I am always saddened by the perspective of people whose interaction with the criminal world is through the naïve eyes of cultural dreams or ideological narratives, particularly when they embark upon a mission of criminal reformation or prison ministry.
I am saddened because I know that, sooner or later, they will be hurt, either emotionally or physically, because of their too-close contact with men or women who they think are oppressed or abused but who are, in reality, all too often, the oppressor and abuser.
This is why my apostolate, The Lampstand Foundation, advocates that work be left, with exceptions, to reformed criminals with graduate degrees and nonprofit management experience, at least ten years of crime-free living, a deep Catholic life and a strong Catholic marriage.
Though that isn’t necessarily touched on in this story from the Ethics & Public Policy Center, the moral questions in the real world are.
For Aristotle, tragedy meant the fall of a great man through his own failing. In his time, the great man was a big man of tribal society. This petty king or tribal chieftain inhabited a pre-Enlightenment honor culture, enjoying a degree of moral autonomy unavailable to us today, except in fantasy, as in the form of Walter White.
And that’s the problem with considering how “Breaking Bad” can affect viewers. Between its tragic beginning and its tragic ending, Walt inhabited an unreal world of nearly constant tribal warfare, shifting alliances, family strife and the single-minded pursuit of honor, which for him meant providing for his family by manufacturing methamphetamine. He did this entirely out of sight of the law, even though his brother-in-law was a D.E.A. agent. Such things do not happen in nature.
Within most if not all civilized males there lurks a doubt as to how they would cope with the veneer of civilization stripped away in the kind of savage world that Walt inhabits. With Walt as their vicarious representative, their half-formed wish to find out how they would keep up is fulfilled. He maintains our loyalty as a tribal chieftain might, with remarkable cunning and unswerving devotion to his family. Yet we know, as we do in a post-apocalyptic movie or video game to which “Breaking Bad” is nearest of kin, that it’s not real.
Walt moves easily between a world instantly recognizable as our own and this fantasy world like a superhero. He even has a secret identity, Heisenberg, that helps keep them separate. Yet we know, as with the superhero, that without the ability to identify ourselves with him in a realistic way — the Aristotelian mimetic principle — the tragedy loses most if not all of its tragic impact.