*Breaking Bad spoiler warning. Turn back now if you have not finished the show.*
“Mr. White, he’s the devil” -Jesse Pinkman, 5.12
As Breaking Bad came to its climactic conclusion, much dialogue occurred on at what point one could consider the series’ protagonist, Walter White, “gone.” At what point, many wondered, does Walter recede into Heisenberg? Some, as it has become clear to me upon traversing the enormous world of Breaking Bad social media, held out hope for Walter deep into the fifth season and even after the season had ended. After all the violence, domestic and otherwise, some still supported Walter as a vigilante against omnipotent force, one with “unconquerable will” and the “courage never to submit or yield” (PL. I.). Of course, these famous lines were used to describe the prideful Arch-Fiend of Milton’s Paradise Lost as he gazed over his host of rebellious demons, thrown flaming through the ethereal sky into the burning pits of Hell.
Much like Milton’s epic, Breaking Bad was pedagogically involved with its audience from the start. Walter and Satan in their first appearances to us are vulnerable and courageous, warriors against fate made to feel deep regret at the plight soon to be and presently being suffered by their family and comrades . First impressions, as they say, are important.These first images, of Walter pointing a gun at arriving police in his underwear and Satan lamenting the pain and disfigurement of his once beautiful friend, attach themselves to our imaginations with an anchor of precedence. These original images residing in the heads of viewers and readers serve as a point of comparison for every contradictory piece of information we will discover, explicitly and interpretive, in both show and epic. This contradiction is a function of theodicy; the catalyst with which the ways of god and evil are textually reconciled.
Theodicy, a text that seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, and more generally, explain the existence of evil in a universe with a God, was a form popular in Early Modern Europe. Theodicy’s popularity at the time is seemingly a historical singularity, born of the interchange between an Enlightenment desire to explain the machinations of man and nature and a Protestant urge to render an omnipotent and distant god. Certainly the Early Modern theodical projects to reconcile these two things are no longer as apt as they were then. How, then, can the two theodical projects be compared in any way? How can Breaking Bad be considered a “Miltonic” theodicy, if it was born in such disparate historical circumstances? We can begin to find the answer, an answer rooted in the two periods’ fundamental yet obfuscated similarity, in what each story uses as a catalyst for its core crises.
Milton’s and Gilligan’s catalyst in the dialectical exchange that is theodicy is choice. Evil exists because we have the power to chose, a power inherent in possessing consciousness, a power that takes us to the highest summit and the deepest pit, depending. Choice is the solvent both Milton and Gilligan apply to the fundamental theological and ideological impasse of a good man turned to abject evil. Choice is at the center of each work, as both anti-heroes consciously ponder their choices in light of personal and social limitations. Satan, in his memorable lament at the beginning of book IV, remarks,
“Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?”(PL. IV. 71-74
Satan’s inner torment is said by some critics to separate the reader from our once heroic warrior, yet to this critic, the tragedy of his character becomes crystallized in this scene of weakness. Indeed, many Breaking Bad fans celebrate Walter’s journey to “take control of his life,” to, in effect, chose as Satan does in the face of known consequences. Satan elucidates the relationship between his choices and their inevitable consequences, and the outcome tempers his heroic nature and tempers, more importantly, the power of choice in the epic. This unhappy lineage of choice is the precise relationship Walter comes to have with his own choices. Satan has chosen poorly, and his initial choice has limited him to but one choice; infinite wrath or infinite despair. Walter comes to a similar conclusion as Satan, to face what will come with courage and malevolent darkness to ease his woeful condition (PL. IV). Walter remarks before his climactic and character changing battle with Gus Fring, “I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, and those consequences, they’re coming.” (4.12). The fatalistic acceptance of consequences contrasts starkly to Satan’s heroic and rousing speeches and Walter’s once innocent desire for choice, typified by his early expression, “But, what I want, what I want, what I need, is a choice. I feel like I never actually make any of my own, choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems like I never, you know, had a real say, about any of it.” (1.05)
So we see that choice is central in each epic, but more importantly, that choice in both is refracted through a lens of past choices. These past choices are themselves refracted through a foreknowledge of concrete consequences, consequences bred of a break with society, heavenly and non. Satan breaks with angelic hierarchy, and Walter breaks with civil law to ease their “suffering” (PL. IV) born of a tragic flaw (pride in both cases). The consequences, as each character predicts, come down upon them with tremendous effect. Satan writhes as a deformed serpent for all eternity, and Walter fades into his feared death as a look of relief emerges from his disheveled features. Such is the price for waging war against omnipotent force.
Of note, this bringing of destruction from a combination of personal choice from within and environmental consequences from without brings to the fore the crux upon which both stories move to their grander underlying narrative. It is where choice meets society that both show and epic connect across time and place, where they illuminate the same human struggle in Milton’s time and in our own; and that struggle is the power of the individual to battle the “omnipotent force” of a perceived unjust society.
It is here that we must make the distinction between the show and epic, as the former urges the viewer to oppose this unjust society and the latter urges the reader (as Stanley Fish highlights brilliantly) to see how just society falls to the ignorant and the prideful. They are, ultimately, different sides of the same coin. Where Gilligan endeavors to elucidate the fallen ideals of a society, Milton highlights the fall itself and the conditions upon which its occurrence was understandable and “justifiable.” Critically, both anti-heroes fail in their efforts. Their failure, itself a contradiction of that first image we are given, is pedagogical; a pedagogy deeply involved with the material conditions of a fallen society surrounding both epic and show.
To that point, in both Milton’s society and ours, irreconcilable contradictions erupt every day. The value of a hard day’s work and outsourcing, the american dream and growing static unemployment, the value of the individual and skyrocketing medical costs, puritanical destiny and counter-revolution, the eternal rule of the saints and Charles II, the Areopagus and the hangman. Satan attempts to solve these contradictions, but he goes about it in the wrong way and fails, just as Walter does. Both epic and show, in short, exist to navigate and illuminate these contradictions and counsel us through the pedagogical, theodical process of plotting the course of one who breaks free from the shackles around them, only to contradict this with their inevitable re-shackling under the mounting pressure of consequence. Each’s course is a failed one, and in our, the readers, traversing of this path, lies a profound message. We are to, like our grandparents Adam and Eve, walk forth from this failure. Yet each tale counsels us to walk a different path, the course of which is only ours (with a little help from providence, literary and non)”to choose” (PL. XII 647).
So we return to choice. A fitting way to end, as is it choice that moves both epic and show to their own tragic and satisfying endings. In its use of Miltonic theodicy in secular American society, in its reappropriation of Miltonic choice (a tempered choice) and Miltonic renderings of man and society, Breaking Bad and its creator Vince Gilligan have achieved something extraordinary in modern television and fiction at large. As Milton did for his fallen Restoration readers, Gilligan reminds us of our ultimate power to choose. The power is ours to choose against Walter and Satan, to choose against their creation and rise to power, to choose against their torments.
Our sympathy for each character is nothing to be ashamed of (as some Miltonists are a little too eager to suggest), but rather it is to be rendered as the beginning of an understanding of both show and epic’s true purpose. We admire Walter and Satan’s courage and bravery, and we admire their battle against unjust societies and hierarchies (in the case of Milton’s epic certainly a product of an increasing secular interaction with the work). We admire their ability to choose. In their failure and their incorrect choices, we discover the power residing in the text of Paradise Lost and the movements of Breaking Bad. It is a power that resides there because it resides in both author and reader; it is the power to chose a path, together not alone, where a Walter or a Satan would never have come to be.
Further Reading on Milton’s Satan and the Theodicy of Paradise Lost: (If you like Breaking Bad and haven’t read Milton, read Paradise Lost!)
Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 160-74. Print.
Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 144-59. Print.
Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. Print.
Hill, Christopher. “Paradise Lost.” Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1978. 354-412. Print.
Rogers, John. “The Political Theology of Milton’s Heaven.” The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 68-84. Print.
Von Maltzahn, Nicholas. “Milton’s Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 236-52. Print.