*This post contains major spoilers. If you don’t want the ending or major plot points ruined, don’t read this post.
**The videos linked to in this post may contain objectionable material. Follow them at your own risk.
***To read an extended version of this post with embedded videos from Breaking Bad, please see the post on my personal blog at ibnabeeomar.com.
Breaking Bad is a story of transformation.
It is a story of evolution. A man spends his entire life living one way, and then suddenly goes in the opposite direction.
“Verily the creation of each one of you is brought together in his mother’s womb for forty days in the form of a nutfah (a drop), then he becomes an alaqah (clot of blood) for a like period, then a mudghah (morsel of flesh) for a like period, then there is sent to him the angel who blows his soul into him and who is commanded with four matters: to write down his rizq (sustenance), his life span, his actions, and whether he will be happy or unhappy (i.e., whether or not he will enter Paradise). By the One, other than Whom there is no deity, verily one of you performs the actions of the people of Paradise until there is but an arms length between him and it, and that which has been written overtakes him, and so he acts with the actions of the people of the Hellfire and thus enters it; and verily one of you performs the actions of the people of the Hellfire, until there is but an arms length between him and it, and that which has been written overtakes him and so he acts with the actions of the people of Paradise and thus he enters it.” [Bukhari]
Chuck Klosterman sums it up as,
Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters’ morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice. When the show began, that didn’t seem to be the case: It seemed like this was going to be the story of a man (Walter White, portrayed by Bryan Cranston) forced to become a criminal because he was dying of cancer. That’s the elevator pitch. But that’s completely unrelated to what the show has become. The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man “bad” — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person? Judging from the trajectory of its first three seasons, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan believes the answer is option No. 3. So what we see in Breaking Bad is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. … what’s interesting is that this transformation involves the fundamental core of who he supposedly is, and that this (wholly constructed) core is an extension of his own free will. The difference between White in the middle of Season 1 and White in the debut of Season 4 is not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It’s a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that’s what matters.
Whereas shows like The Wire, or The Sopranos may have showcased the decisions of people born into darkness, here we see someone willingly abandon the light for darkness. It’s a core lesson for many of us – to have iman and then consciously choose to take another path. Our ultimate fate is the cumulative effect of our decisions and deeds – and even if we don’t see the consequences immediately (as happens in the show), we will eventually.
1. Intentions and Self-Justification
The story of Walter White begins with cooking meth as a means of supporting his family and paying for his cancer treatments. But intention is a complicated thing, and often gets mixed up with other motives. What’s interesting in the show is how Walt continually considers himself to be doing the right thing. Even when things go wrong, he has an uncanny ability to hit the ‘reset’ button and pretend he’s starting from scratch – as if his previous actions no longer matter. He always hatches a new plan as if to say, “If we just do this, we’ll be ok.”
This is an incredible trick of Shaytan, that we struggle with ourselves when we self-rationalize behavior, that we otherwise know is incorrect.
As the story progresses, Walt does more and more “bad” things. It’s readily apparent that he is seeking fame and recognition. This becomes clear when he talks about Gray Matter, a company he helped found but was bought out before it went big. Here we see how it affected him and stuck with him throughout his life – and in fact became a huge motivator for his actions.
Walt’s self-justification is always that he is doing this for the betterment of his family. It becomes confusing throughout the show where you begin to wonder if he truly believes that, or if he just thinks everyone around him is too stupid to realize it’s a lie. Finally in the last episode, he comes clean about his real intent when he finally tells Skylar (his wife),
“I did it for myself, I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.”
We don’t always get what we intend for, and that is why consequences matter. People may intend good, and end up with evil actions as a result. One cannot, out of good intention, try to prevent an evil or command a good if a greater evil will result from it.
2. Sin is a Slow Burn
Stole this phrase from Imam Suhaib Webb. It’s an accurate description of how Walt ‘broke bad.’ He didn’t begin by killing anyone or poisoning a kid, but he slowly crept in that direction. Once he made the decision to get involved, he had to continue down that path. Similarly, we see how his wife also ‘broke bad.’ She was at first a model of morality, then she overlooked his activities, then she laundered money, and by the end she asked Walt to murder Jesse and was ready to frame her own brother-in-law. Once she made the initial decision, she became entrapped by her sins and there was no way out.
The story of Barsisa comes to mind,
Walt’s story shares a lot of similarities. The initial decision he makes to cook meth eventually results in him poisoning a child, killing people, and destroying his own family. The show highlights the consequences of his sins.
The creator of the show intentionally highlights this,
Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?….If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’ [New York Times]
We of course believe that there is an ultimate justice in the next life.
Actions do have consequences. What’s interesting is the decision making paradigm we go through when faced with difficulty. In this case, Walt is tested with cancer. He chooses to start cooking meth. Once he’s done that, other decisions follow from that.
One lesson we can learn is what our reaction to a test truly is. It’s part of our understanding of qadr. When something happens that is not truly in our control, what is our attitude toward it? Do we humble ourselves? Are we grateful? Are we patient? Dissatisfaction with qadr is at the root of sin. It was this dissatisfaction on the part of Shaytan when Adam was created that manifest itself in the form of arrogance.
In the case of one who does not understand this (such as Walt), they have a desire to control everything around them. There are elements of both entitlement and arrogance at play. For us we learn a lesson about tawakkul as well. We do what’s in our control, but ultimately leave everything else to Allah . We know that we can’t control what is around us, and the need to do so is not just a sign of arrogance, but a huge deficiency in faith.
This is further driven by his own ego and pride. It further blinds him to the consequences of his actions. The root of evil is that he always assumes he is right, if everyone just follows his plan, then everything will be okay.
This is compounded with other motivating factors – such as seeking power (as covered above), and also fear. Fear of not providing for his family, a fear of what will happen because he’s not in control. Making a decision based on fear is a characteristic of Shaytan-
Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality, while Allah promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. [2:268]
In the moment of sin, in the heat of that decision, we cast aside the long term consequences. A sin is not something isolated. It only takes one stupid decision to destroy your life and legacy.
The last point to be made here in terms of the consequences of sin, is that they affect everyone around a person as well. The entire show is an accumulation of decisions.
No one becomes Fir’awn overnight – it’s an evolution.
3. The Rise and Fall of the King
This is an incredible motif in the show. We see the slow rise of Heisenberg into being a king, and then his humiliating fall from grace.
This fall is an inevitable consequence of the arrogance of someone who considers themselves to be of such high authority.
Allah’s Messenger said, “The most awful name in Allah’s sight on the Day of Resurrection, will be (that of) a man calling himself Malik Al-Amlak (the king of kings) [Bukhari].
I heard Allah’s Messenger (S) saying, “Allah will hold the whole earth, and roll all the heavens up in His Rig ht Hand, and then He will say, ‘I am the King; where are the kings of the earth?”‘ [Bukhari]
These are no doubt characteristics reminiscent of Fir’aun,
And [Fir’aun] said, “I am your most exalted lord” [79:24]
We see the rise of Heisenberg slowly as he gains a reputation and further builds his empire. It is a rise at all costs for nothing more than sheer power.
Imam Suhaib Webb commented that the Fir’awnic mentality of Water White is how the bad broke him.
After this rise though, comes the fall.
One of the last episodes of the show is entitled Ozymandias. This is referencing a poem by the same title about the inevitable decline of leaders.
This is a direct reference to the rise and fall of Heisenberg. Despite his reaching the top, there was a humiliating fall from grace- one in which his entire world is shattered around him. This is a universal theme we have seen throughout the course of history. In this show, this fall is the consequence of his actions. This is the justice he receives for his decisions. Because of seeking this kingdom, he loses his family, his wealth, and his reputation. In the end he is a broken man with nothing left, killed by his own stray bullet. It destroyed not only him, but left everyone around him in ruins.
And Walt is a man transformed. If his cackling meltdown in the crawlspace near the end of Season Four marked his transition from Walt to Heisenberg, the slow dolly zoom on his face when Jack shoots Hank was the moment when even Heisenberg disappeared, replaced by something worse. Heisenberg wanted Jesse dead, but quickly and painlessly; this new thing wanted him physically and emotionally destroyed first. Heisenberg was deadly but methodical, vengeful but careful; the creature now taking Heisenberg’s place lashed out wildly, inflicted suffering gratuitously. Most importantly, Heisenberg still wanted to be seen as a family man; whatever Walt is now, he gave up on having a family the moment he saw in their eyes that he’d finally gone too far. (Rolling Stone)
The exact scene showing his ultimate fall.
4. Critical Examination of Wealth as a Blessing or a Curse
The pursuit of wealth, fame, and power is universal. They are motives nearly everyone can identify with. Wealth is an allure that causes man to break his own morality in pursuit of it. Wealth was sought as a symbol of security. A way to provide for his family long after his death. Wealth was also a scorecard by which to measure success. The more he made, the more successful he was – the more he was winning.
Wealth is also commonly seen as a solution to every problem. It is a way to ransom one’s self out of any situation.
Seeking wealth in this manner is an endless pit.
“If the son of Adam had two valleys of wealth, he would love to have a third along with them. Nothing could satisfy him except dust. And Allah accepts the repentance of the one who repents.” [Ibn Majah]
Of course, once obtained, it becomes a burden. First, quite literally in the sense that he can’t even physically move it,
This can be considered symbolism to the story of Sisyphus as well. Rolling the barrel seems almost futile, because there is no way for him to do anything with the wealth (and he ultimately loses the vast majority of it). Throughout the show, the wealth is his security, though he doesn’t realize he has lost all his dignity in trying to hold on to it. This is highlighted in the end when Walt pathetically asks the extractor (Ed) if he would deliver his money to his children after his death, to which Ed replies coldly, “If I said yes, would you believe me?”
The concept of using wealth for ransom was intriguing to me. In the end it seems Walt finally broke one of his own cardinal rules by bringing Hank to the brink of his death – despite their adversarial relationship. In the heat of the moment he offers up everything he has worked so hard for – all $80 million in exchange for Hank’s life, and it is refused.
It’s a stark reminder about the true value of what we accumulate.
Indeed, those who disbelieve and die while they are disbelievers – never would the [whole] capacity of the earth in gold be accepted from one of them if he would [seek to] ransom himself with it. For those there will be a painful punishment, and they will have no helpers [3:91].
And leave those who take their religion as amusement and diversion and whom the worldly life has deluded. But remind with the Qur’an, lest a soul be given up to destruction for what it earned; it will have other than Allah no protector and no intercessor. And if it should offer every compensation, it would not be taken from it. Those are the ones who are given to destruction for what they have earned. For them will be a drink of scalding water and a painful punishment because they used to disbelieve [6:70].
Secondly, it can actually be a curse in that it brings you further away from the very thing you were trying to obtain. Even his own family did not want anything to do with his money. Despite it being a large sum, because of what was attached to how the wealth was earned, they couldn’t bear to even think about it.
After all of Walt’s self-justification about making meth to provide for his family, his family didn’t even want it because of what he did.
No amount of wealth will never purchase what you truly treasure.
5. The Theology of Breaking Bad by Imam Suhaib Webb
This isn’t a singular issue like the previous 4, but this khutbah by Imam Suhaib does a good job of breaking down some major themes with more developed lessons Muslims can draw from them.