There’s Rick … TC … Higgins … and, of course, the mustachioed, short-shorted, Detroit-Tiger chapeau-ed, Thomas Magnum. The new fall television season begins tomorrow, and if one wants to despair creativity’s demise, look no further than CBS’ reboots of Murphy Brown and, most egregious of them all, Magnum P.I. In the immortal words of the late Bernie Mac, “C’mon, America!” The idea that there can be another Magnum is an offense against our common sense.
More righteously, exactly ten years ago this fall A&E introduced to us Breaking Bad and the ultimate anti-Magnum protagonist, Walter White. Instead of working security at a Hawaiian estate and driving a red Ferrari, Mr. White teaches chemistry at an Albuquerque high school and drives a Pontiac Aztec, and when his wife, Skylar, unexpectedly announces her pregnancy just before his fiftieth birthday, Walter takes a second job at a local car wash. While ostensibly employed to work the register, Walter’s boss at the car wash often re-purposes him as part of the “wiper crew,” Windex’ing windows, Armor-All’ing tires, and drying the newly washed cars.
Long before the “Say My Name” meme would memorialize the powerful “Heisenberg” White would become, during that first fall we met him, Walter had only just begun to cough. A dry rattle, Skylar prescribed to her husband natural remedies and holistic solutions, but the cough did not improve. One afternoon while working with the wiper crew, Walt collapses, and, only a few hours later, emergency room doctors diagnose Mr. White with a significant mass in his lung, a mass which would soon be identified as an inoperable, Stage 3 lung cancer.
Initially, Walter goes about his work as usual, and he does not share his diagnosis with either his pregnant wife or his sixteen-year-old son, Walt Jr, who suffers with cerebral palsy. Worried about how he will pay for the inevitable expenses that threaten to capsize his family’s already fragile finances, Walt begins to consider … unconventional … means of raising as much money as he can, as quickly as he can. Inspiration strikes Mr. White when his DEA agent brother-in-law regales him with the story of a recent drug bust. A skilled chemist, Walt decides to partner with a former student – a young man known colloquially as “Captain Cook” – and Mr. White begins cooking meth-amphetamine in an RV parked in the New Mexico desert.
Not unpredictably, life gets complicated quickly. Soon, Walter must decide whether or not he will murder a mid-level drug dealer he has kidnapped. In a dutiful fashion emblematic of his personality, Walt makes two lists: “Reasons I Should Not Kill Him;” and “Reasons I Should Kill Him.” The catalogue of reasons in the first category resembles what I suspect you and I might name: murder is amoral; murder is unlawful; this man has parents who love him; and the like. In his second catalogue, Walter lists only one reason: “If I do not kill him, he may murder my whole family.” Ultimately, Walter takes the second road, and begins a dark descent to depravity.
See, like the genre’s trailblazer, Tony Soprano, or its more recent iteration, Marty Byrde in the Netflix series Ozark, Breaking Bad’s Walter White is not a hero, but an antihero: a protagonist who subverts our expectations of the heroic. Even as these antiheroes maintain facades of normalcy, these characters “succeed” not by virtue, but by violence, and they draw their viewers deep inside their harrowing worlds. In a vacuum, we would cast these men as villains, but as we come to know their “complexities,” we begin to recognize our own stories in their struggles, and, as we, thereby, confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our society, we debate whether to root for the antiheroes’ achievements or for their arrests.
This evening, we encounter Jesus and his disciples passing through Galilee without the attention of the masses. Along their way, Jesus teaches them, repeating his Passion prediction from earlier: “The son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Despite Jesus’ forceful rebuke of Peter that we heard last week – “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” – the disciples still struggle to understand Jesus’ turn toward the cross.
Once Jesus and his disciples arrive to a Capernaum home and enjoy a semi-private moment, he asks his companions about what they had argued along the way. Maybe Jesus knows the answer to the question he asks, and he wants to hear the disciples confess their vanity, or, perhaps (as an optimist), he hopes that his second attempt to reorient his friends has succeeded. In either case, their silence – like children caught in the middle of something they shouldn’t be doing and, when questioned, look at their teacher and say, “Huh?” hoping that in the time it takes to repeat the question they can come up with an excuse better than the truth … do you know this move? – the disciples’ silence is itself an admission of their guilt. Equally important, their silence is, itself, an admission that they know they are guilty! Again, confronting the Passion prediction, they do not fail to understand Jesus, they simply choose to defy him.
Once more, Jesus invites the disciples to set their hearts and minds not on worldly pursuits, but on the pursuit of the divine, so he sits to teach his friends a lesson. Jesus doesn’t fuss as he had fussed at Peter before. Rather, he says to the twelve much more calmly: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he sets a small child among them and, taking the child into his arms, explains, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The disciples’ argument declares their desire for a celebrity Jesus and, moreover, for their own celebrity status. Having experienced the ascendancy of their mentor – an acclaim reaching its crescendo in his Transfiguration – the disciples want Jesus to sustain that escalating popularity. They want a hero, but they’re getting an antihero: and they do not like it.
Like the disciples, neither do we want this antihero Jesus. When we are sick, or when someone we love receives an awful diagnosis, we, too, want the disease-curing Jesus … but God gives us the foot-washer. When the daily drum of hurricanes and shootings and day-care stabbings beats our hearts bloody, we want the heavens-and-earth-controlling messiah … but God gives us a servant. Selfishly, we want a Magnum P.I. Jesus – a crime-solving, marriage-repairing, miracle-working savior … but God gives us a middle-aged, cancer-ridden, crucified Christ. And we … do … not … like … it.
We can name both the peasant, savior Jesus and the science teacher, meth cook Walter White as antiheroes who defy our expectations of the heroic. We might even observe and affirm the self-sacrificial character of each one. However – and it is a big however – Walter White proves faithless and, ultimately, godless. Initially, we easily sorrow for this husband and father who works hard to make ends meet for the first fifty years of his life; who teaches school and raises a special-needs son only to discover he has lung cancer while his wife is pregnant with their second child – I mean, good grief! Even so, recognize that when confronted with this devastating diagnosis, Walter looks for solution – searches for power – exclusively within himself. He has friend after friend, family member after family member offer him help, and he ignores their offers of aid. In the course he chooses, Mr. White does not just cut moral corners, he ravages them.
In this Gospel moment, the disciples don’t look to Jesus for salvation, they look to him for fame. Their hearts do not want what God wants, but what the world wants. They pray not “thy will be done,” but “be done my will,” and their walk to Jerusalem asks us contemporary Christians to confront not only the intellectual curiosity of how Walter White resembles an upside-down Jesus, but how we, too, seek Mr. White’s worldly power and the disciples’ celebrity.
The Gospel Jesus sets his weakness, his mortality, and his life in the hands of God, the Creator: a witness and an example for us to do the same. Remember that the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” screaming complaint to a heaven that remains silent until he dies. In this morning’s appointment, Jesus’ presentation of the child in response to his disciples’ argument about power declares his solidarity with the vulnerable and the weak, with the outcast and the forgotten, with the sick and the suffering, with the diseased and the disowned. The power of God in Mark’s Gospel is the solidarity in suffering that his interminably difficult death allows him to offer: that when we suffer, our God knows our suffering, not as an aloof creator who idly watches and does nothing, but as a loving parent and partner and child who suffers with us. The love of this God will not relent, not even across the threshold of this mortal life … for this Christ will be with us, always.