Mayhem and death ensue after a high school science teacher receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Film critic, James Bowman, tackles the final season of Breaking Bad, the hit television series, in a piece for The New Atlantis, the excellent journal published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
All of us are uneasily aware that beneath the good civilizational order in which most readers of these pages and viewers of the show continue to live their lives there is a dark alternative where old rules dominate, the Enlightenment’s recurring bad dream just waiting for the opportunity to reassert itself. Ironically, it is Walt’s Enlightenment credentials as a man of science that are his entrance ticket to this new state of nature. Chemistry, as Walt rapturously tells his less-than-rapt students, is a cycle of “growth, then decay, then transformation”; and while Enlightenment notions of moral progress are implicitly connected to material progress in the advance of science and rationality, the lesson of the science itself is that moral and social transformation is as likely to be cyclical as it is progressive.
Students of history or anthropology are more likely to see the alternative to Western civilization and the rule of law not as the twilight struggle of individual savagery but as the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values and that is still predominant in most parts of the world where those liberal and progressive standards have a more precarious hold.
Some of the best television of the last decade or so has explored the tension between Enlightenment liberal modernity and pre-Enlightenment honor culture. The Sopranos treated it playfully, imagining the criminal classes as aspiring to suburban respectability while still hoping to inhabit, out of sight of their New Jersey neighbors, the same Sicilian underworld where their fathers and grandfathers had lived. The sense of the threat posed by that underworld to the dominant culture was less in mind than the threat — or promise — that the dominant culture, with its therapeutic and liberal standards, would swamp the already evanescent honor culture of the Mafia. In The Wire, the state of nature was also circumscribed and limited to the streets of Baltimore where the dominant culture with sometimes greater and sometimes less success has managed to contain it by its own legally dubious methods. But in Breaking Bad, the state of pre-Enlightenment nature is seen as thrusting its way up from its subterranean hiding places and reasserting itself anew
The question is: does the Enlightenment have all the answers for the perrenial quesions of the human person: Why am I here? Does suffering have meaning? Is there life after death? Read the rest of Bowman's article here