It appeared that Jesse Pinkman was never long for the world of Walter White.
From the very moment Walter laid eyes on him, stumbling in his underwear out of a second-story window of a house that his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank had just begun to raid, Jesse was a mark. Originally intended to provide merely a conduit for Walt to gain entry into the seedy underworld of methamphetamine production and distribution, the character of Jesse was to be the first in a long line of bodies accumulated as a consequence of the ruthless ascent of Heisenberg. It speaks volumes to the emotional load borne by Jesse Pinkman that it’s essentially unthinkable to imagine Breaking Bad without him.
He’s been called the conscience of the show, the moral center, the heart. They’re all rather artless tropes that too neatly pigeonhole a character deceptively broad in his scope. Jesse isn’t the cowardly lion, dopily bumbling alongside the merciless mastermind Walt, providing comic relief and burnout charm to contrast the darkness all around. Despite his apparently dead-end lot in life and the total lack of book smarts and formal schooling of his compatriot Walt, Jesse’s ingenuity belies his baggy sweatpants and skull cap exterior.
The truth is, within Jesse lies all of the vanity and avarice that have so thoroughly consumed Walt. Like Walt, Jesse wants respect. Jesse is not an honest person. He too is a liar, a thief, a con man, and a murderer. He is irresponsible, selfish, and too lazy to forge any honest path for himself in this world. He conspires to sell meth to addicts in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It feels good to watch Jesse stick it to his parents and buy the home out from under them that they would no longer let Jesse inside of, but they rightly mourned the condition of their son and felt protective of Jesse’s corruptible younger brother that he still held sway over. Jesse has in many ways failed himself and the people who love him. A life of crime is his only means of ever becoming anything other than the loser the world sees him as. It’s a pitiable state.
And he feels every bit of it.
* * *
The “odd couple” aspect of Walt and Jesse’s relationship is apropos for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the opposite way at which they approached life at the time of their re-acquaintance. Walt became intimately aware at the offerings of a straight life, cobbling together a living at the local high school and working at the carwash on weekends, while Jesse pursued the life of a drug dealer. It’s no small irony that a student memorable to Walt for his incompetence in high school chemistry became something of a low-level chemist himself, concocting that pathetic feculence that Jesse branded “Chili-P.”
Despite their surface-level differences, at the beginning Walt and Jesse struggle with the same moral qualms that present themselves as the price of doing business in the meth underworld. Neither one of them wants to murder Krazy-8, but it’s an inarguable fact that if they don’t kill him, their bodies will be the next ones to be disposed of unceremoniously. This is the point where Walt and Jesse forever diverge. Walt has a taste for all things criminal including the feeling he gets from murder. The deaths directly and indirectly caused by Walter White never faze him in an appreciable way; instead they put the wind in his sail. Walt never looks back; he never pauses to reflect. Jesse is different. Jesse’s decision to make it as a meth dealer has no shortage of fallout. Because of his affiliation with Walt, the people in Jesse’s orbit are helplessly pulled into the danger that he has invited into his life.
After he is kicked out of his deceased aunt’s house for running a meth lab, he befriends his new landlord’s daughter Jane, she of a former drug habit that landed her in rehab and almost destroyed her relationship with her father. It’s a predictably sad domino effect of grief when Jesse’s comrade Combo is offed for dealing meth on the wrong side of town. The death of his friend haunts Jesse, which in turn leads him deeper into drug addiction, creating the perfect environment for Jane to relapse.
Getting pinched is one thing. When Badger foolishly sold meth to the undercover cop on the sidewalk bench, it could be chalked up to his own stupidity and the risk inherent in selling drugs. But Combo isn’t coming back. He sold the drugs Jesse made in the spot where he was instructed to sell them. Combo was only there because of Jesse, and now Combo is dead. The downward spiral eventually consumes Jane when she is allowed to overdose by the on-looking Walt. Too stupefied to glean Walt’s presence, Jesse is helpless to save her by the time he achieves consciousness the next morning.
There are parallel storms steaming through Albuquerque. Walt’s is the larger, more formidable one, wantonly causing mayhem at his pleasure and growing in size and scope in proportion to his fledgling empire. Jesse’s storm is smaller and of the more regretful sort. The body count in his corner isn’t as high, but it’s much more personal. The people Jesse is indirectly responsible for killing are people he cared for and even loved. Without them, he seeks to anesthetize himself until he can join them.
Aside from the occasional scotch, Walt never partakes in anything that might alter his reality. Reality seems to suit him just fine (and all the more as the violence and his stature grows) while Jesse prefers to fade away in a drug den in the worst part of town ever conceived on television. It’s an act that drips of selfish motivation, but when Walt rescues Jesse from the fate that certainly awaits him in the drug den against the advice of seen-it-all hitman Mike Ehrmantrout, the depth of Jesse’s pain is revealed. He knows he might as well have stuck the plunger in Jane’s arm himself. She may have been the more experienced heroin user, but he was her lighted path back to the dark world of addiction.
Walt wants Jesse to live, but only because he’s the only person he can implicitly trust. Walt puts Jesse in rehab not to get him healthy and readjusted to properly re-enter society. No, Walt just wants Jesse well enough to get back in the game. Grief-stricken Jesse is useless to Walt and by extension useless to the terrifying Gus Fring. When Jesse gets out, Walt has a whole new place for him to sink.
Gale was originally Jesse’s replacement. He had the formal training, the personal stability, and the temperament to carry out the daily task of cooking two hundred plus pounds of blue methamphetamine at a time. Of all the characters to whom Breaking Bad has introduced its audience, Gale occupied his place in the meth underworld with the least baggage. He was a gentle, middle-aged chemist whose reasoned libertarian beliefs justified his entre into large-scale meth manufacturing. He valued the brilliance of Walter’s formula as explicitly as he did a nice cup of tea enjoyed in the company of some background Italian opera.
But Gale is Gus’ guy and outside of Walt’s purview. He wants Jesse’s classical approach to meth making as opposed to Gale’s jazz. It’s all a ruse of course. Walt just wants Jesse there to provide him a level of comfort and a buffer for when push finally comes to shove. Fresh out of rehab and of clear mind that he not only caused the death of Jane, but also the deaths of everyone on-board the 737s that crashed as a result of Jane’s father’s grief, Jesse has a clearer sense of right and wrong. He retains the same debilitating self-loathing for the wrongs for which he is responsible, but he now seems keen to actually do something about them.
Becoming romantically involved with Jesse is an inherently dangerous proposition, but Andrea doesn’t know that. She shares Jesse’s weakness for meth, but provides a comforting rebound from the horrific ending of his last relationship. When Jesse finds out that Andrea’s 11-year-old brother Tomas (the young boy who killed his friend Combo) was murdered by two street-level drug dealers, Jesse chooses to act.
It speaks to the level of the grief that Jesse still feels that he brazenly attempts to murder the bad guys who killed Tomas. The beatings he suffered at the hands of Tuco and Hank came without much of a fight. It isn’t that Jesse is a wimp; he merely operates with the requisite level of fear that any reasonable person might exhibit when exposed to such brutality [The scene in Season Two (in the episode entitled “Peekaboo”) where Jesse tries to steel himself to burst into the house of meth-heads who previously robbed Skinny Pete by reciting tough-guy, “Give me the money, bitch!” lines is among the funniest of that season.] But here he is. Standing in the spot not far from where his friend Combo and Andrea’s little brother were murdered, brandishing a gun, ready to kill or be killed.
Of course it doesn’t happen. Walt gives them the full-on-60-mph-Pontiac-Aztek treatment just as they are about to lay waste to Jesse. Jesse doesn’t know it, but Walt has a larger purpose in store for him. He’s more than willing to take over the role of avenger if it means keeping Jesse alive to eliminate the man tapped to now replace Walt: Gale Boetticher.
In the frantic last moments of Gale’s life, Jesse finally joins Walt in that deepest and darkest place in the amoral world. Up until this point, Jesse and Walt are killers of a very particular sort. Sure they’ve had to work as a team to eliminate some seriously bad dudes that wanted them dead here and there. But Gale is no such person. He’s an innocent. At no point, past, present or future, has Gale Boetticher ever been a threat to Jesse and/or Walt. It’s no matter though. Gale has been groomed by Gus to replace Walt and for that reason, he has to die ... and Jesse has to do the killing.
The fallout from Jesse’s first foray into cold-blooded murder is predictable. He is not equipped with the tools or the psychopathic personality to inure himself from the anguish that accompanies shooting a man in the face at close range. Jesse can’t be pragmatic about it, he can’t bargain away his emotions to the point where he can reconcile that what he did had the tangible effect of keeping Walt, and by extension himself, alive. All that Jesse sees is the horror of the moment. The helpless look in kindly Gale’s eyes.
So if Walt won’t let Jesse go to a crackhouse to die, easier to bring the crackhouse home. Jesse doesn’t have the heart or the fortitude to kill himself, so the death-by-cop routine that he enlists by stealing meth from Gus to keep the endless party at his house going has a reasonable chance of getting the job done. After indirectly killing Combo, Jane, and whole planes-full of people, Jesse tried the passive route to achieve permanent respite from what he has wrought on the world. While stealing from Gus Fring is not a sure thing the way shooting yourself is, he has every reason to think that his death is a likely outcome.
The grief that weighs on Jesse is so immense that it almost hurts to see Gus choose the unconventional route of hugging Jesse even closer instead of pushing him off a cliff. Much like Walt, Gus sees utility in Jesse. A person with nothing to lose can be a valuable tool in a world chalk-full of men willing to dole out death, and Jesse is nothing if not a tool for the whims and uses of the puppet masters that pull his strings.
* * *
Jesse has a weakness for children. The tenderness with which he speaks to his high-achieving little brother and the vengeance that he seeks for the murdered Tomas indicate a sensitivity to the plight of the children in his world. Unfortunately, his world contains Walter White.
Replete with the knowledge that Jesse has a soft spot for Andrea and children alike, it stands to reason that Andrea’s child, Brock, would make for a fine target to bring Jesse back into Walt’s fold. After Walt and Jesse’s brutal Season Four falling out, Walter can see tangible evidence that his empire is disappearing before his eyes. The shelving of their original plan to poison Gus with ricin provided Walt with the perfect backdrop to once-again make Jesse do exactly what he wanted, to murder.
As Brock falls ill from the apparent effects of the misplaced ricin, Jesse once again switches into vengeance-mode. Jesse can abide many things, but the attempted murder of Brock is too much. Even as Jesse reasons that it couldn’t have been Gus who was responsible as the real culprit of the poisoning, since it was the Lily of the Valley plant (the same one sitting in Walt’s backyard), he is too emotional to unwind his vow to murder Gus.
Jesse knows he’s the bad guy. He knows he cannot properly repent for all of his sins; he can’t undo the awful things that have already been done. Some of the people he loves are alive, some are dead. He can scour his apartment for the tiny pill of ricin all he wants, but he knows deep down that there is no going back, no guarding the innocents. As the Fifth Season steamed toward it’s midpoint break, the cracked shell that is Jesse shatters once again.
As Jesse, Walt, and bright-eyed new guy Todd prep the area adjacent to the train trestle where they plan to pull off a breathtaking train-heist, Todd asks Jesse how they plan to pull off such a daring robbery. It’s Jesse’s ingenious plan, so Walt gives him the honor of explaining how they plan on replacing 1000 gallons of methylamine with 900.2 gallons of water in only a few short minutes. With a wry smile, Jesse says, “It’s uh, it’s all about the weight, yo.”
And it is.
It’s a weight that will crush Jesse yet again. Moments after their adrenaline pumping success, Todd pulls out his gun and kills the boy on the dirtbike, who had been watching them all along. Breaking Bad has always been a tale about many things, not the least of which is the journey of self-discovery that Walt and Jesse are on. They both want respect from a world that gives them none. Jesse doesn’t want to be a murderer or a thief or a drug-addict or someone responsible for the death of a child. But he is all those things. It’s the price of his sad journey. It’s the weight he must bear.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More