Wither Walter White?

How the morality tale of a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who transforms himself (first by desperation and then through sheer hubris) into a cold-blooded, Machiavellian drug kingpin will end is what legions of fans of AMC’s Emmy-winning Breaking Bad want to know. But after the first episode of the series’ final season aired on Aug. 11, the answer to what happens to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) remains a mystery — at least for another seven weeks. Since its debut in January 2008, “Breaking Bad” has taken its audience on a spiritual journey — following Walt’s soul on a slow, steady descent into a hell of his own creation.

“Fleeting moments of possible restoration for Walter occur throughout the series,” Blake Atwood writes in the new book The Gospel According to Breaking Bad, which was released as an e-book to coincide with the season premiere.

“These instances can make the hopeful viewer believe that Walter may finally be turning the corner, coming to the full realization of the awesome devastation he’s caused for so long. Unfortunately, fans of the show know that Walter’s doomed,” writes Atwood, who is an editor for the Christian social network FaithVillage.com. “As the series progresses we see Walter grow and decay at the same time.” Breaking Bad is at its heart a story about change: relational, physical, spiritual and moral. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, famously said the catalyst for the series was his desire to write a story where the protagonist, over time, becomes an antagonist; where Goodbye, Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.

Mission accomplished.

Walt is one of the most complicated and terrifying characters ever to appear on television. And what makes him all the more frightening and compelling is that he started out so … normal. Walt is no Tony Soprano; he wasn’t born into a crime family. He was a cash-strapped high school teacher with two jobs, a bossy wife, a teenage son with cerebral palsy, an unexpected baby on the way, and a diagnosis of aggressive lung cancer. Walt is desperate and takes matters into his own hands, cooking methamphetamine in order to leave his family financially secure after he’s gone.

At first, we understand. We might even consider taking epic risks if faced with the same untenable stresses and resources. But Walt goes too far. He takes more than he needs. He starts acting less out of desperation and more from a toxic dump of bitterness and the kind of pride about which Greek tragedies were made.

He’s become a bully and a thug, a liar and a thief, and a murderer many times over. So why is there something inside me — inside so many of us who have been awaiting Walt’s return — that wants to see him redeemed?

“Maybe it’s because we’re Walter White,” Atwood writes. “We are all broken bad and desperately in need of redemption, but woefully unable to extricate ourselves from the dire circumstances of our lives. … In Walter White we see the judgment that is rightfully due us, and yet we hope that circumstances or God or the universe or something will intervene before it all goes to hell.”

Walt is fascinated with change. After all, he’s a chemist and chemistry, Gilligan reminds us, is the “study of change.”

“Instead of viewing the world as it is, as inert, unchanging matter, Walter opts to see it as a world in flux, something he can change and bend according to the whims of his vastly superior intelligence,” Atwood says. Walt isn’t the only one who has changed throughout the five-year tale of Breaking Bad. If the arc of Walt’s moral universe is a downward spiral, his sidekick Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is headed in the opposite direction.