The Lovable Lostness of Jesse Pinkman

[Spoiler Alert!] According to the Fresh Air interview with actor Aaron Paul, his character, the […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.28.12

[Spoiler Alert!] According to the Fresh Air interview with actor Aaron Paul, his character, the impulsive young Jesse Pinkman in AMC’s Breaking Bad, wasn’t supposed to make it out of the first season. He tells Terry Gross he didn’t even know that was the plan and so:

…instantly my heart kind of dropped and slowed down a bit, and (Vince Gilligan) goes, “but we don’t think we’re going to do that anymore.” And I was just – I was like, “What do you mean? What are you talking about? Like, what’s the plan?” And he’s like, “No, we just – I just wanted to let you know that that’s not the plan anymore.”

And I didn’t know how to take it, but he said that they just loved the, you know, the dynamic between Walt and Jesse and the chemistry that, you know, Bryan (Cranston, who plays Walter White) and I kind of brought to these characters. He decided to change the whole dynamic of their relationship and really of the show.


It is astounding now, here in season five, considering what Breaking Bad‘s sinister main man Walter White has become, as the meth business has become an ’empire business,’ as the simple survival narrative of a simple down-and-out high school teacher has become the funneling tragedy of a man in the throes of his own powerlust. As Walt’s post-cancer–yet no-less-cancerous–malediction has (slowly, believably, wonderfully) turned the entire Breaking Bad viewership against him, when all seems so irretrievably lost, it is astounding that the only redeemable strand left in the cosmos is that unlikely, tenderhearted upstart, Jesse Pinkman, the one the writers almost wrote off.

Why, Jesse, though? Why did the beginning of season four–after Jesse murdered Gale and had his colossal breakdown in front of his max-volume speakers–feel like the show’s most hopeless moment? Why does this point of season five feel so terribly hopeless, knowing that Jesse is pretty stuck with Walt after Mike’s been killed? What is it about Jesse? If we love the characters with whom we relate, and it’s not the Alien Ant Farm swag, the unbelievable amount of times he says the b-word, the ways he likes to spend his meth money, it is precisely that Jesse is lost.

That is not to say that Jesse, like Walt, has no moral compass left after all the killing, hiding, drug-dealing. To the contrary, it is that Jesse, like his audience, has looked to the moral compass for direction and found himself lost. Whereas Walt’s ego has spun a narrative completely impervious to the reality of his lostness, Jesse’s one hope is his conscience, his own refusal for self-justification. At the end of every rope–the death of girlfriend Jane, the murder of Gale, the rehab, the near-death of new-girlfriend’s son Brock–Jesse suffers the condemnation of his actions and associations. He cannot will himself from the truth, as we see in a group meeting with other recovering addicts. Jesse, seeking any way to come clean about the murder he committed, tells the group he put his dog down. In response he hears the justifying and placating there-theres from his fellow group-members, and he cannot stomache the false forgiveness.


It seems that Jesse and the group mentor are talking past each other in this exchange but, for Jesse, “self-acceptance” is not an awareness and forgiveness of one’s past, but the kind of dumbly detached forgiveness that he feels at this moment–a grace sans exposure. Jesse here is saying that grace means nothing outside of justice–if there is no payment for actions, no justification whatsoever–what’s it all mean? Because he cannot come clean before this group, he cannot be known, and unknown, unjustified, unforgiven. Though Jesse cannot communicate this as his yearning, he knows the forgiveness he seeks is unreachable without the Law’s cost. Jesse would rather remain lost, whirling around the go-kart track, than be accepted without payment.

If Breaking Bad follows suit with its chosen tune, we should continue to see the same “truth-will-out” kind of exposure to the very end–Walt’s self-imputed masquerades will reach a place of no return, or the lives he’s victimized in pursuit of his empire will turn justice upon him, or he will go mad with greed–and this kind of exacting justice will actually be a gracious death. Until then, Walt continues to plague himself with the impostor he believes himself to be: that nefarious Emperor Heisenberg.

But what about Jesse? Again, if Breaking Bad continues to the finish as it has since the beginning, the follow-through theme of biblical justice that have followed Jesse and Walt like the wrath of God will continue to do so. And this wrath is really just the Law–destroying with truth the impostor identities that have been made to self-justify bad motives and evil doings. If this is the case, though, Jesse has nothing to hide from. Unlike Walter, Jesse has never been anyone else but Jesse–scared, attention-seeking, compassionate Jesse. He is lost, yes, but will it make a difference that he knows he is lost?