Dante, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, and Breaking Bad


One of my favorite plays is T.S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral.’ Like the best of any artistic medium, its brilliance wasn’t perfectly manifested to me until I saw it performed, rather than simply upon my reading it.

It’s an exquisitely subtle and profound meditation on free will and sin and human nature, how God’s will works despite, between, and throughout human will.

I saw it performed in a small theater in Pasadena, California, where they used an ingenious innovation to draw the audience into Eliot’s masterpiece.

In the beginning there is a chorus of the poor, working class of English society, all of whom are women. The director had these actresses sitting among the audience, so when they began enunciating their lines, the powerful words enervated us. Surrounded us. Resounding around us, and discomforting us, but insinuating into us Eliot’s sonorous incantations.

Here’s a warning – I might spoil the play for you if you haven’t read it. Or not. It’s so good it doesn’t matter if you know what happens. The brilliance is in how it’s presented.

In any case, the protagonist is Thomas Becket, an archbishop that is tempted by the devil in various trials. As a virtuous, upstanding man, he rejects all of the temptations. Until the last one. The last temptation.

In the most profane scene, the devil confronts the protagonist in the garb of the Archbishop, and says, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

If you’re not blown away by the profundity of that line, well, you just need to see the play performed at the Knightsbridge theater in Pasadena.

In any case, this is also the brilliance of ‘Breaking Bad,’ the impossibly popular crime drama on the cable channel AMC.

Walter White begins his long slow descent towards villainy in a way that most men should understand – he feels a loss of control, an emasculation in modern society. Producing methamphetamine is a way for him to seize his destiny, to provide for his family, to not be a victim, but an active agent.

The author the Divine Comedy, Dante, tells writes, “…long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light,” but it’s also true that the road down to hell can be just as difficult, and beset by moral quandaries.

What makes ‘Breaking Bad’ such an engrossing show is that it presents a profound understanding of human nature – how pride can destroy even the highest aspirations. How one man can blindly ruin the very thing he seeks the most after.

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

For Walter White, he begins the long road by convincing himself that he must provide for his cancer treatment and protect his family from the debt it would incur. Once that’s secured, he convinces himself that he is flaunting the law for the sake of providing for his family after cancer overtakes him.

And after he defeats cancer, he finds another reason why he should continue producing meth, even after his business partner, Jesse, confronts him about it.

And after that, he keeps finding another excuse to keep driving his quest.

After a few seasons of exquisite character development, the audience sees how a man can persuade himself that he’s animated by a virtuous end, even as it’s more and more obvious that it’s just plain arrogance and ego.

Breaking Bad retells the same old story about human nature and the subtle seductiveness of evil. It is Macbeth with meth in the place of kingship.

“Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.”

Walter White, like Macbeth, begins wading in blood reluctantly, but as he pushes forth, he begins to realize that he likes the blood. He starts to enjoy it, and by the end, he looses all sense of the original purpose of the trial.

I am in blood, Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

There is nothing new under the sun – Macbeth is just a beautifully embellished retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden.

There is nothing new under the sun – Macbeth is just a beautifully embellished retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden.

And in this is the genius of Breaking Bad – it tells anew the same story that resounds in our souls about human nature. With modern trappings, with updated dialogue, but in the end, it tells us the same thing we all know deep down in the marrow of our bones.

The enemy of goodness and virtue prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

And in the end, as much as we know we should hate Walter White, we know how easily we could become him.