Don’t tell my students, but I used my snow days this week to finish watching the final season of Breaking Bad.
I know, I should be grading papers (They will be done and grades will be turned-in in plenty of time for Mid-terms, I promise), but my wife and I have been working through all five seasons together for the past year. We decided it was high time we found out what happened to Walter White and friends.
Coincidentally, my world lit. class read Machiavelli this week. At some point in the discussion our thoughts turned to current and popular examples of leadership that may or not exhibit Machiavellian qualities. We skipped through some of the obvious personalities—President Obama, Oprah, Bill Belichick—and I suggested Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Thinking I had hit on just the right topic of discussion, I was surprised to look out at a sea of blank faces. Only one person in the entire class had ever watched the all of the series of Breaking Bad, and a handful had ever seen any episodes.
We moved on to a couple other examples, but few pop culture characters illustrate the spirit of Machiavelli’s The Prince quite like Walter White. Is it strange to wish my students had watched more Breaking Bad? No, I don’t think so. The truth is that popular media products have the potential to put flesh on the often difficult writings of world literature. Walter White’s rise and fall can put Machiavelli’s teachings into action.
So, I am left imagining the discussion we could have had.
On Virtue and Vice:
Machiavelli says, “For if you look at matters carefully, you will see that something resembling virtue, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well being” (1610).
What Walter White does: He chooses to leave his job as a high school chemistry teacher that does not supply his family with the money they need to become a drug lord in order to gain wealth to “provide for his family.”
On Cruelty and Clemency:
Machiavelli says, “If you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved . For it is a good general rule about me, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers. I conclude that since me love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others” (1612-13).
What Walter White does: He rules his empire with an iron fist, forcing his henchmen and distributors to fear even the sound of his name.
Walter White’s story, on the small screen, gives life to words written more than 500 years ago.
But, there is something more valuable I want my students to get, something more than just putting a new face on old words.
Walter White and Machiavelli offer worldly leadership models. And, if there is anything the Breaking Bad shows us as viewers is the dead end of that leadership model, the model that places the gain and maintenance of power as its highest priority. While Machiavelli’s words may be good advice for a leader who wants to maintain power at all costs, we watch Walter White dying alone on the floor of a Meth lab.
Referring back to my post last week, I argue that the human story at times serves to illustrate the aspects of human existence that are sinful or devoid or God’s grace—the flaws of tragic heroes or Gilgamesh crying over the realization of his own mortality.
And so, Walter White and Machiavelli are perfect illustrations of the wrong kind of leadership, the kind that puts the pursuit of power above the act of service.
We may vilify Walter White for his context has a meth drug-lord, and rightly so, but the show is not just about a guy selling meth. It is primarily about something more common to all of us—the pursuit of our own sense of power. When Walter White admits in the end that he did it all for himself, not for his family as he claimed for 61 of the 62 episodes, it illustrates the fruitlessness of that pursuit. He did it not for the betterment of those under his care, but because he was good at it and it made him feel alive.
If Walter White’s story reminds us of the hollow results of Machiavelli’s teachings when we take them to their logical conclusion, it also suggest that there must be, and should be, and alternative leadership model. That model is illustrated in the words of Christ,
Jesus called them together and said, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28 NIV).
Ultimately, what I want my students to take away from studying literature like Machiavelli or consuming media like Breaking Bad is the realization that as humans we are all trying to make sense of how to live in the world around us. We ask questions. Art forms, like literature and television, can give voice to those questions. We attempt to come up with answers. Art can also give voice to those attempts.
Yet, we, as followers of Christ-like leaders must be wise to discern the wisdom of the word from the wisdom of the world. We find our answers elsewhere.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. From The Prince. The Norton Anthology of Anthology of World Literature, Shorter 2nd ed. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: Norton and Co., 2009. 1607-1618. Print.