Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jesse Pinkman, the Killer with a Conscience, the Boy Searching for his Lost Innocence

Between ‘just desserts’ and ‘tragic irony’ we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent. Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they reasonably get. (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Poor Jesse Pinkman. He began as a lost child cast out by parents practicing tough love upon him. They released him into the wild in order to protect their second son, one who dissembles enough to con his parents into believing he’d never stash a joint in their house. Jesse takes the blame, his own profligacy driving him to protect the boy from harsh parental judgements.

Too young to make good choices and friends with guys without a strong internalized moral code, Jesse operates in a opportunistic underground. He and his friends make money by selling meth and spending much of their income on meth or other illegal escapes.

Both wastrel and waif, Jesse drifts into a partnership with Walter White, his former Chemistry teacher, and soon, he’s disposing of his first body, an interloper felled when Mr. White’s clever use of chemicals cooks the crook's lungs. This event and the fallout forever seal the relationship. Mr. White, originally the Alpha by virtue of an education and his age, earns a permanent Alpha crown never to be challenged for it again. He outwits and mans up more than once to save Jesse and himself while growing their meth business into the best because together, Jesse and Mr. White produce the best, purest meth.

Jesse learns a work ethic and becomes an excellent meth cook, but he still likes to indulge, to get high. His is an addictive personality, and he cannot ignore what he’s done. He melts that first dead body using acid, an act that requires a strong stomach and a commitment that few of us possess. He must look upon the body formerly animated as a thing for the sewer, a glob of flesh, nothing more. 

Walter has his own body to deal with, a partner to the body Jesse liquidates, but Walter’s burden is alive, tied up in Jesse’s basement where he plots to kill Walter and save himself. Walter is too clever, however, and realizes the danger just in time. He kills the man, clumsily but finally. Now Walter has taken two lives, and Jesse has helped him dispose of the waste. Walter will go on to kill two more in order to save and protect Jesse, but thereafter, he prefers to order and orchestrate the deaths of enemies and threats, rarely doing his own blood work. Jesse, Mike, Todd, and Todd’s contacts are the killers.

Only Jesse feels sorrow. He’s horrified by what he’s done and grows more and more reckless. He seeks solace in drug-induced stupors and women in need, one of whom overdoses with Walter looking on, doing nothing to save her, instead letting her go so that Jesse’s loyalties and time will no longer be divided. Jesse never suspects.

"Esperanza Sky," A Photo by Al Griffin

Jesse also feels with the children. While in the home of meth derelicts, Jesse empathizes with the toddler and calls authorities in behalf of the child. Later, when he meets Andrea, Jesse lifts her and her son from jeopardy, poor neighborhoods, and want. What he cannot save her from is Mr. White who manipulates Jesse into trusting him once more by saving the boy. What Jesse does not know is that the boy nearly died as a result of Walter’s use of a chemical toxin in a plant that happens to grow in pots beside Mr. White's backyard pool. Worse, the boy survives only to become a waif like Jesse when Jesse's efforts to shed the skin of a criminal brings Andrea back into jeopardy. She's slaughtered, leaving the boy without his mother. 

Jesse could not anticipate that Todd would execute Andrea, but he knew how cold-blooded were Todd's kin, and he strove to leave them and their evil behind.  Unable to abide the barbarism that accompanies drug-making and dealing, Jesse must withdraw to survive; he loathes himself for his role, however tangentially, in any death accidental or undertaken with malice aforethought. He might have killed himself had Mike not shown him another way, befriending the boy even as he tests his loyalties and tries to salvage his meth-making talents for Gus Fring. For Jesse, Mike is a father-figure, capable of passing on life lessons and hard truths, not just a loyal Fring advisor.

Mr. White’s ambition ruins that temporary place Jesse finds safe. Walter executes Gus Fring, freeing himself to take over as Heisenberg and deliver pure meth to an international market. Mike and Jesse do not want to accompany Walter on his ascension to number-one meth provider. They want to take their money and live so they negotiate an exit even though Walter does not want to let them go.

"Chain," A Photo by Al Griffin

Then Mike disappears. Viewers know that Mr. White killed him, but Jesse can only suspect. Nevertheless, Jesse cannot go on without a Mike alive somewhere in this world. Afraid to answer the door if Mr. White is on the other side, ashamed of his ill-gotten gains, and unwilling to return to Andrea lest he endanger her, Jesse slides into another depression made worse by alcohol. He gives away his money in a foolish, public way, bringing him under scrutiny and ultimately into the clutches of Hank Schrader desperate to prove Walter’s guilt. And once again, Jesse falls under the spell of a father-figure. He agrees to help bring down Walter White, but finds he doesn’t--cannot feel clean again. Sullied and as lost as ever, Jesse tries to outwit Walter White, but Todd shows up and sees Jesse’s potential--not as a guy in need of second-chances, not as a young man in pain, but as an excellent meth cook.

So the hell that Jesse hoped to escape, the hell that has soured his soul and raised a stench from deep within him is the hell he must endure. He’s still part of making meth, of raw ambition, of greed. He dwells among dissemblers, murderers, and thieves. And his drive to escape only leads him to more sorrow: Andrea's execution as a lesson against escape.

Just desserts? I don’t think so. Jesse is flawed. He’s fallen, his belly in the dust, more than once. He’s suffered in the knowledge of his deeds. Like Lady Macbeth, he’s found that there is not enough perfume on earth to sweeten his filthy hands, soothe him to sleep, or cleanse his spirit. He even tried to redeem himself by bringing down Mr. White whom Jesse now knows is a devil, but he failed and fell into the muck once more.

"Evening Sky," A Photo by Al Griffin

But the end to which Jesse seems to have come is definitely tragic irony. Others may have stumbled upon good fortune here or there, but Fortune never graced poor Jesse. He tried to rise, to create his own good fortune, but was denied. Like Oedipus, Jesse has been cursed by his own hand. And irony imbues Jesse’s tragic end because what he most desires to escape is what he runs into headlong. For him, things have come to an end for they have gotten as bad as they can reasonably get.

Reading Challenge:

Read Breaking Bad from Episode 1 to the last.

Writing Challenge:


Jesse Pinkman is a foil, an antagonist, and a tragic figure. Choose just one of his roles and develop an analytical literary essay about it.

Post Script: Last week, Walter White seemed to care about his family. Their need--not for a moral center--but for money drives him into the snow in order to send a box of cash to them. When he calls to inform his son, Walter hears his son's disdain and appears to care. He even calls the DEA in order to confess, we guess, but when he sees a televised Charlie Rose interview with his former business partners, the ones who now belong in the world of Corporate Wealth, he departs, moved, it seems, by their dismissal of him as gone, dead in spirit, not the man that the wife once loved. Once more, it appears that money and power and vengeance are the sirens who sing to Walter, not family, but the final episode on Sunday will show us the ends to which this man brings himself.