The likelihood that you, reading this blog post, have seen or heard of “breaking bad” is high enough to allow me to indulge discussing this addictive, excellent series about a man who, diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to cook and sell methamphetamine to make money for his family before he dies.
This brief description may seem strange to someone who has not actually seen the show and it may sound like it is just another mindless piece of entertainment tailor-made for “generation bored”. Watching the show on the other hand, will give you an entirely different perspective.
One of the fundamental themes in the show is that of morality, and more specifically, of moral relativism, of bad vs. good, and of the capacity of human beings to effectively justify any of their behavior, morally and ethically, so as to fit and serve their circumstances.
When you are watching the show, you see the development of the main character, Walter White; going from a law-abiding, family-oriented high school chemistry teacher to becoming a drug-dealing murderer. This is literally a show about “breaking bad”. Yet, while the plot and the characters can really keep you hooked to the series, it remains that the most powerful characteristic of the show is the very truth it conveys to us about ourselves. It can get almost painful to watch as a character we had grown fond of turns into a seemingly cold murderer, as we are left to decide what we think about him. What do we think? Do we justify his behavior because he has cancer? Because the ends (making money for his family) justify the means? Is he not aware of his behavior?
The show probes us to ask and challenge ourselves with these questions, ones which we are not likely to spend a casual Thursday night pondering about. And yet, while the show itself is a great mixture of aesthetics, artistic value and regard to truth and humanity, it remains our job, individually, to go beyond simply becoming aware of the murky waters in which questions of morality lie and instead, make the effort to push ourselves into trying to answer these questions. To put it another way, it’s not enough to simply be satisfied with realizing how complex good and bad can be but rather, we must go further and ask ourselves, what is the consequence of doing away with the very notion of good vs. bad? What is the actual consequence of justifying Walt’s actions based on their intended (seemingly good) consequences? What kind of world would that leaves us with?
And it is not only about this particular series that we must learn to see with clarity but rather with everything. This very same show, watched with uncritical eyes, can be seen as an ode to “breaking bad”, to the futility of morality, and can itself become a catalyst for exacerbating the murkiness of morality in our minds.
Art can transform us. A scene where Walter realizes he will soon be dead reminds us of our own mortality, our own humanity and yet, this very power that renders art a transformative medium also makes it dangerous, a challenge to our perception of reality, an idea waiting to fill the void left in our minds by unquestioned and unanswered ideas about what is right, what is wrong, and why it even matters. It remains in life as in art, that if we don’t push ourselves to maintain a clear, committed view towards critical thinking and respect for truth, if we don’t do the work of tackling and answering the big questions, something, or someone else will.
Bruna Kesserwani is the Regional Director of Operations at the World Youth Alliance Middle East.