Note: this post contains plot points of Breaking Bad up to and including season 5 episodes and was written during the anxiety of that final mid season airing.
We fans of vulnerable man-child Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad’s former low achiever who finally applied himself to become the second greatest Meth cook working in a fictionalized Albuquerque, have held our breath more times then we’d care to remember during countless moments of suspense and are now, like Jesse, white-knuckling it to the final four episodes.
While the end times of the series has lately seen almost every major surviving character start to “break bad” as Walt’s poisonous acts infect those all around him, Jesse has been on a moral roller coaster since day one of the show- a lovable, vulnerable loser in oversized street wear that serves mostly to hide his scrawniness, a poser who had a small local rep as “Cap’n Cook” turned inside out. As his former teacher blackmailed him into what was, from the get-go, a disastrous failure causing loss of life, personal danger and spiritual turmoil, Jesse’s mad adventure into the meth business over the course of a year (Walter’s assumption that they could dabble in the drug trade as a get rich quick scheme being the first of many acts of hubris) has cast the character as a complex, devastating mirror of the destruction caused by the two men on Walter’s path to a win that is empty.
Jessie is both insider and outsider, baddie and victim, damaged child who was victimized by a teacher (even if he should have been a man by the time they run into each other and start cooking) off and on addict, wannabe protector of children and sometime drug pusher who has brought others down into the dark with him so he didn’t have to be there alone. Jesse is at times endearing in his youthful foolishness, his energy, his comic way of speaking with no filter that has broken many a tension filled moment in this bleak world; and yet utterly chilling as a broken soul- his pre-meth identity obliterated as he now cycles through addiction, recovery, relapse, depression and drug manufacture and all the collateral losses that follow. Jesse’s impulses and desires are tied up in something unsustainable and soul killing, his world as small and focused as any other meth head- with his addiction and lack of alternative ways to live heightened by a manipulative genius who has no qualms about using this young man as a weapon, Jesse’s place in the world has been reduced to one of misery on the end of a chain as Mr. White’s dog.
Until the current seasons’ revelations about the poisoning of little Brock, Jesse was conditioned and loyal. His final, permanent break from Walter is over an act that is nowhere near the worst of their crimes, their lies and their destruction, it’s just the most personal and unthinkable betrayal and it hits Jesse where he lives, his essential humanity. It confirms what the captive audience has known for 5 seasons: Walt does not give a shit about Jesse or anyone else. Anything Walt does is justifiable in his own twisted view of the world that changed very early on from an altruistic goal to provide for his family into a dark game that he arrogantly thinks he’s won.
As Morgan Freeman’s world weary detective warns his partner (and, importantly, the viewers of the film) in Se7en, “This isn’t going to have a happy ending”. I tell myself this as I rewatch the old seasons again, and see that Vince Gilligan has been telegraphing this to viewers from very early on. Jesse’s impressive and jaw droppingly ugly wardrobe of skull shirts in the series cannot be ignored anymore in a show that uses wardrobe to tell important narrative details. Once you notice the parade of skulls it seems as obvious as a sign over his head: He will die. Even if I’d prefer to think it was just a message of this characters’ emotional and spiritual paralysis, a death spell that might be broken with the love of a good girl or some sort of feeling of home or family that was not conditional upon his providing the drugs to his drug buddies (the only buddies, the only girls he has known).
Much has been made of Jesse’s drinking black coffee out of a DEA mug in the fourth episode aired this summer. I wish it were just a gag, but close watchers insist it’s suggesting the word DEAD. Hey, maybe it’s DEAL? One can hope, as much as the hope is fading that this man can find some comfort for his tortured soul or find his feet pointed on some road to healing. It’s become the only thing I want for this show and the 5 years I’ve invested as a viewer. I’m actually anxious and a little depressed over this TV show. I know it’s “only a TV show”, but it’s to me, more affecting and darker than perhaps any smart show that came before it, and its effect is darker still on a binge rewatch. It’s taken me on one hell of a dark ride in a long, stressful, five plus year investment. I want something I never want, except when I’m afraid to watch-to be spoiled on the ending because the tension is killing me. I want to stop watching altogether and watch the rest from a safe distance or not at all if it sounds like all too much.
Jesse’s immaturity and haplessness, or sometimes just his quirkiness, has provided some of the series best lighter moments in the darkness of Breaking Bad. I will always laugh as Jesse strains at a rare, awkward opportunity for small talk with Walter about what TV shows he watches: Ice Road Truckers. Walter (who has never had time for chit chat and has nothing but contempt for Jesse’s lifestyle) asks what the show is about. Jesse, for once getting to make Mr. White look like an idiot: “TRUCKERS….who drive….on ICE.”
It turns out Jesse is a big fan of this show. He later contemplates a move to Alaska, a place that serves in the popular imagination (echoed by the writers) as a convenient fantasy for people who want to think about disappearing but may not ever get a map or a plane ticket. I want Jesse to walk out of this show with something intact, just a go bag and enough money to get started in a quiet life working with his hands (not in crime), sure, in Alaska. It’s a fantasy. Maybe no one who’s broken bad is getting out of ABQ clean.
Just about every death on this show has been given weight, importance, and emotional resonance, even as Breaking Bad has stretched into the outermost areas of action farfetchedness. This is a worry as there can be no more meaningful death than Jesse’s (aside from Walt’s children who are little more than furniture in the narrative). Jesse has become the unlikely conscience of the show, as the only person who really knows the dual sides of Walter White and Heisenberg and the depth of his evil, and Jesse has paid dearly for acts he’s been complicit in and witnessed. He’s a reluctant gangster, a victim of blackmail who was involved in grisly murders of people he knew well within days. Jesse is a softie, a counterpoint to Walter and the other older, manlier criminals he knows who seem to cross a threshold and, calcified, keep moving on, wasting little time on remorse (or may be disconnected from their youthful romanticism or even their humanity). Jesse goes into deep depressions over each death that his work in the drug game causes, rightly mourning his friends and victims dirty, passive and innocent. While most people probably cannot relate to what it feels like to become a cold-blooded killer, seeing someone become depressed and self-destructive as the only recourse to an out of control situation is eminently more relatable to many of us. Will we ever unsee this boy go-carting alone with tears in his eyes, a mess hiding in public, because he can’t face being the dark shadows in his big, empty house? Did his heart die with Jane? Does he want to be put down?
There are four episodes left of this tragedy which lately have foreshadowed Shakespearean levels of death and destruction. Characters on this show- and not just the brilliant chemist are tossing around poisons and contemplating poisoning, calling for hits and playing God with others’ lives, falling apart and losing their humanity and looking like suicide might be the answer to their own hopelessness. A young man tossing his millions out into the ‘hood is sort of great, but maddening as we wishfully think that all that evil might somehow be laundered into something clean. It’s careless, so careless, it’s just so Jesse. Yet, it’s poetically the right thing to do for his soul, but also frightening as only someone with no future has no need of money.
I don’t want Jesse to go to “Belize” the latest of many euphemisms for Walt-ordered murder. I don’t think he’ll ever have the wherewithal to find his way to Alaska, either. And ABQ is dead for Jesse, a ghost town, and always was since he first claimed residency over his dear deceased aunt’s house that is now, certainly, haunted. This TV show is unpredictable and so all we have are overwhelming death cues that we hope are wrong, and tropes from films that see an unlikely peace befall someone who gets their soul clean against the odds. But Jesse’s confessed and still, received no peace or absolution. He’s Robin Hooded all that money and he’s seen as only a fool. He’s still getting high, a high that is no high at all but a violent rush to propel him to man up and try commit acts as evil as his teacher. Mr. White owes Jesse a review of his high school grades and reputation. Into this twisted reality, “the boy” applied himself, after all. He became a very good student of chemistry. He deserves an A, and he deserves to live. We viewers have broken bad too, imparting our own twisted morality on things that ought to be black and white. But just like Jesse, I feel pretty hopeless about everything. I want to imagine a different ending for him. I just can’t picture it. I hope I’m wrong.