This Is the Day When Things Fall into Place: Did Jesse Pinkman Really Matter?
I was surprised by some of my feelings during this past Sunday’s Breaking Bad episode,”Ozymandias”. In the aftermath of Hank and Gomez’s crushing, brutal deaths, Walt turned his anger against the nearest weak enemy; a cowering Jesse who’d been hiding under the Chrysler during the shootout. After the Nazi Uncle Gang dragged out Jesse, ostensibly to meet the business end of Jack’s gun (but quickly given yet another life extension), a sneering Walt laid out how he could have saved a dying Jane and instead let her die. There was a close-up of Jesse’s broken expression and welled-up eyes, his body slumping as he tried to comprehend both his current situation, and the idea that Walt let the love of his life die. I waited to feel something; the usual wetness of a rolling tear, perhaps a chill? But what really affected me was the seething, misplaced anger leaking from between Walt’s gritted teeth. Later in the episode, the camera panned down from an overhead grate and we saw Jesse chained at the bottom of a cement enclosure, severely beaten and duly terrified of Psycho-Todd. Jesse’s face was a mess, his eye swollen shut, not unlike how he looked after Hank’s “One Minute” beatdown. Instead of feeling sad or sorry, all my mind could muster up was an “Oh look, Jesse got beat up again.” And as Todd escorted poor Pinkman to his new lab home, where he hooked up Jesse to a run like the dog he now is, I watched Jesse—this guy I used to root for—slide his “leash” down to where the photo of Brock and Andrea was clipped. As Jesse and I both realized his predicament, I still felt next to nothing emotionally. I thought over my loss of empathy in the days that followed; discussed it a little bit on Facebook. So what’s left for Jesse? The most obvious outcome is: He helps Todd get the product up to standards, then he’s killed. Another scenario might find Walt scraping the barrel for his last bit of humanity, and coming back to rescue Jesse. More likely is Walt coming back to take out the Nazi Uncle Gang and get his money back; Jesse could either live or die through the experience. But more importantly, will we care? Because the reality is, Jesse is already destroyed and he’s been dead a very long time.
Jesse Pinkman aka Marion Dupree was supposed to die during Breaking Bad’s first season, but because Aaron Paul turned out such amazing performances and had great chemistry with Bryan Cranston, he got to live. In a manner of speaking, that is. On paper and screen Jesse’s character has floated in and out of addiction, murdered a couple of people, found and lost love, had a few small personal victories (“Yeah bitch! Magnets!”), been beaten to a pulp one too many times and generally put through the proverbial wringer. He’s been our comic relief, and sometimes our moral center, standing up as—or for— the innocent(s), and generally rolling alongside that mastermind, Mr. White. When he sank back into addiction, or took us into a day in the methamphetamine life ( “Peekaboo”), Jesse was our guide to the mostly unseen effects of the product he and Walt were putting on the street every day. As the bitched-up, yo! yin to Walt’s formerly straight-laced yang, I remember being terribly upset whenever the boys were fighting or at odds; like a kid who can’t bear the thought of his parents divorcing, I never wanted Walt and Jesse apart. And like a dysfunctional marriage, the Pinkman-White partnership was always doomed to end.
Who would we root for in the split? Used to be, plenty of people would have said Jesse, but as his malaise turned apathy reared more often, and Heisenberg became evermore daring, we went where the action was—where Gilligod intended. We followed Walt’s at first defensive, then exhilaratingly aggressive tendencies until as late as last week, when finally most of us could follow him no more. But we have to know, and we care (regardless of whether or not we’re still rooting for him) what happens to Walt. We care what happens to Skyler, Walt Jr., Holly and Marie. Heck, we’re probably even wondering what happens to Saul, besides the spinoff gig. Can the same be said for Jesse? What if he gets gunned down—will we really cry ? Will we be anywhere near as affected as we were by Hank’s death? Might it be nice if Jesse somehow got out of this alive and started over? Maybe, but aren’t the odds he’d just keep on living the mostly meaningless existence he’s been living for five seasons now; has Jesse’s inexorable apathy seeped into our own consciousness? (And was that intended?) He’s given up on himself more times than I care to count, been rescued from his self-destructiveness several times, and in the episodes leading up to “Ozymandias,” Jesse barely seemed to have the will to live (to Hank’s good and bad fortune, Jesse’s last slip into despair was the only thing that would have allowed for collaboration with our “ASAC Schrader”). Wasn’t Jesse’s whole existence just periods of lucidity between slips into not-really-living? At one point or another, he was a pawn to nearly everyone; Walt, his buddies, Gus, Mike, Hank…perhaps Jesse’s life was only meant for destruction.
Despite the brilliant and most Emmy-worthy Aaron Paul, I find myself asking if Jesse ever really mattered.
“I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Richard Wright on Native Son (h/t Jelinas, whose excellent review can be found here.)