How is “Breaking Bad”’s Walter White like the Old Testament’s King Saul?
Quick answer: Although one is a 21st century fictional character and the other an historical figure from circa 1000 BCE, Walter White and Old Testament Israel’s King Saul share many qualities that lead to their eventual downfalls, such as greed, jealousy, and hunger for power.
One of the great pleasures of watching the TV series Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White, an Albuquerque man who utterly transforms from a respectable high school chemistry teacher into a master meth dealer. In time, Walt becomes enormously wealthy, but at a very high price. What began with the best of intentions turns into a hellish nightmare from which neither Walt nor his family will escape unscathed.
Okay, so King Saul from the Old Testament wasn’t a meth dealer, but he was prosperous and powerful, probably the most prosperous and powerful man of his day in Israel. In fact, God instructed the prophet Samuel to “anoint him (Saul) to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 9:15-16, ESV). At the time, Israel was a collection of scattered tribes with no designated leader to guide and protect them from their enemies. God’s selection of Saul to unite His people was the highest honor imaginable for an Israelite. Saul was courageous and successful in battle, respected and revered by his subjects. But when God commanded him to completely destroy Israel’s enemies the Amalekites and their property, Saul disobeyed (1 Samuel 15). From that act of disobedience, God chose David to replace Saul, but not immediately (1 Samuel 16). David served King Saul, recognizing and respecting him as the Lord’s anointed, despite Saul’s increasing descent into evil - which often manifested itself in an intense jealousy of David. Once Saul recognized that God favored David over himself, Saul’s consuming passion was to wipe David off the face of the earth. The life and rule of King Saul spiraled out of control and each instance of disobedience to God brought him lower and lower until he met a pathetic end.
Although their lives and situations are very different, both King Saul and Walter White sabotage their own prosperous lives as they head down the wrong path. Their lives change, not suddenly, but gradually over time, until they reach a point of no return (and by then, they don’t want to turn back). Both men - at least initially - think they are doing the right thing, pursuing the right goals. Yet they both discover the truth about themselves before the final curtain falls.
Walter White might not have been a king before the arrival of his cancer, but he had a lot going for him: a wonderful wife named Skyler (Anna Gunn), a loving son (RJ Mitte) and another child on the way. Sure, he was never going to get rich as a high school chemistry teacher, but he loved his subject and was probably an excellent teacher. Unlike for King Saul, jealousy and disobedience aren’t necessarily Walt’s downfalls. But Walter succumbs to a combination of greed, lust for power and revenge, traits which also at times defined King Saul’s life.
Early in the series we learn that Walt was cheated out of both recognition and an awful lot of money by his former friend and business partner Elliott Schwartz (Adam Godley). That resentment slowly turned into an opportunity for revenge. And while that resentment was brewing, money from Walt’s “blue meth” operation starting pouring in. Soon it wasn’t just about revenge or money; it was also about the power and fame that went along with the ever-growing legend of the mysterious persona of Heisenberg.
In many ways, Walter White did have a kingdom. He did rule over a certain realm, but when he began to put his own thoughts and desires above those of his family, he began traveling down a path to ruin. Throughout the series Walt tries to convince himself (and later Skyler) that he’s doing this for the family, yet in the final season, Walt admits to her, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was alive.”
But getting to that point is gradual. The first time Walt kills a man, he keeps whispering over and over, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” Each time King Saul tries to kill David, he begs forgiveness of both the Lord and David. But for both Saul and Walt, there’s less remorse with each transgression.
Pride and jealousy become critical in the lives of both men. After David killed Goliath, the local Jewish women began dancing and singing, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:6-7) This was David’s first battle victory, and despite the fact that Saul had already proven himself as a man of war, the king seethed with anger towards David. Similarly, when Walt walks out of a hardware store and sees two men loading meth-making materials into their van, he walks right up to them and issues a warning: “Stay out of my territory.” Walt frequently places himself in the path of danger just to remind people of who he is. In the fifth season, he boldly stands up to Declan (Louis Ferreira), a Phoenix-based meth competitor. Declan initially dismisses Walt until Walt proves that he is who he says he is. Walt, who insists that Declan “say my name,” isn’t satisfied until the man says, “Heisenberg.”
King Saul and Walter White both had people in their lives who suffered as a result of their actions. Saul’s son Jonathan was close friends with David, the object of Saul’s hatred. Because of Saul’s foolish decision to disobey God and consult a medium (1 Samuel 28), Saul and Jonathan both died fighting the Philistines at Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). Walter’s decisions not only ruin his life but also cause his family to forsake and hate him.
While there’s no evidence that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had King Saul in mind at any point in the process of developing the show, the themes of the old stories are still relevant thousands of years later. And as long as we’re tempted to stray from what we know is right, they will remain so.