Friday, December 19, 2014

Mormon, Breaking Bad, and the Morality of Art

The penultimate author of the record known as The Book of Mormon, an almost-thousand-year history of a doomed people, describes its waning days vividly and horrifically. The spent general, whose name now adorns the book since he compiled it, lived his final years leading doomed armies, while attempting to finish a history that had almost no chance of surviving, hoping that one day his genocidal foes would find it and their descendants would regret the bloodshed they had caused.
“It is impossible,” he writes, “for the tongue to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of the blood and carnage which was among the people...and every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually.”

But in the chapters that follow and some preceding, Mormon continues to give us glimpses of the horrors. Rape and cannibalism and human sacrifice rank high among these crimes, but for the soon-to-die prophet/historian, nothing seems to cause him more misery than the body count. As a general, he knew what numbers signified, and the absurd numbers that mount into hundreds of thousands.
“O ye fair ones!” he laments, words one can imagine him shouting at the piles of bodies mounting across the fields, “Behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.” The despair, cynicism, and sorrow written across the final chapters of the Book of Mormon strike a sharp contrast to the clinical historicism of the Old Testament and the mix of stories, doctrine, and discourse in the the disconnected New Testament.

Mormon makes a caveat for his readers. He is very sensible of those who might one day read this, and is careful about their feelings:

“I, Mormon, do not desire to harrow up the souls of men in casting before them such an awful scene of blood and carnage as was laid before mine eyes.”

He is concerned about upsetting his audience. Having seen the horrors of war and wickedness, he doesn't like the sight of them and isn't trying to shove them in people's faces. He continues:

“but I, knowing that these things must surely be made known, and that all things which are hid must be revealed upon the house-tops...therefore I write a small abridgment, daring not to give a full account of what I have seen, because of the commandment which I have received, and also that ye might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people.”

The doctrinal point Moroni brings up is that in the final judgment, all wickedness shall be made known. There will be no secrets, no things hidden, nothing brushed under the carpet. He explains that he is partially using the record of these horrors to teach something. He isn't trying to scare us or make us feel sad about evil, in fact, he says it twice. He is careful to be brief about it, and to leave out the gruesome details, but the story he tells is not whitewashed, changed, or defended. He wants the people who read his book to be changed. He wants them to know what evil is, how it is born, and how it ends—horrifically.

I have recently been watching “Breaking Bad”, created by Vince Gilligan. I am partway through season 2, and if you're watching the show I'll be talking about details of the show up until my current place, trying to avoid major spoilers. Honestly, I don't think you should worry about it. The show moves so fast that spoilers are coming every episode. I'm sure I'm on the edge of some new insanity. I want to write about a million posts about this show (its kinship with Shakespearean tragedy, its structure, its acting, its character-development) but today I'll just do a bit of an overview and talk about morality.

breaking bad Schlimmer gehts immer: Warum Breaking Bad auch in der fünften Staffel einzigartig ist

Vince Gilligan's massive yarn centers around a single man, Walter White. Walter is a chemist, a high school teacher in his middle age who is powerfully overqualified, having once contributed with his work to a Nobel-prize winning project. He is married to the lovely and uptight Skyler and has a high-school age son with cerebral palsy. To make extra money, he works at a car wash. Walt collapses one day at work and learns that he has terminal lung cancer, and has less than two years to live.

By a strange series of events involving his brother-in-law, the bawdy, chubby DEA agent who brings Walt on a drug bust for crystal meth, and a former student Jessie Pinkman who is the dealer of said crystal meth, Walt, an extremely clever man, makes the strangest possible play for his family's benefit and his possible recovery: he decides to use his chemistry skills to make and sell crystal meth.
Its setting is so normal as to happen in our backyards. The Arizona mountains and suburban houses and issues are as everyday as “what's for breakfast?”. In a milieu of TV shows set in CIA offices, invented lands, and far-off planets, Breaking Bad is chillingly now & here. There is very little room for distance when family discussions and dramas come so blindingly close to our own. Though Walt's secret is at times much greater than most people could possibly claim, the challenges are the same. Walt is a man who desperately wants his family to be happy and safe. Its very simplicity and familiarity make the violence and conflicts deeply disturbing.

 Breaking Bad Family Schlimmer gehts immer: Warum Breaking Bad auch in der fünften Staffel einzigartig ist

The show leaves no stone unturned and no dark corner unexplored when it comes to normal people descending into the world of organized crime, drug abuse, and eventual murder. Episodes can hinge on police raids that end in exploding land mines just as much as they hinge on tearful conversations between family members who are coming to distrust each other.

At its core, the show is about evil. The title Breaking Bad contains several meanings (chemistry involved) but one of its most fundamental is that the center of the show is a tight handful of questions: What does it mean to be bad? Who is bad? How does one become bad and at what point do good intentions become bad? What does the good/evil composition when it comes to human nature? How does it work?

To answer this question it displays an array of human sins and human goodness. Skyler's sister chooses to shoplift, and makes a habit of it. Her husband is an ignorant racist, pushing down Latinos and refusing to learn Spanish in favor of his stereotypes. Skyler, under extreme stress, smokes three cigarettes while pregnant. A drug lord named Tuco bashes in the ribs and heads of his disobedient minions. A pair of meth heads have had a child who they ignore completely, who in his squallor watches informercials and says only “I'm hungry”. Walter chokes a man to death with a bicycle lock.
But on the other hand, these people act in courage and goodness. Skyler's sister is a faithful friend and gives many of her stolen items as gifts. Her husband saves Walt's life in a daring gunfight where he displays such heroism as to seemingly erase his ignorance, stupidity, and lewdness. Despite her fear at Walter's strange behaviors, Skyler is incredibly faithful to helping her husband, devoting all of her energies to his survival in the face of cancer. Even Tuco, the murderous drug lord, owns a small piece of property where his aged, ailing grandfather lives, who he takes care of in his old age with a strange maternal sensibility.

Walter's journey takes him deep into the world of crime and into his own morality. A sort of atheist, he still writes on a pro's-con's list of the decision of whether to commit murder: “Judeo-Christian Values”. He shudders before his own decisions when he must contemplate them, but then acts boldly in pursuit of his goals. The name he takes upon himself, “Heisenberg”, after the Uncertainty Principle becomes the way the audience sees him—an unguessable mystery, making breakfast for his family in the morning and starting large scale drug warfare in the evening.

It's hard to tell if “Breaking Bad” delights in bloodshed, which Mormon clearly opposes, or if it is an indictment against it. Personally, I think that there are obvious moments where the filmmakers are excited about what they are showing. They know the moment is shocking or frightening or fascinating, even if it is violent. But I don't think the writers for a single moment (at least so far) delight in it. The show spends time and time again slogging through the trough of justification, watching characters we believe in decide to do horrible things despite our knowing they shouldn't. The promotional materials make these characters seem like action heroes, but the writing makes them human beings.

Many people say of this story that it justifies Walter, that one comes to love him and root for him despite his evils. And of course, in a sense, it does. We watch things fall apart and think “no, no, no, don't let everyone find out what you're doing”. As with ourselves, we want Walt to find an escape, to be safe doing what he wants to do without consequences.

But his sin is clear. Walt is the personification of pride. Spurned by the universe in the form of his wildly-successful former colleagues Elliott and Gretchen, he feels that his middle-class, cancer-ridden, unfortunate existence is the result of some great plot against him by the universe and so he decides to reverse, gauging himself as smarter than chance. When things turn against him in his everyday life, he can use his power in his second life and prove that he is better.

Who of us does not feel like Walt, or his brother-in-law, or his wife? Who does not feel that our worth hasn't been amply reflected in the rewards we've received? Who doesn't feel that our status in whatever sense doesn't excuse some bigotry, some lustfulness, some unkindness? Who doesn't feel that our love of others excuses our sometimes-insane attempts to make them do what we want, or act in a way that accords with our hopes?

Breaking Bad, unlike any piece of moral theater I have ever witnessed, weighs all acts as the same. Like the record of Mormon, it knows that all sins will be shouted from the housetops, and it gives every sin its time. The message that rings out to me is desperately clear, which is: evil is evil. Justification is the same for everyone, and some things require more of it, but it is all meaningless. Does it matter to be the greedy meth-head calling his girlfriend a skank at every opportunity, or the girlfriend who, in a drug haze and at the end of her wits with his cruelty, crushes him bodily with an ATM machine? In their filthy house where a child sits abandoned and ignored, the question of blame is beyond us.

The vision of Breaking Bad shows our world, so crippled by sin that we want to look away, to pretend it doesn't exist, to hide it under the rug. But every characterization is careful. Every stereotype is thrown aside. Nowhere are such morally real characters represented than in this show, and as I watch the train wreck that I am sure will some day soon fall upon Walter and Jessie, I think of Mormon. The people he mourned for were dead and gone, but today we are not yet dead. There is time to repent. There is time to pull away. Though I rarely feel like rejoicing after an episode, I feel like remembering. I feel like understanding, I feel like considering.

Vince Gilligan's sprawling parable of pride and choices reminds me of the great teller of parables. Christ told of robbers who left a man naked and left for dead on a highway. He spoke of a man trapped in hell, wishing for just a drop of water to place on his tongue. He spoke of vengeful servants who killed the landowner's son to steal his inheritance. He wanted to teach us. He wanted us to pay attention. He wanted us to learn something.

Watching exploitative or pornographic television shows for enjoyment has many harms, can disconnect people from reality, and encourages our imaginations to allow new and sometimes awful possibilities. Watching morally responsible works of art can frighten us, harrow us, and teach us anew the difference between good and bad. Only we can be responsible for why we do what we do, and how it affects us. I firmly believe that a rating is not the difference, but our own intention and preparation can make the difference. I don't recommend that everyone watch Breaking Bad, I'm recommending that we learn from the stories that we take in.

Do we need more sacred, uplifting art? Yes. Do we need to reject the difficult art? Not always.

It does not matter if you are a stressed-out mother or a maternally-minded drug lord with a horrible temper problem. It does not matter if you are an addict, a high-schooler, a brilliant chemist, a DEA agent, the man who won the perfect girl or the man who felt like he always settled, you have a soul. You have a life of which you can choose to make good or ill. You can choose in the name of whatever petty outcome you hope for, but in the end there is almost nothing more precious than goodness: true selflessness, true honesty, true humility.

I learned that from Walter White and the prophet Mormon.