Spoiler alert! This is about the Breaking Bad finale, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet.
First things first: I loved the ending of Breaking Bad. It was the perfect conclusion to the best long form examination of the fine line between good and evil and a man’s descent into darkness that I have ever experienced.
But, it didn’t end the way I expected it would. Specifically, I didn’t expect a happy ending—a morally ambiguous happy ending to a morally ambiguous tale of an American antihero.
What I really didn’t expect was the revelation of Walter White as a Christ figure.
Walter White a Christ figure? The murderous drug lord? The man who willfully crossed every line between right and wrong? A Christ figure?
Hear me out.
The final scene brings it all together. The camera pulls out on a dying Walter White, lying on the ground in an almost cruciform pose, bleeding from a wound to his side, one palm of his hand bloodied like the stigmata. When the camera rises past the ceiling rafters, two of them make a cross over his body.
To my surprise, the finale of Breaking Bad involved a good deal of redemption. To be sure, it is a kind of morally ambiguous redemption that only makes sense in the shades-of-gray world of Breaking Bad. Of course, none of the damage that was done was restored. The pain and suffering that Walt caused didn’t go away. But he made sure that his kids would get some of the money he so desperately wanted to leave as his final gift to them; he offered an apology of sorts to his wife; he saw his children for one last time; he had his revenge on those characters even more repugnant than himself; and he literally set the imprisoned Jesse free, delivering him from the pit and ultimately laying down his life for him.
In the end, Walter White dies as a savior who manages to bring about some degree of redemption to the web of evil he has himself created.
Christ figures function in fiction in one of two ways: they either provide commentary on Jesus himself or they reflect an understanding of hero and savior from contemporary culture. Walter White is the latter. Though we have been horrified by his actions and mesmerized by his transformation from good to bad, at some level we were still rooting for him. We were skillfully reminded of this in the final episode as we marveled at his ingenious play of Elliott and Gretchen and took pleasure in his ultimate command of his situation and fate.
Whether it is catharsis or something else, it is not uncommon for us to admire and identify with the “bad guy” of the story. When Walt makes his confession—”I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was…really…I was alive.”—we were forced to admit that we liked it too.
So Walter White represents a morally ambiguous savior and a hero for our morally ambiguous times. In the pursuit of something good—providing for his family after his premature death—he makes some very bad choices that snowball into catastrophic consequences. But he uses his cunning to fix things as best he can—in a thoroughly corrupt yet nonetheless coherent ethical framework—and dies more admired than demonized.
Whether or not Walter White got what he deserved is a good question to ponder. Just as fascinating, and perhaps more important, is the question of what Walter White and our fascination with him says about us. Is he the savior we think we deserve? Is he the best savior we can imagine in our morally ambiguous world?