Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Wire, Breaking Bad and the Search for a Gracious God

There are not many television shows as good as the HBO series The Wire. Some, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, are in the same league. Others would probably argue for Friday Night Lights and Dexter (this is a great dispensation for television!... someone must have found a way to cast off some sitcom shackles!). Whatever your poison might be, The Wire and I (for a synopsis, go here) have spent a great deal of time together.

Detective Jimmy McNulty is one of the heroes/anti-heroes of the series whose deft investigatory skills and genuine sincerity about his work are tempered by a high-functioning alcoholism, arrogance, deviousness, and a long line of broken relationships. He is the perfect real-life protagonist who is a jumble of mixed motives and not an impossible paragon of Aristotelian virtue from a Bill Bennett book.

The purpose of this little reflection is not to give the theological ramifications of the entire series but to share one poignant moment that I see as a representative of the common thread in all human longing. This particular moment occurs in Season 5 during McNulty's dramatic fall from grace following a brief stint in a healthy, happy relationship. He falls off the wagon and becomes the chief instigator of a very serious deception in the Baltimore Police Department. A man at low ebb with no friends and an alienated love-interest.

The scene unfolds as his girlfriend, played by the peerless Amy Ryan, returns home with her children after "going home to stay with mother awhile" (a euphemism... but you know what I mean) and they meet on her front porch. She is clearly upset as they speak (and rightly so... she has been hurt by him immeasurably). In a moment of unforgettable humility and vulnerability, he comes clean to her about the city-wide deception he has been perpetrating. "You know," he says, "you begin something like this thinking you are some kind of hero and then you realize..." SLAM! She slams the door in his face in incredulous rage and righteousness. The camera pans back to McNulty as he stands there silently, absorbing the justice that he has seen so many times.

You see the same question and answer in Breaking Bad when Walt White (a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth for money to finance his cancer treatment and take care of his family) is locked in a trunk by a drug dealer. The New Mexico heat makes him delusional and he imagines (as the vicious drug dealer opens the trunk) that he sees his estranged wife trying to embrace him, saying, "I understand." The vision quickly dissipates and he is thrown to the ground by a monster of a man.

Where can I find a gracious God? That is the question asked here. And it is a question asked by people in the face of the immutability of the givens of life which Ecclesiastes 1:15 says are "crooked and cannot be straightened". It is a question sneeringly derided by a lot of current New Testament scholarship which finds itself unable (and, frankly, unwilling) to place itself within the experience of the people they study to minister to. It is the question that people consciously or unconsciously ask in their ultimately futile attempts to seduce justice with virtue. It is a question asked by St. Paul and Martin Luther.

It is answered by the Lamb of God on the cross. "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 ESV) Thankfully, Mockingbird is a place you can go to hear this answer again and again.

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