Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan has said that while he wants to believe that there is a heaven, he cannot believe there is no hell. The characters in Breaking Bad surely sin and suffer, and God is not silent. But there is more to the God of Breaking Bad than judgment. He also offers grace to characters who, like those in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, ignore or misinterpret it time and again.
Walt’s partner Jesse has fallen in love with a recovering heroin addict named Jane and both are now using heroin. Walt goes to talk to Jesse and finds him passed out alongside Jane, both unconscious from a heroin binge. When Walt tries to shake Jesse awake, Jane rolls onto her back and begins to vomit. Walt chooses to let her choke to death on her own vomit and leaves Jesse to find her dead the next day.
Walt will be judged for this in later episodes, but first he is offered the opportunity of grace. The whole episode preceding this moment presents Walt with reasons to save Jane rather than let her die.
The episode repeatedly shows the depths of Walt’s love for his newborn baby Holly. He shows the baby the cash he has made in the drug business (hidden in a wall) and tells her “daddy did that for you.” Walt hears his wife Skyler singing a lullaby to the baby and it is all Walt can do to stop from sobbing as Skyler’s last words are “Daddy loves you and so do I.”
Later that night, Walt goes to a bar (something Walt in not usually inclined to do) and strikes up a conversation with a total stranger. They bond over both having daughters. The stranger’s daughter is in her twenties. Walt asks the stranger if he has any advice. The stranger tells Walt “Just love them” and that you “Can’t give up on them. Ever. What else is there?” The stranger’s comment inspires Walt to talk to Jesse one last time, leading to the tragic event of Jane’s death. What it also suggests—but what Walt fails to grasp—is that every woman is another man’s daughter.
In the Flannery O’Connor short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”, Tom Shiftlet has agreed to marry the mute and (probably) mentally disabled Lucynell in return for a car, new clothes, and enough money for a honeymoon. Shiftlet stops at a diner and Lucynell falls asleep while they order. Shiftlet plans to leave her in the diner and escape with the car, the money and his freedom. He would be leaving Lucynell lost and mute in a town where no one knows her. Just before Shiftlet is ready to leave, the boy who works at the counter looks at Lucynell and says “She looks like an angel of Gawd.”
That was a moment of grace. It was a man Shiftlet did not know telling him that Lucynell mattered and that Shiftlet should treat her as if she mattered. The entire episode in which Jane dies can be seen as forty-five minute version of that moment of grace. The circumstances of Holly’s birth, Skyler singing to the baby, the meeting with that stranger who was also a father, these events were trying to teach Walt that Jane was just as important as Holly, and that Walt should treat Jane as if she mattered—that Walt should not abandon her.
Yet Shiftlet left Lucybell in the diner, and Walt let Jane choke to death. Both chose against grace. A storm follows Shiftlet after he leaves Lucybell. Fire and ash (and a girl’s burned stuffed animal) rain on Walt as a result of his letting Jane die.
In a later episode, Walt muses about his life. Skyler had left Walt when she learned about his drug dealing. Walt is convinced that putting the right words in the right order would get Skyler to see that Walt had been right all along. Walt also tells Jesse that he met Jane’s father on the night she died (though he does not tell Jesse that he was there when Jane was choking). Walt says science tells us that the universe is just particles in aimless movement, but Walt is haunted by the astronomical odds of choosing to do something so out of character as going to a bar and then striking up a conversation with Jane’s father. Walt asks “How can it be random?”, but Walt can’t or won’t draw a conclusion. Both of Walt’s attitudes are ways of evading the moral order. Sometimes Walt chooses to believe that his intelligence (the right words in the right order) can reshape the universe to turn evil into good. Sometimes Walt takes refuge in the belief (which he can’t quite fully believe) that the universe is random.
In the end, Walt refuses to see that grace was offered to him and rejected. It would mean that there was a standard of right that existed independent of Walt’s will and it would mean facing not only that he made a wrong choice, but also that he had thrown away a precious gift.
Pete Spiliakos writes for the First Things website. His previous “On the Square” columns can be found here.