If you have not watched either Showtime’s Dexter, or AMC’s Breaking Bad, chances are pretty good you have been living in a hole, but I’ll begin with a quick summary. Dexter tells the story of Dexter Morgan, a handsome, charismatic blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer, killing only the guilty who were for various reasons never imprisoned. Breaking Bad is about a man named Walter White, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who begins cooking methamphetamine in order to be able to leave a small fortune behind for his family when he dies.
The objection many raise to these shows is that they, in some way, glorify evil by sympathetically portraying those who do evil things. Indeed one of the strange things about Dexter, at least, is that as a viewer you do quickly find yourself rooting for him. But is there anything wrong with that? What exactly are people afraid of?
I believe the concerns people have over these shows reflect fears we have about what real love looks like and the powerful effect it can have on us as human beings. I don’t believe either show goes out of its way to portray its characters sympathetically. What both shows do exceedingly well is allow us into the lives of these people so we can see them up close, as human beings. Any time you see a person up close, they cease to be simply an abstraction, and they become real on some level. And we naturally identify with the struggles and difficulties of real people. Human beings are inherently relational, and thus compassionate, creatures. History shows that in order to perpetuate evil on a person or group of people, we first have to objectify them by portraying them as “other” — not like ourselves (which of course both White and Morgan become increasingly adept at doing to others). But these programs open to us the reality that there are in fact ways that drug dealers, and even murderers, are like us. As soon as we see this we identify with them and may find ourselves rooting for them as human beings (which is distinct from approving of what they do), which feels perverse because of a deep sense drilled into us by society that we should think criminals are sub-human. “Hey, I kind of like this guy. OMG, what does that say about ME? Am I as sick as he is?”
But this doesn’t mean we are sick, or approve of what they do. It simply means that we have come to wish them well despite what they do. If we didn’t feel like we in some sense “knew” these men, we could easily muster up the animosity for them to call for their imprisonment or execution, but because we know them, we struggle to do that. That is natural. Some people say this struggle is bad — that the shows themselves are doing us a disservice by blurring the lines between good and evil. But the lines are already blurred. Real people, people who laugh and cry and make jokes and enjoy aspects of life — people with real jobs and real lives and real families — are often criminals.
For my part, I think any show that makes it difficult for us to summarily judge and dismiss a human being is doing far more good than harm. If Dexter or Walter White were your father or brother, you would simultaneously be horrified by their crimes and yet still want good things for them, still hope for their good and their redemption. Why? Because that’s what love does. Love remains. It hangs in there when hope seems lost. Love roots for redemption. But in order to truly love someone, you have to get in close and make an investment in their lives. As we watch Dexter and Breaking Bad, we invest into them the most precious thing we have — our time. We see them as “real,” not simply as criminal stereotypes. We understand their struggles and the complexities of their lives, and so we “love” them in the sense that we find ourselves willing their good, even though we know that what they are doing is awful.
This is, I believe, one of the reasons we constantly cry for peace but continue to support war. We are simply too afraid of allowing ourselves to really love our enemies. Walter White and Dexter Morgan are menaces to society, and violate the laws that keep us safe, and the fact is that they should both be in prison. But we care about them. We understand their lives a little bit and don’t want them to go to prison! Coming to care about them is dangerous and uncomfortable because it makes it harder to cry out for their blood. It’s easier just to a) approve of them wholeheartedly, thus becoming complicit in their crimes; or b) to keep them at a distance, declare them monsters, and dismiss them. Neither is the correct response. The correct response is to allow ourselves to be led into their lives and to understand that the compassion we have for these men is actually the thing that makes us human. It is the seed of the kind of love that, in the words of St. Paul, “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
You can almost never hate a person while standing in their shoes. And when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, that’s exactly what he’s asking us to do. Open ourselves enough to everyone so that we can see them as human, see them as someone very much like ourselves, thus making it extremely difficult for us to hate them. The world will continue to be a better place as more people come to love this way. Shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad show us what we’re so afraid of.