Remembering the tragic heart of ‘Breaking Bad’ 10 years later.
In many ways, Breaking Bad is a series built on images. The images that demarcate the series are of Walter White’s stony features framed by a black hat, emblazoned on a million mall T-shirts and immortalized in the antihero history books. The images that set the series apart — the ones that slowly, surely, and permanently widened the path for what TV can look like — are all jarring and metaphorical: a fly on a wall, a scorched pink teddy bear in a swimming pool, an RV in a desert wasteland.
And yet, when I close my eyes and think of Breaking Bad, all I see is Jesse Pinkman.
Jesse, breaking down in the arms of the man who let his truest love die, his face a mask of pain and guilt. Jesse, high on misery at a never-ending rave, throwing money into a mess of dirty bodies like a white trash Santa Claus. Jesse, studying a cigarette as if it holds all the terrible knowledge of the universe. Jesse, whole for the first time. Jesse, broken down more times than we can count. Jesse, trapped. Jesse, freed.
The Jesse Pinkman we meet in the pilot, which aired 10 years ago this week, bears little resemblance to the battered, exhilarated man we’re left with by the series finale. He’s a walking inciting incident, comic relief, an opportunity for Walt to sound smart and feel superior. All we learn in that first hour is that Aaron Paul is attractive and funny, while his character is borderline incompetent. He falls off a roof in his underwear, calls himself “Cap’n Cook,” and ushers in the series’ central, ill-fated partnership with one sarcastic question: “You wanna cook crystal meth?”
We learn soon enough that Jesse has a persistent, foolhardy habit of trying to rise above the moral sinkhole of the drug trade, then punishing himself intensely each time he fails. He’s a character made more tragic by repeated failure. He’s put through the ringer so many times by showrunner Vince Gilligan that by the final season his bad luck has cycled past tragedy and begun to feel darkly comic all over again. Still, the earliest, most resonant portrait of his deep-buried heroism — the narrative exemplification of his character — is one of bittersweet success.
Jesse gets his day of beggar’s luck in the 13th episode of Breaking Bad, “Peekaboo.” When he’s told that a junkie couple robbed him, he heads to their house and finds a dirt-streaked, red-headed young boy watching infomercials alone. He feeds the boy (whose only line in the hour is “I’m hungry”), plays peekaboo with him (Paul’s striking, crystal-blue eyes, wary but warm in these scenes, are an indelible image of their own), and puts him to bed when the robbers come home.
When the boy witnesses Jesse scuffling with his mom’s partner, he insists they’re only playing a game. Later, the boy’s mother crushes her partner under a stolen ATM while high, leaving Jesse with an easy escape and fistfuls of cash. He calls 911 and goes back to get the boy, telling him to play peekaboo again, hiding his face while they pass the bloody body. He leaves the redheaded boy wrapped in a blanket on the front porch with an uneasy but sincere sentiment: “You have a good rest of your life, kid.”
During the course of the series, at least three other young boys are killed or nearly killed as an indirect result of Jesse and Walt’s work, sometimes right in front of them. In “Peekaboo,” Jesse is cold-cocked by the boy’s mother while playing with the child, his tenderness exploited as a weakness. In Gilligan’s New Mexico underworld, there is a direct correlation between Jesse’s attempts to preserve innocence and his own consistent undoing. While Walt yearns for more — more money, more power, more recognition — Jesse wants less. Less trauma, less pain, less fear. It might be too late for him, but each time he convinces himself (if only for a moment) that it’s not too late for the redheaded boy — or Brock, or Tomas, or the boy with the tarantula — he solidifies himself as the ruinous heart of a series that so often thrived on its characters’ cool heartlessness.
Jesse clearly sees himself in these doomed boys. A version of himself that’s less fractured and, he hopes with the persistent, misguided optimism of a kicked puppy, still able to be saved. His own perceived irredeemability is laid out for us in “Kafkaesque,” a tremendous Season 3 episode written by Peter Gould and George Mastras. In it, he attends an AA meeting where his group leader asks what he’d do if he could do anything without worrying about money. “I don’t know if it even matters, but… work with my hands, I guess,” Jesse answers. He tells a story from high school, about when he built a half-assed box in shop class. After his teacher asked, “Is that the best you can do?” he worked hard to make something beautiful. The story has two endings. The first is a lie: “I gave it to my mom.” The second, the truth: “I traded it for an ounce of weed.”
The monologue is shattering, with Paul delivering one of the strongest quiet performances of the series. In Jesse’s mind, his desires don’t matter, and there’s no use in trying because he will always be a fuck-up. But he’s wrong: his significance as a character comes from trying. He stays in my mind 10 years later because he is able to take a beating from the world — figuratively and often literally — and still retain his desire to save it. He still briefly imagines a reality where he can give the box to his mom, even as his weak flickers of hope are snuffed out by the brutal realities of the meth-making business.
And miraculously, mercifully, in the end Breaking Bad gives Jesse the reality he craves. The last time we see him, he’s speeding away from Walt and all that he stands for in a stolen El Camino, crying with relief. When the series finale, “Felina,” first aired, this didn’t feel like enough; a minor fifth season character got more screen time in the episode than Paul, who barely speaks and spends much of the time enslaved by white supremacists. His final scene may not be what we wanted as viewers, but looking back, it has everything that Jesse needed.
When I think of Breaking Bad, I inevitably think of its ending, and again, it’s not Walt in my mind’s eye but Jesse. Jesse, speeding into the desert night, free to go anywhere and be anything, laughing like he’s a kid again.