Faith Works 9-21-13
"I am the one who knocks"
"Breaking Bad" is down to the last two episodes in a five year run on AMC.
If you've not seen this TV show, all you really need to know for the moment is that it is a story that starts in a tragic-comic mode with a put-up father and husband who is a high school chemistry teacher who learns he has probably six months to live.
Their finances already stretched to the breaking point, and with this prognosis in hand, Walter our . . . protagonist? We can't call him a hero, not where he's gone now; Walter justifies to himself cooking up methamphetamine to sell and build up a secure pile of cash for his family when he's gone.
As you may know, people around us right here in Licking County "cook" meth, often blowing themselves up in the process, poisoning the barns and abandoned homes and cheap hotel rooms they use and producing fairly impure product because, well, they didn't pay attention in high school chemistry, if indeed they took it at all.
Walter, as I said, was a high school chemistry teacher, and he finds that he can make meth at a level of purity that attracts the attention of the drug dealers he needs to move his product and make his profit. That attention gets him money, and it also gets him in deeper.
By now, five seasons in and we estimate about two years in "show time" from the initial diagnosis, Walter is a monster. He has killed, oh has he killed, and he has had people – many people – killed. He prefers to keep some distance from killing, but it's getting closer to him, as last week, right in front of his face. If you haven't watched "Breaking Bad" at all before, this column is NOT a suggestion you start now. Truly.
The usual aside about the "theme" of this show is "the journey into evil." Walter justifies doing a wrong thing to do what he sees as a good thing – care for his family – and the one wrong thing leads to another and another and another and . . . you get the picture, whether you know the show or not. You can't be a little bit evil. That'll preach, but it's a different sermon.
I've come to realize, the last few weeks as we approach what can only be a wrenching and apocalyptic finale (last Sunday night's episode left Twitter aflame and most of the AMC audience with heart palpitations), that Vince Gilligan, the show's creator and producer, is after something a bit more than "Evil leads to evil."
There's a mediation going on here, I believe, about facing death. How we all do it in ways large and small, with a terminal diagnosis or just walking out into a sunny day hoping a meteorite won't strike us down in a flash.
Walter is unwilling to face death, and finality. He's turned out to be pathologically unable to confront his own ending, to the point that he's willing to deal out endings a plenty in order to forestall his own. The death that happened rather early in the show last week, the one that took place right in front of him, he tried to stop, and he clearly could not see that it was over until it was, and even then . . .
A debate among fans of the show has sprung up that maybe NOW Walter has realized what evil he's done, and is trying to make amends, and will somehow turn out to be good at heart after all. Ruefully, sadly, tragically, I doubt it entirely. Death is for lesser beings, but not for him. "Not yet" means "not at any point I'm willing to contemplate."
Just a few episodes ago, his wife (now there's a story about evil, and . . . well, another story) was starting to realize how far gone her family was down the rabbit hole of darkness, and she tries to express her fears to Walter, when he turns and erupts to contradict her anxieties by saying "I am the one who knocks!" Killers don't come knocking for him; he, Walter, is the threat that even Death should fear.
He is, of course, wrong. Death is the one who knocks. And how you prepare to answer that call may be the answer to how you deal with Life.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about your temptations and testing at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Knapsack on Twitter.