"I Can't Do It, Mr. White"

When Education Tastes Like Los Pollos Hermanos

by Joseph Fisher

25 August 2013

Walter White as aged teacher and Jesse Pinkman as retired student grow to be somewhat of a family for each other, but the way in which Jesse learns and applies himself shows that Breaking Bad's theme of learning goes deeper than one might initially think.
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC 

Any teacher would likely admit that the only more horrifying circumstance than having Jesse Pinkman as a student would be never not having him as a student. He’s lazy, he’s petulant, his vocabulary consists primarily of two words: “yo” and “bitch”. Also, he thinks cows live in cow houses.

For Walter White, the failed research scientist, this is his fate: forever, it seems, explaining the fine details of chemistry to someone who thinks that opossums are Irish. Yet, amazingly, Jesse eventually reveals himself to be not only compliant but also a (sort-of) strong pupil who (mostly) cares deeply about his work and is (for the most part) loyal to his mentor.

Early in their renewed relationship, Walter, frustrated with Jesse’s lack of motivation to become a lucrative meth dealer, scolds him, telling him in no uncertain terms to “grow some fucking balls!” Pointed instructions, no doubt. But like all good instructions, they work, if only followed consistently for a long period of time. Indeed, this early interaction meets its counterpoint one long, tumultuous year later, when Jesse is brought to Mexico to cook his meth recipe for Don Eladio. As Eladio’s chemist, Benicio Fuentes, attempts to assert himself as the more knowledgeable cook, Jesse points out all of the shortcomings of Fuentes’ lab, telling him that they need to spend the appropriate amount of time sanitizing it before cooking. When Fuentes questions Jesse’s authority, Pinkman coolly stares the chemist in the face and states, “I suggest you stop whining like a little bitch, and do what I say.” Clearly, Cap’n Cook has finally started eating his Wheaties.

Breaking Bad is many things: crime drama, addiction narrative, millennial western. It is also the most radical representation of academic life—of teachers and students—to air on contemporary American television. Foregoing the saccharine inspirational narratives that have driven shows (and far too many major motion pictures) like Glee, as well as the ham-fisted melodrama of Boston Public and its ilk, Breaking Bad deploys the drug trade, possibly the most rigorously capitalist “business” in existence, as a metaphor for a production-based education system—the kind of system that is currently in place at virtually all levels in the United States. With the dramatic upswing in the use of standardized testing of all kinds—AP exams, SAT exams, (foreign) language placement assessments, No Child Left Behind exams—education has shifted to a model where intellectual competency is determined by external, often corporate, bureaucratic measures that function first and foremost to shore up their own authority. Like Gus Fring himself, these assessments menacingly demand that students repeatedly explain themselves, demonstrating their rationality according to measures that are all-too-often irrational—measures that, like those Walter presents to Gustavo in the desert, condense futurity into a perpetual series of options A, B, C, and D. To employ Walter and Jesse’s shorthand, this educational model prioritizes product above all else, caring nothing about the students it is purported to encourage or the teachers it employs. After all, Mr. White never would have broke bad in the first place if his teaching job invested as much in him as he did in it.
Before proceeding, a few prefatory comments are in order. First, this is not an article which argues that teachers should resort to cooking methamphetamine to supplement their incomes. Doing so would be a very bad and very illegal decision that would not work out well for anyone involved. Second, this article does not argue that teachers should ignore or overlook students who they suspect are dealing, and possibly using, drugs. If you are a teacher and have concerns about your student(s), please call the guidance office. Then, maybe, parents. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—this article does not contend that teachers should resort to writing, “Grow some fucking balls!” on their students’ papers and exams. Doing so would also be a very bad and very illegal decision that would likely get you fired, union or no union, tenure or no tenure.
Also, in sincerity, it is extremely difficult to romanticize cooking methamphetamine in a broken-down RV. Depending on your perspective, that fact makes my job here either easier, or much more difficult. We shall soon see which is the case. To begin, then:

Breaking Bad‘s pre-“Mandala” episodes largely find Walter White in a panic. Though his anxiety is obviously a result of the dramatic miscalculation which lead him to believe that cooking meth would provide a shortcut to financial prosperity, the show still positions him as a character confined by the routinized behaviors of suburban life—eating, working, exercising, sleeping. As the “Pilot” episode makes clear, his work as a groundbreaking crystallography researcher has been eradicated by the force of time. No longer young, but not yet old, he is trapped in the malaise of middle age. That is, of course, unless his cancer imminently kills him; the possible proximity of his death, in a way, makes him much older than he should be. The only moments of real joy that he experiences are when he teaches. A smile creeping across his face, he tells his students that “chemistry is ... fascinating.” They offer him nothing in the way of affirmation as a response.

Eventually, however, Walter tracks down Jesse, the former underachiever, who gradually becomes Mr. White’s best pupil.

Admittedly, Walter’s reasons for teaming up with Jesse are practical to the point of being selfish. Walt believes that he is going to die, so making quick money is all that matters, even if he gets caught or killed in the act. Yet, the relationship that the teacher and his student establish, strained as it might be at times, is one that is intellectually fulfilling for both of them. Jesse is immediately amazed at Mr. White’s skill as a cook, and even after the two have their first falling out—Walter sees no need “to debrief” with Jesse—the student works fastidiously to duplicate his teacher’s recipe, even to the point where he readily disposes entire batches of perfectly good meth, Badger’s protestations notwithstanding.

Deviously, covertly, Breaking Bad‘s early episodes express the transformative—perhaps even intoxicating—potential of education when it happens organically, freely, independently. In their RV, Jesse and Walter work on their own schedule, on their own terms. Their intellectual space is a makeshift one that they assemble and deconstruct according to their needs without any control or oversight. Sure, the pride and admiration that they visibly feel for each other is inevitably punctured by contention and frustration. But any teacher—or any student—would have to admit that intermittent frustration is part of the job.

Perhaps one of the most endearing features of Jesse and Walter’s relationship is that the student consistently refers to his teacher as “Mr. White”, even after the two begin murdering people together. If we had to hazard a guess, I think we could safely assume that murder is a significant line in the sand, an act that would easily level out the teacher-student hierarchy. Not here. Though Walter never demands respect, he does command it, and Jesse responds accordingly. Walter, through his knowledge, cunning as it often is, demonstrates an authority that deserves attention. Jesse, in turn, responds accordingly, showing his “ambition” when asked, and gradually appropriating his teacher’s authority until he can confidently call connected cartel dealers “bitches”.

Eloquence might never be his strong suit.

All teachers choose their battles. This fragile collegiality irreparably breaks once the duo begins working for Gustavo Fring, the professional kingpin who launders his drug profits through a corporate fast food chain. Notably, Saul Goodman, Walter and Jesse’s attorney, offers them the following advice for increasing the productivity of their operation: “What you need is a businessman.” To be clear, Saul’s advice is good advice, and from a strictly economic standpoint—after all, Walter and Jesse do need to sell their blue meth—it makes sense to work under a businessman. However, what cannot be overlooked is the way that Walter and Jesse’s new form of employment in the cold impersonal superlab transforms their relationship from one founded on tentative respect to one that is inhumanely professional. The two are no longer bonded by intellectual curiosity. Instead they are bonded by the drive for immediate financial gain. The two, to use Jesse’s mocking term, become business “partners”, and they never fully trust each other once that shift occurs.

The best illustration of this professional drudgery occurs in the opening minutes of the episode “Fly”. As Walter and Jesse make their way through the laundry facility, they walk past a long line of laborers sedately waiting to punch the time clock that signals with mathematical precision the start of their respective shifts. “I’m surprised he doesn’t make us do that,” Jesse mumbles to Walter as they prepare to begin their shift in the lab. The camera then cuts to the two men bending themselves out of shape to clean—endlessly clean—their lab equipment. The misery of this labor is a recurring theme in Breaking Bad‘s Third and Fourth seasons. While working for Gus, Walter and Jesse are subjected to a merciless routine which demands that the two cook their quota no matter what happens—no matter if, for instance, Walter’s boss coordinates the near assassination of Hank, the chemist’s brother in law. Rich or poor, sick or healthy, the cook cannot stop, as Walter once said. Gus’ response to employee nonperformance is the most literal interpretation of management’s traditional strategy for handling problematic workers: termination. The priority is now placed on producing product after product like so much engineered fast food. Walter’s improvised meth recipe has been standardized.

This increased systematized control over Jesse and Walt is accompanied by the development of a pervasive, penetrating surveillance system. From Mike, to Victor, to Tyrus, to the lab’s closed network cameras, Walter and Jesse are always and everywhere scrutinized, their productivity forever the focal point of Gus’ gaze. The far-reaching spread of this system eventually reveals the core irony of any kind of surveillance: its spectacular sight only goes one way. As Jesse repeatedly makes clear, Gus can always see them, but they—Jesse in particular—can never see him. Power functions best when it conceals itself.

Under this intense scrutiny, Walter and Jesse can only cook, and cook, and cook some more. “Time to make the meth”, their internal punch clocks continually tell them. Ironically enough, the very system that increases their efficiency actually slows their production time. Under Gus, there’s always a quota; there never is enough time. No matter how much they produce, they have no choice but to produce more. This frenzied schedule stands in stark contrast to Walter and Jesse’s time together in the RV. During the episode “4 Days Out”, the two embark on a marathon cooking session in the hinterlands of New Mexico. After two days of work, they discover that they are ahead of schedule, a discovery that, thankfully, triggers their awareness that the RV’s battery is also dead. In the superlab, the opposite is true: Walter and Jesse are never ahead of schedule because the schedule never stops.

What this crazed cook gradually does to Walter and Jesse is eliminate the banter that they once shared over their meth mixing and mashing. When the two are in the superlab, they very rarely talk to each other, which means that Walter’s instruction, along with Jesse’s education, effectively ends. Though Jesse gets quite good at his job, he does not necessarily possess a thorough knowledge of it. Instead, he can only perform his job through rote routine, which is why when Benicio challenges the novice chemist to synthesize phenylacetic acid, Jesse can only respond that he does not know how to synthesize his own acid and that he needs “the barrel with the ‘B’ on it” to do his work. (Once again, option ‘B’ is the correct answer.) Gus’ emphasis on product over process has shortchanged Jesse here. Despite the high scores—chemical and monetary—that his work receives, Jesse does not know as much about cooking methamphetamine as he should know. However, in a world where only products matter, this gap in Jesse’s knowledge does not matter—even though it almost kills him. What is of the utmost importance is the purity percentage of Jesse’s meth, an assessment—a grade—supplied by a machine.

More significantly, Gus’ operation, which is balanced by countless calculations and measurements, becomes the one context in which Jesse begins cheating. Though the precision of Gus’ empire of equations—weights, ship times, packing volumes—would seem to limit the amount of theft that could occur, that precision actually has the opposite effect. As Gus’ system of assessment reveals itself to Jesse as assessment for its own sake—as mere machinery—he discovers a way to rig that machinery for his own financial gain. His motivation in this instance is intriguing, because despite what he says, Jesse does not care about money. At one point, he throws a bunch of it at a group of partiers in his living room; at another he willingly loans Walter the necessary money to purchase their data-eradicating magnet.

Finally, when Heisenberg attempts to court Jesse into an entirely new meth empire, goading him with the threat of not paying out the profits he is already owed, Jesse simply walks away, willing to sacrifice the massive amount of money he literally killed for over and over again. No, Jesse does not really care about money. It only becomes valuable to him once the culture around him values economics above all else, even above the safety of young children. Once Jesse realizes that Gus’ meth empire only extends its robotic hand to “fist” him, his response is the only fitting one available: he fists it back.

Again, eloquence. Not Jesse’s strong suit.  Nevertheless, his point stands.

Quite understandably, Mr. White is similarly dehumanized by his job at Pollos Hermanos. In order to survive, he has to embody with every last atom of his being the persona of the ruthless Heisenberg. As he is forced to grapple with the shooting of his brother-in-law and the use of children as drug dealers, he becomes more machinelike in his actions. He calls Hank’s assault a “strategy”, and he tells his boss that he “respects” it. Eventually, he is able to move mechanically past the murder of a young boy in the desert—an innocent boy who seemed to have an affinity for science, entomology to be exact. The reality that this young boy might eventually be one of Mr. White’s future students is of no consequence to Heisenberg. For him, all that matters is the production of product. Eloquence being a stronger suit of his, he articulates his career ambition in terms of a fitting metaphor: “Nothing stops this train.”

And so the train keeps a-rollin’, even as its wheel start to fall off. By the end of Breaking Bad‘s Fifth Season, Jesse and Walter are estranged, the former fearing the latter. There is no longer any trust between the student and his teacher, and the two can only express affection in terms of money, Walter somewhat impersonally leaving Jesse’s cut of their profit at his front door. Their parting is strained, sad, bereft of the charming bickering that characterized their mentor-mentee relationship and that, arguably, characterizes all student-teacher relationships—Jesse telling Mr. White he has a giant stick up his ass, Mr. White asking Jesse if his mother dropped him on his head when he was a baby.

In fairness, Jesse’s overall intellectual growth cannot be ignored. By the start of Breaking Bad‘s Fifth Season, it is evident that Jesse has learned a great deal from his teacher. As Saul suggests several new lab locations, both Walter and Jesse are able to discern each location’s shortcomings with accurate, chemically precise aplomb. It is hard not to be proud of the student as he acknowledges that excessive steam will ruin the meth or that the fumes from the new lab could make tortillas smell “like cat piss”. Yes, Jesse knows what he is doing, and that knowledge is due entirely to his work with Walter. Still, as Walter and Jesse enter the darkest period of their relationship, it becomes apparent that they long for the freedom and independence that they once had, back when they used to cook in the RV, the Crystal Ship, as Jesse whimsically calls it.

Certainly, it is an odd thing to be nostalgic about working—teaching and learning—in a weathered portable classroom. It might be the kind of thing that Walt Whitman would express if here were still alive. Then again, maybe that sentiment is not so odd at all. Truly, portable classrooms, those spaces outside of “the school walls” can offer a great view of the stars. And of course, the time when those stars burn brightest is when it is dark.


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