Cosmic Justice in Breaking Bad: Can Sociopaths and Antiheroes Lead Meaningful Lives?

Kimberly Blessing

There is a long history of the art of depiction of suffering being inflicted on sinners. But this kind of suffering, along with the notion of sin, has fallen out of favor.1 A case in point: television’s “New,” or “Third Golden” Age.2 Fans were notoriously disappointed with the conclusion of The Sopranos. We never knew if mob hit man Tony Soprano—the first of the male antiheroes of this “Golden Age”—lived or died. More recently, fans were critical of Mad Men’s finale. Sixties ad-man Don Draper is a selfish and self-destructive, womanizing drunk. After hugging some hippies are we to believe that he found spiritual enlightenment or came up with what is arguably the greatest commercial ever created (the 1971 “hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial)?3

Standing in sharp contrast to these morally ambiguous postmodern tales is Vince Gilligan’s highly acclaimed television series, Breaking Bad (a Southern expression for “raising hell”). Gilligan, a former writer for, and producer of, The X-Files, was raised Catholic but describes himself as agnostic. Yet, a decidedly theistic conception of life’s meaning can be detected in Breaking Bad. Cosmic justice reigns in the fictional universe Gilligan has created. Make no mistake, Walt ends up in Hell.

Gilligan tells us that the “larger lesson” to Breaking Bad is that “actions have consequences.” “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.”4 In the same interview with the New York Times,

K. Blessing (H)

SUNY Buffalo State University, Buffalo, NY, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_6

Gilligan continues, “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.”5 He tells us that his girlfriend would describe his philosophy as follows: “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” Gilligan admires director Woody Allen. “Allen may be right. I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity.” He explains why he finds atheism so unsatisfying. “[I]f there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?”6

In what follows I will use Gilligan’s storyline and characters to explore various theories about the meaning of life. I shall argue that we can plausibly read a theistic theory of life’s meaning into Breaking Bad. By “theism” I mean belief in God or gods, where “God” refers to the Judeo-Christian God or the God of classical theism. Gilligan believes that in order for life to be meaningful, actions must have consequences, specifically wrongdoers must be punished. If wrongdoers are not punished, then there is no point to being good. In other words, in order for life to meaningful there must be justice. As Gilligan acknowledges, cosmic justice could be accounted for in non-theistic theories of meaning, such as Eastern religious views that include some notion of karma. Since these theories are not addressed in the philosophical literature on the meaning of life, however, I will focus attention on theism, which is a theory of life’s meaning that can accommodate cosmic justice. It is this brand of justice that reigns in the world of Breaking Bad.

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