The True “Hero” of Breaking Bad

Before we begin:

WARNING, THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE BREAKING BAD FINALE.  YOU ARE NOW WARNED!

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 Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what, 60? He’s just gonna break bad?

– Jesse Pinkman

If there’s one thing that last Sunday’s epic Breaking Bad finale, Felina, demonstrated, it was that—from the beginning to the end, from the start to the finish, the plunge to the crash—Breaking Bad was a Greek tragedy about a man named Walter White, as he went from Mr. Chips to Scarface, repressed high school chemistry teacher “Mr. White” to commanding drug kingpin “Heisenberg.”  In the end, Walter’s story finally comes full circle; he returns “back from the dead,” moving through the landscape like a ghost, tying up all of the loose ends that his reign of terror left behind.

But even though Walter has always been our protagonist, our eyes and ears into the New Mexico underworld—he isn’t our hero.  How could he be?  While we might understand Walter’s dilemma, and at times we might even relate to his suffering—the suffering of a brilliant, ambitious scientist who, after being trapped in domestic life for over a decade, breaks out as a terrifying force to be reckoned with—as the last few seasons have gone by, we’ve slowly lost the ability to sympathize with him much anymore.  The Walter White of Breaking Bad’s fifth season has become a reprehensible monster.   A sick, depraved, megalomaniac who long ago sold his soul to Mephistopheles in blue crystals, through countless murders, explosions, catastrophes and finally the poisoning of a child.

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No, by the end, Walt truly has become an irredeemable character.  But even when the narrative of Breaking Bad reaches its lowest point—even as it plunges into the total blackness of immorality that the characters once tried so far to avoid—there’s always been one character who doesn’t quite fall into the abyss.  One character who, through all of his suffering, horrifying mistakes, immoral decisions and brutal hardships, we never quite gave up on.

That character, of course, is Jesse Pinkman.  And it’s the closing of Jesse Pinkman’s story arc that, in many ways, is what makes Breaking Bad’s finale so tremendous, so perfect—because even though Breaking Bad was always the story of Walter White’s corruption, it’s also been the story about the sufferings of a troubled kid who was never given a chance to live.

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When you think of it, he didn’t really have a chance in the early days. Walt said, ‘You either help me cook meth and sell it, or else I’ll turn you in to the DEA.’ So this poor kid, based on a couple of really bad decisions he made early on, has been paying through the nose spiritually and physically and mentally and emotionally.

– Vince Gilligan

Now, don’t get me wrong; Jesse is hardly an angelic character.  For one, he’s a meth dealer.  A meth dealer who, at one point, goes so far as to attend a support group just for the purpose of selling meth to former addicts.  Throughout the course of the series, Jesse does some pretty disgusting, terrible things—but unlike Walt, who continually justifies his actions with excuses about “family,” Jesse actually feels guilt.  He recognizes the horrible things he’s done instead of blaming them on circumstance (or making excuses about family), and he desperately tries to repent for his dirty actions.

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It’s interesting to watch the two characters evolve, side by side.  At the beginning of the series, the audience isn’t given many reasons to like Jesse.  He comes across as a druggie burnout, a loser, a wannabe gangster without many morals, a street kid who probably came from a difficult, abusive family.  The contrast between him and Walt is immediately apparent; Walt, other than his drug dealing ambitions, is very much a “by the book” sort of figure, the kind of guy who, after accidentally hitting a traffic cone, will make a point to get up and put it back in place.

Well, in the pilot, I thought he was just this black-and-white character, this lost kid without any hope, really. But as the scripts were revealed, there were more and more layers that were also revealed for me: He didn’t come from a battered home. He came from a middle-class home with good morals, but I think maybe a little bit too much pressure on him. But when you meet the family, it just really showed that he had a heart. He’s a good kid; he’s just struggling in many different ways. And then obviously throughout the series, he dives deeper into that. He has a huge heart; it just got messed up.

– Aaron Paul

The first time we see that there’s more to Jesse is when we meet his overachieving, proper, middle class family, and see the way they’ve disowned him, rejected him and made him feel like a failure.  And soon, when the masks start to crumble, we see the truth; while Jessie is morally ambiguous in many ways, he is a kid who, when put up against a wall, always tries to do the right thing.  He doesn’t want to kill people, he cares about protecting children, he—other than occasional stints on the dark side—wants to have a better life, but is plagued by the same intense self-loathing, the need to rebel that led him to drugs in the first place.

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Walt, on the other hand, turns out be hardly the paragon of values he initially presents himself as; his ethics exist only on a surface level, largely as a way to conform to society’s boundaries.  Walt is never terribly haunted by the murders he commits.  He develops an exceptional ability to rationalize his crimes, so that, no matter what, he’s always in the right.   Jesse, on the other hand, is tortured by his actions.  He knows what he’s doing wrong, he just doesn’t know how to break away from his seemingly predestined path to failure.

It’s ironic, really, how the initial appearances of these characters deceive us.  Jesse at first appears to be perfectly molded into the drug scene, but in reality, he’s an awkward fit; he’s not someone who is capable of the sort of violence, ambition or ruthlessness that turns a person into a Tuco or a Gus Fring.  He’s actually a fairly harmless and naive jokester, a kid with no hopes in life, a kid who seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd and doesn’t know what else to do.

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Walt, on the other hand, turns out to be a perfect fit.  Beneath the innocent-looking chemistry teacher was always lurking an ambitious overachiever with big dreams, as revealed in the flashback sequence that shows a younger, leather-jacketed Walt and Skylar buying their house.  And when that failed ambition is coupled with a lack of respect, past rejections—namely, the Gray Matter debacle—and the insult known as “lung cancer” is added to his prior injuries, the result is that Walt becomes coldblooded, merciless figure who ruthlessly takes control of New Mexico’s criminal underground, toppling anyone who gets in his way.

While both characters plunge into the dark side, it’s for different reasons.  Walt does it out of ambition, to build an empire, for power.  Jesse’s darkness is caused by guilt—guilt for the death of his girlfriend, the murder of Gail, and so on.  Jesse convinces himself that he’s “the bad guy”—but he never quite accepts this, because he isn’t.  That’s why, even as Walt gets colder and colder, Jesse only gets more and more vulnerable. He’s a good guy, a bright kid with a wounded soul, who just needs the right guidance.

Unfortunately, instead of getting a strong, supportive mentor, he got Heisenberg.

Walter White Breaking Bad

No, Jesse isn’t innocent.  He’s a criminal—but in the end, he’s also far more of a victim than he is a victimizer.  Unlike Walt, Jesse – after making his first set of mistakes – never really got the chance to build a better life or move on from his past.  He didn’t have a family or career to fall back on. He never had a chance to get out of the business and make something of himself.

And truthfully, in the last few episodes of the series, Jesse receives the exact punishment he feels he deserves for his sins.  He is imprisoned, chained up for at least a year and forced to cook meth for neo-Nazis, with no hope of ever escaping.  Jesse pays a heavy price for his actions.  And that’s why, at the end, Jesse is the one who escapes and can begin again—whereas Walt’s fate in Hell is sealed.

But as Jesse drives away, as he escapes from the cage he’s been trapped in since high school…is there hope?

Jesse is a leader who thinks he’s a follower.

Vince Gilligan

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Jesse’s final fate is, as is the case with many  final episodes, deliberately left vague so that the audience can make up their own mind about what happens.  But it seems to me, that as we see Jason driving away, laughing, tears in his eyes—and after seeing the flashback to him making the box, earlier in the episode—that now, after everything Jesse has been through, he’ll finally get to begin again.

Jesse’s done his time in Hell, but unlike Walt, he refuses to be unalterably corrupted; the fact that Jesse doesn’t kill Walt in the end, like so many of us expected him to, is an amazing revelation.   Also, notice the positioning of the characters in this picture, an image that has been making the rounds on Twitter:

breakbad last look jesse

Breaking Bad is a series that, from the beginning, has used highly cinematic imagery, repetition, color coding and cinematography to convey deeper meanings.  The similarity between these two sequences is not a coincidence – and it’s not a minor callback, either.  Sure, it certainly is there to show how tired and haggard both characters have become—it obviously displays how much pain they’ve been through in the last two years, and how roughly they’ve come out of it.  But there’s far more to it than that—and the placement of the characters in this shot is so brilliantly subtle that I still can’t believe how well done it is.  The sequence shown above, from the final episode, is a deliberate mirror image of the sequence from the first episode, with one hugely important difference:

The characters are reversed.

Consider this.  In the sequence from the pilot episode, we have Walter White coming from the foreground, our side of the TV screen – which is where we are, right?—and then Jesse is standing in the back, at a distance.  Why?  Because at this point, Walter is us.  Walter is the good guy, whereas Jesse is a symbol of the dark, criminal future that Walter is being tempted by.  Jesse is on the wrong side of the tracks, Jesse is a drug dealer, and Walter is walking toward him, joining him.

But now, look again at the shot from Felina, the finale.  Notice something?

This time, Walter is on the dark side.  Walter is the bad guy, Walter is the one facing us, openly displaying the monster he’s become.  And now, Jesse—the former drug dealer, the one we originally thought was the bad guy—well, it turns out that Jesse is now on our side.  He’s us.  And unlike Episode 1’s Walter, who was going into the darkness (which was Jesse), this new Jesse that we see in the finale episode is actually escaping from that darkness (which is Walt).

It’s a fantastic twist, really, as well as a brilliant, morally complex statement; the character we rooted for at the beginning has become the villain, and the “druggie burnout” we initially wrote off turned out to be a flawed-yet-decent human being with a moral compass, values, and everything that we originally thought Walter had.

Jesse is the hero—a tortured, sometimes fragile “hero” who has made some pretty bad mistakes, but has paid the price for them, and wants to redeem himself.  Jesse deserves his escape.  He deserves the new life that he can now create for himself out in Alaska, New Zealand or wherever he chooses – because finally, whatever he does now, it’s his choice. 

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Again, compare this to Walter.  While some reviewers believe that Walter has a redemptive arc in the final episode, I find that reasoning rather flimsy; while Walter certainly does make a few redemptive actions—revealing where Hank’s body is, saving Jesse’s life, etc—he clearly doesn’t actually redeem himself, because he doesn’t have any regrets.  Even at the end of his life, Walter refuses to feel regret.

Really, let’s look at this honestly.  Why does Walter come back?

To tie up loose ends.  To get even.

Sure, he finally admits that his actions throughout the series were for him, not his family—but notice how when he admits this, when he says that being Heisenberg made him feel alive…it’s not that he’s regretting his actions, it’s just that he’s not making stupid excuses for them anymore.  He is a man fully conscious of how terrible he is, but he’s also a man who ceased to care about morality a long time ago.  He cares about his loved ones, sure—Jesse included—but moral values?  Ethics?  Doing the right thing?  Walter doesn’t care about that one bit.

And at the end, the very end, when he goes into the meth lab…instead of being filled with regret or pain, instead of mourning over the many lives he’s ruined, he looks at all of the chemistry equipment affectionately, proudly.  He seems to reminiscence on the empire he built.  He’s proud of what he did, and that’s why, as he dies, he dies with a smile on his face—because in the end, Walter proved to be a man who could never, never admit his own failures, not even to himself.  To Walter, pride was everything.

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Walter White is one of the most powerful characters in TV history, with an absolutely incredible performance by Bryan Cranston and a fantastic writing team behind him.  He’s a character that manages to be both likeable and unlikeable, sympathetic and malicious, protagonist and antagonist.  He’s the reason that Breaking Bad is the series it is, and he’s a character that will live on in TV history forever.  But without Jesse – without the flawed moral compass that Jesse came to provide, as the series went on – the series would not have been the same.  The twisted father/son dynamic between these two characters was by far the most important relationship of the series.

Yes, Walter’s downfall was the backbone of Breaking Bad—but Jesse was Breaking Bad’s heart.

-Nicholas Conley

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11 thoughts on “The True “Hero” of Breaking Bad

  1. Nicholas, as i said when i shared the link on Facebook, this is a great post. I commented in one of my BBB’s (Breaking Bad blogs) that W.W. is a classic example of a character in Greek tragedy. While Walter turns into a monster by the start of the 5th season, Jesse, although corrupted, has the capacity to feel pain, guilt and regret. Well done, sir.

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