in the email I referenced above. I hope that Hopkins writes more emails, but this one was supposed to be a private email. Hopkins wrote his email to Brian Cranston (my doppleganger, or I am his dopplegangee?). Cranston won four consecutive Emmy Awards for his lead role as Walter White. Hopkins gives credence to those awards and ties his sincerity and profundity to the praise he lavishes on the series:

How the producers (yourself being one of them), the writers, directors, cinematographers.... every department - casting etc. managed to keep the discipline and control from beginning to the end is (that over used word) awesome…. From what started as a black comedy, descended into a labyrinth of blood, destruction and hell. It was like a great Jacobean, Shakespearian or Greek Tragedy.

So, here I am, with three incredible recommendations to watch the series. I look like the main character; it’s artistic merit is poetically tied to the content; and it has already been esteemed on par with some of the greatest works of tragedy in the Western Tradition.

Okay, okay! I get it. I should watch the series!

So, here I go, my beautiful bride and I get all the little bairns settled in some way or another so that we can settle in to watch this series. What happened to me, personally, I had not predicted

From the first minutes of episode 1 I felt like I was looking into a mirror. On one level, I knew I had found my Halloween Costume. On another, deeper level, there was a strange sensation watching this Walter White, ten years my senior, whose physique and demeanor clearly resembled mine.

I did not expect that the other connections that I had other with Walter beyond our dopplegang-ability (maybe?) would strike such a deep chord. Indeed, it was through our, perhaps the word should be “dopplegangness” (Come on, work with me, people.) that the other connections made my first experience watching Breaking Bad all the more personally pungent.

Walter White is a teacher (so am I!), a high school chemistry teacher. Well, I don’t teach chemistry, but I do teach high schoolers. So, now there is a vocational connection that takes the dopplegang-ity (getting warmer?) to a whole new level. Now I am looking in a mirror of my work as well.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of the series, is quite cognizant of the struggle for teachers to make ends meet. His reflection on that struggle is a daily reality for me and my family. Teachers have it tough in our society (imagine if we treated lawyers and doctors the way we treat teachers: what if we had “Lawyer Appreciation Week” instead of their better pay?), and this fact factors into Walter’s justification for his speedy descent into very dark paths.

Gilligan sets the stage with Walter that makes this tension palpable. He brilliantly stretches a common experience for teachers through the second job that Walter works to make ends meet. An experience that is representative of the poor payment of teachers is seen in the fact that their students often drive better vehicles than they do. I can relate, one of my 16 year old juniors just got her license and a 2014, white, updated, V8 Mustang.

Not only is this situation true of Walter White’s career as a teacher, but Gilligan uses Walter’s second job at the carwash to set the stage for Walter’s humiliating experience of washing his own student’s car, and, of course, this is the student with whom he has a terrible relationship, and the student decides to capitalize on the opportunity to berate his teacher for “missing a spot.” Oh, the brilliant tension!

This single humiliating experience is complicated by Walter’s terminal illness, his son’s cerebral palsy, his fiftieth birthday, mounting medical bills, and other strains of life that so many of us encounter in this Valley of Tears.

Valley of Tears: Walter takes the opportunity of his terminal cancer and imminent death to put his talents to work and provide for his family. He knows he may die at any point. Instead of turning to any semblance of Faith, Walter gets to work to lay up treasure so that his family is cared for when he dies. Unfortunately, in this show and in reality, there are not many opportunities for teachers to work harder to generate more revenue.

Walter learns the amount of money meth dealers make, and he decides to tap one of his former students, who is known to be selling meth. This former student teaches Walter how to make the illegal drug, but Walter uses his skills as a chemist to create some of the best meth on the market. In the first episode, Walter meets the exigencies of this temporal world: death, poverty, suffering, and insecurity. He responds by using his skill to create an illegal, addictive drug, which leads him, in three weeks, from being a respectable teacher to a drug-dealer, murderer, and almost a suicide.

So, why didn’t I finish watching. Well, the pressure of the series hit home, indeed, very close to home. Our dopplegang-sharing (okay, that’s a stretch) made the struggles within our shared vocation more deeply felt. I did not feel that I just looked like Walter White: I felt I could actually be Walter White. I understand his tensions, relate to his humiliations, and can commiserate. I can literally “commiserate”: I can “be sad with” him. I could join my tears to his, because we share similar sufferings.

Nonetheless, I cannot watch him any more. While I can commiserate with him, I have no compassion for him. Compassion in its roots means “to suffer together”. We speak of Mary’s “Compassion” as she “suffers with” Our Lord through His Passion. I do not want to suffer with Walter White. I do not want to follow him onto his road to perdition. He chooses a road that I can certainly understand, indeed, I can understand his temptation. I cannot, however, justify his choice. I do not want to entertain his choice. I am not strong enough to entertain his choice: lead us not into temptation. For me, watching Breaking Bad made that classic dictum “There, but for the grace of God, go I” so real that I had difficulty sleeping, and had nightmares when I did, and only after watching only episode 1. I want to sleep better, so I won’t be finishing Breaking Bad.

Bill Haley