09/27/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

Atonement Blues: Breaking the Yom Kippur Fast With 'Breaking Bad'

I walk around guilty. Not all the time, thank God/Her/It/Thing/Energy/Whatever/Me/Etc. Mostly in the morning before I'm awake enough to defend myself. Mostly my guilt is for things I didn't do or for thoughts I've had that are less than positive toward others or myself. When I'm productive I feel less guilty. I wasn't raised this way. There was no particularly guilt infused subtext from my parents when I grew up. No, this is my own creation. Perhaps there's some semitic-genetic influence as in the fabled Jewish guilt, but...

Yom Kippur is, for Jews, the Day of Atonement -- the holiest day of the year when one contemplates what he/she did or might've done that requires reparation for the wrongs or injuries he/she might've caused. It seems to me that one couldn't even begin to discern these things unless one had a the feeling of guilt to lead the way. Like bread crumbs. Physical pain is often understood as the body's method to alert us/mind that something is wrong with the body. Guilt is the emotional/spiritual equivalent, except it's more virtual, even if potentially just as incapacitating. When someone tells me they felt guilty, I know they are good people at their core. Only a good person would feel that. You can't feel guilt without a sense of responsibility. Since perfection is a mere concept that has little relevance to the human experience, and since some of us still have a notion of perfection as some pristine, native spiritual state worthy of aspiring toward, then simply not being in that state can cause a chronic sense of guilt -- for not being your true self.

But all this is either academic, masturbatory or irrelevant -- the rest of the time when not feeling guilty. For me, these days perfection is simply coming up with a unified voice: a lens through which I can speak about all the things that I do and I'm interested in, pop culture very much included, that can express and tie together my sacred notion of the sublime while exposing the seriously flawed and profane aspects of my self. This, all together, might define the unique me. Or that's the hope. This is where "Breaking Bad" enters the narrative. As a professional screenwriter and playwright, and as someone who has been teaching the art and craft of script writing for nearly two decades, the AMC television series has been among the very few narratives that has recently turned me on, re-tuned me into the power of story, and woke me up from the dull lull I've been in from what has passed for a lot of commercial entertainment.

In "Breaking Bad," I experience a narrative that, at least for the first three seasons, seriously contemplated questions of ethics, morality, justification and the cost, joys, freedom, destruction and cause/effect that can come when one crosses certain societally defined lines of behavior. Karma has rarely been on such succinct display and followed on such a tightly woven and specific canvas. And it's amazingly, outrageously entertaining. Now that's the kind of religious teaching that I want to swallow.

Religious? Where's the divine in all this? Answer: Where isn't it?

In "Breaking Bad," every episode is a day of atonement, if not for each character as it often is, it is for me. I rarely walk away from watching an episode feeling ebullient. I often feel a strange combination of emotions ranging from a sense of guilt for being complicit in the show's narrative, to trying to understand what I would do if I found myself in Walt's or Jesse's or Skyler's body. How would I live with myself? How would my body literally feel? (Isn't this, at least in part, the point of observing The Passion, to be at one with the passionate, agonizing suffering Christ?). Skyler nearly drowns herself, but keeps living for her children. Jesse, the beating heart of the show, barely band-aides his understandable and inconsolable grief with and without the aid of drugs, while Walt, our fearless voyager, takes his cross-over into the land of marginalized (he, so far, doesn't hurt pure innocents) ethics and rides out to tip of the living, where humankind stops and gods begin. It's easy to see him as Icarus flying too close to the sun. It's easy to feel the human suffering of humankind with an almost Christ-like expiation that just exists on numerous levels throughout all strata of society. Not that any of the characters are meant to be metaphors for God. And I'm not attempting to belittle anyone's sacred beliefs with profane comparisons. I'm referring to the state of suffering that, at least for most of the great religions, refer to and/or rely on to motivate and instruct. Bogus or not, agree or not, it's effective stuff.

Especially since the source and cause of the vast majority of suffering on "Breaking Bad" is due to some earlier transgression -- this cycle of cause-and-effect pain, the perpetuation of suffering -- all for some original noble if almost innocent cause, not unlike the notion of original sin itself, continues to fascinate and hopefully illuminate the faithful observers and fans.

And this is the power of narrative -- and this ties together my experience of a popular television show and Yom Kippur. My goal to unify. The break-fast Yom Kippur celebration that I was scheduled to attend was abruptly canceled only hours before when the host, my dear old friend, had a sudden aphasia and was rushed to the ER. On this evening of the Day of Atonement, I have my share to contemplate -- not only the suffering I might have caused others but for my agreement that suffering of all kinds even exists as part of the human condition. I'll also say a little prayer for my friend.

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