Walter White and the Book of Job: Why it’s so difficult to rejoice at the downfall of the wicked

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Along with millions of other viewers, I have been mesmerized by the ingenious screenwriting and directing that has crystallized into this fifth and final season of Breaking Bad.

In the most recently aired episode, Ozymandias (warning: spoilers ahead), viewers bore witness to the sudden and thorough collapse of the world of the chemistry teacher turned villain, Walter White, a character developed as masterfully as any other on screen in recent years. In fact, what perhaps compelled me most about this episode was how apt a depiction it was of the fall of the wicked man discussed throughout the book of Job.

Walt’s unceasing stream of dastardly deeds throughout the series, which includes chronic mental abuse, pathological lies and multiple homicides, represents an impressive resume of evil. And therefore, to see the valiant response of the writers of Breaking Bad to Job’s plea to God: “is it good to You that You should oppress and despise the work of Your hands and shine upon the counsel of the wicked? (Job 10:3)” should have infused me with at least some semblance of satisfaction. Having just watched the materialization of Eliphaz the Temanite’s declaration that “[the wicked] meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope at noon as in the night (Job 5:14)”, I should have smiled, nodded my head and gone to sleep light of heart.

And yet.

My sentiments while watching the downfall of Mr. White, which was brilliantly enhanced by juxtaposing the sequence of his demise to the flashback of the still innocent schoolteacher in his first foray into the world of drugs, were exactly the opposite. I was pained when Hank was killed, not only because the man who personified moral backbone in the series had his life ruthlessly taken from him in the nameless desert, but also for Walt, who had to endure the pain of knowing how much grief Hank’s death would bring to his loved ones, stealing away his last chance to ever make things right at home. I winced as Walt’s true colors were recounted to his beloved son, Walt Jr., an event Walt had fought tooth and nail to prevent throughout the entire series. I even found it difficult to watch as Todd’s uncle and his gang relieved Walt of his ill-gotten millions that had become Walt’s true obsession ever since he “left the business”.

And let’s not even get into the gut-wrenching scene where Walt rushes home to convince his family to run away with him, only to be chased off by his knife-wielding wife and his son’s call to the police.

What then would I have preferred? That Walt have succeeded with his never-ending chain of lies, to “spend [his] days in wealth and in a moment go down into the grave (Job 21:13)”?

I suppose not. But I didn’t want this; not the total devastation of Ozymandias.

This begs the question of why. Why didn’t I revel in Walt’s demise, the more excruciatingly portrayed the better?

The answer that I have come up with is twofold. Firstly, punishment of the wicked rarely takes place in a vacuum. When a successful evil man falls, many others, including innocents, are taken down with him. So too with Walter White, where the lives of all those around him–Skylar, Walt Jr., Hank, Marie, Jesse and others–were shattered as collateral damage. Thus, his ruin is akin to the fall of many of the wicked men of history, a wave whisking away both the guilty and the innocent.

Yet I believe the primary reason I took no joy in Walt’s pain is somewhat more profound. The concepts of evil and of the evil person are rarely, if ever, played out in the world in concentrated form, this dimming of absolutes being played out time and again in the film and literature of this postmodern age: If a wicked man’s life story were to be told from his subjective point of view, a feat pulled off quite effectively in Breaking Bad, his annihilation ultimately loses its luster. Human beings are complicated, and the more we are made to appreciate the unique circumstances of one individual, the more difficult it will be to shout for joy when he or she has fallen. Through all his nastiness, Walter White was a complex man, tinged with good (his redeeming characteristics happening to come out at most unexpected points in Ozymandias).

This is one reason why the “problem” of the flourishing of the wicked in this world never managed to get me down on the theological level. While society does and must continue to do what it can to eradicate evil in a just manner, it is ultimately only God, through His infinitely precise knowledge of any individual’s story, who is capable of handing out just retribution.

As for me and my glaringly inadequte grasp of any one man’s circumstances – I tend to shy away from arriving at absolute conclusions.

About the Author
Daniel Light is an aspiring novelist, an Orthodox rabbi and an attorney who tries to help get the invaluable inventions of one of Israel's premier scientific institutions to market.