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.

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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:

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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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The Man, the Animal, THE WOLVERINE (2013)

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What kind of man calls himself the Wolverine?  Is he a hero?  A mercenary?  A psychopath?  Is he a diamond in the rough—or do his sins run deep enough that, once his external trappings are removed, the world’s favorite X-man is revealed to be nothing more than an animalistic killer in a hero’s clothes?

These are the questions asked by the surprisingly existential 2013 comic book film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma).  Putting aside much of the futuristic, superpower-heavy, highflying theatrics of previous X-Men films—aside from a new noteworthy action scenes and a sci-fi heavy finale—The Wolverine is, at its core, a character study of its title character.  It’s a film that sets out with the ambitious task of showing us who Logan is, explaining who Logan was, and redefining what Logan can become.

Unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film isn’t really an X-Men movie; hell, it’s almost a stretch to even call it a superhero movie, and that’s exactly what makes it so intriguing.

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Art by Frank Miller.

Taking inspiration from the classic 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller limited series—often described by fans as “the Japan storyline”—The Wolverine largely moves away from the mutants vs. humans, segregation and anti-prejudice themes that have dominated the X-Men up until this point.  Instead of trying to win the audience with cool mutant cameos, The Wolverine instead puts its focus squarely on Logan.  The film places us in the role of an Anubis, weighing an ostrich feather against Logan’s heavy, heavy heart; it forces us to judge the soul of the man we’ve spent so many movies rooting for, to decide whether this animalistic killer with adamantium claws is really the damaged hero we hope he is—or whether he is a lost cause.

The comic books have often tackled the issue of Wolverine’s morality, most recently in Jason Aaron and Renato Guedes’s Wolverine Goes to Hell.  In fact, it was the aforementioned Claremont/Miller series that first revealed a deeper side to the character.  Before then, the depth of Wolverine’s inner torment—the idea of him being a failed samurai, instead of just a scrappy antihero—had never been fully examined.  However, The Wolverine marks the first time that this issue has been explored on film, other than occasional hints of it in X2: X-Men United.

Who is Logan?  Does he have any honor?  What drives him?  What defines him?

Art by John Cassaday.

Art by John Cassaday.

Over the course of the last decade, Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book characters of all time—and this has resulted in a certain level of overexposure, which in turn has led to him often being written incorrectly.  To understand the complexity of Wolverine’s character—to grasp what turned this feral wild man into the breakout star of the X-Men franchise—it’s important to get away from any misinterpretations and go back to the beginning.   The first thing to understand about Wolverine is that he’s not in any way the archetypical action hero that his critics might try to pin him as.  He’s also not the stereotypical gruff, angry badass with a heart of gold, who always has a plan, and always gets the job done.

No, at his core, what makes Logan so interesting is that he’s a failure.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

Yes, a failure.  This is a man who, in a lifetime that spans over a hundred years, has failed at essentially everything he’s ever set out to do.  Almost every woman he’s ever loved, from Rose to Silver Fox to Jean, has died a violent death.  He’s a man who desperately needs to have a purpose, a man who has a clear idea of the noble figure he wants to become, but who is continually overwhelmed by his base urges.  He’s a man who wants to escape from the senseless violence that has always defined his life, but whose bestial instincts are so powerful that he’s never been able to overcome them, no matter how hard he tries.  Wolverine can never quite expel his violent tendencies, he can only direct them at the right people.  The Weapon X project—the terrible science experiment that turned him into a living weapon—was merely the tip of the iceberg.

This is the ultimate tragedy of the character, his terrible Achilles Heel, and the very essence of what makes us root for him.  Wolverine, when written correctly, is not the unemotional, brutish, arrogant powerhouse that critics often try to portray him as—if anything, he’s exactly the opposite.  Logan is a deeply vulnerable, highly passionate creature, a traumatized loner who struggles to balance the terrifying rage inside him with his deep desire to do good in the world, and to help others.  He knows that he’s a failure, and his efforts to find purpose (and momentary happiness) in a harsh world form the backbone of Wolverine’s best stories.

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The cage fight scene in the first X-Men movie—the sequence that introduced Hugh Jackman’s Logan to the world—is a beautiful illustration of the character’s flawed nature.  In that scene, we’re shown a powerful, fiercely strong-willed man, wasting his life away in meaningless bar fights against truckers he could trounce in a heartbeat—and yet, he doesn’t pop his claws.

In The Wolverine, James Mangold displays a clear desire to go back to that Logan—to take us back to the man we saw in that cage.  It’s no coincidence that one of Logan’s first scenes is, once again, a bar fight.  Comparing the meaningless cage battle in X-Men with the driven, angry bar fight in The Wolverine—a fight that Logan initiates out of loyalty to a senselessly slaughtered grizzly bear—the audience is shown just how much Logan has changed since that time…but also how, even after his time in the X-Men, the same demons continue to haunt him.

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The Wolverine wants us to reexamine everything we think we know about Logan.  To achieve this ambitious look into Wolverine’s core, Mangold’s film essentially puts Logan on the operating table, cuts him open, and then removes every trait we normally associate with the character.  The idea here is to get at the truth of who Wolverine is, beyond the more materialistic aspects we generally identify him with.

So, what does this mean?  Put it this way—in The Wolverine, Logan’s status as an X-Man is gone, past history; evidently, the end of X-Men: The Last Stand left Logan a little bit of a wreck, and he’s suffered from nightmare after nightmare of Jean Grey—the woman he loved, the woman he killed in order to save the world—ever since.

What else?  Well, how about his distinctive hairstyle? That’s gone, too, replaced by long hair and a beard—though the classic hairstyle does return once he gets to Japan.  His costume?  Gone, and so is the familiar leather jacket that he’s worn ever since his first film appearance in 2000. But these things are minor points, overall.  Where The Wolverine really finds its voice—where it really cuts into Logan’s flesh like a carving knife—is when it takes away the one thing that has, until this point, defined Wolverine more than almost anything else.  The one thing that has always made Wolverine such a force to be reckoned with:

His immortality.

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The fact that the film tackles this issue is truly commendable; in the comics of the last decade or so, Wolverine’s “advanced healing” ability has often been over-exaggerated, used as a sort of deus ex machina to get him out of any tight situation.  But this film wisely steers away from that familiar course.  Instead, it’s brave enough to show us the downside.

See, here’s the thing that’s easy to forget; while healing from any injury might be a neat little trick to pull out in a fight, the whole “never aging” aspect tends to make for a fairly lonely life.

Remember, Wolverine has lived for over a century.  He’s watched every woman he’s ever loved die.  He’s never had a steady family.  He’s made a lot of enemies, fought for a lot of causes—but even when he does find a cause worth fighting for, as he did with Xavier’s X-Men, it’s only a matter of time before the battle is finished, and he has to move on once again.  As the world ages around him, he stays the same.

How could this not drive a man insane?

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So, in The Wolverine, Logan is given the chance to end his immortality, once and for all.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite explore this issue as much as one might hope; the dramatic situation is such that Wolverine never really has the chance to consider whether he really wants to die or not.  The movie’s other big flaw lies in its conclusion—after such a compelling and down to earth first and second acts, the sudden futuristic sci-fi blowout feels a bit forced.

Still, exploring the inherent problems that Logan’s immortality causes for him is an intriguing route to take, and there’s a handful of brilliant moments.  One of the best scenes in the film is a slow, tranquil sequence about halfway through, where Logan—now powerless—quietly reflects back on a time that he was offered a man’s sword at the bottom of a well.  What this scene accomplishes is that, instead of telling the audience that Logan is immortal, it shows us; it captures, for the first time in this franchise, what it would really feel like to be this immortal being, filled with memories he can’t always access. It’s a character-focused moment that one would never expect in a movie like this, and scenes like this are what make The Wolverine stand high above many of its contemporaries.

Of course, a lot of the credit for this also goes to Hugh Jackman.  Having played Wolverine in six movies now, it’s amazing how he continues to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to a part that, by now, he must know like the back of his hand.  Really, what’s most surprising about his performance here is that it’s his best one yet; the Logan in this movie truly is the Wolverine from the comics, ripped from the page to the screen.  It’s the same tortured, angry, vicious—yet surprisingly noble—character that has fascinated readers since the 1970s.

Jackman has truly embodied this character on the big screen, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing the claws; now that he’s set to make a seventh appearance as Wolverine in next years Days of Future Past extravaganza, it looks like Jackman isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that.

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So, then, we return to the same question; what kind of man calls himself “Wolverine,” and is that man a hero?

The film’s answer to this question, then, is a resounding yes—yes, Wolverine is a hero, but he’s a deeply flawed one.  However, as this movie’s total deconstruction of him proves, the reason that he’s a hero has nothing to do with his external traits.  Wolverine’s heroism doesn’t come from his costume, nor his adamantium skeleton, his healing factor, nor even his famous claws; no, what defines Wolverine is the fact that he’s a flawed man, a damaged man—with emotional wounds that don’t heal like his physical ones—but a man with good intentions, who fights for what he believes in.  Wolverine is the sort of hero who leaves a mess in his wake, a hero who often messes up, but in the end, he’s driven by a powerful sense of nobility, a strong sense of morals, a compelling urge to fight for a good cause.  That is what defines him.

Wolverine truly is a ronin—a samurai without a master.  That’s who he is, and that’s why The Wolverine, even with its flaws, is finally the Wolverine movie that we’ve always wanted.

-Nicholas Conley

Art by John Romita, Jr.