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Character Study: Jesse Pinkman

With ‘El Camino’ on the horizon, we take a look at the ‘Breaking Bad’ character who was Walter White’s antithesis

Ringer illustration

If you search for Jesse Pinkman on YouTube, there are two kinds of videos you’ll find in droves: compilations of all the times the Breaking Bad character said “bitch” and videos that chart all the awful stuff that’s happened to him. The channel WatchMojo took it a step further with a Top 10 Worst Things to Happen to Jesse Pinkman ranking—which, if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad in a while, is a grueling exercise that culminates with the weirdly chirpy narrator saying, “Number one: He was made a slave.” (Hard to argue with that!) Weirdly though, watching Jesse say “bitch” a lot and be put through absolute hell at once both oversimplifies the character’s journey on the series and captures what made him such a compelling, vexing, and tragic figure.

The reason publications like ours have any reason to revisit Aaron Paul’s Jesse is, of course, because Netflix is releasing El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie on Friday, which will follow him in the aftermath of the series finale that aired six years ago. Though creator Vince Gilligan has teased that “more than 10 familiar characters” from the Breaking Bad universe will make appearances—noteworthy, if only because so many characters of import are already dead—all signs point toward this movie sequel being a Jesse-centric vehicle (no pun intended for the actual El Camino he’s driving). It’s a decent compromise. The latter stages of Breaking Bad’s final season focused so much on Walter White; it’s only fair that Jesse—whose final moments on the show amounted to a giant ellipsis, freed from his neo-Nazi imprisonment and driving off toward an uncertain future—gets a cinematic grace note.

That Jesse didn’t just survive Breaking Bad, but has warranted his own sequel film, is an accomplishment in and of itself—especially when you consider the character’s initial trajectory. Originally, Jesse was intended to be a conduit for Walt’s entrance to New Mexico’s drug empire before dying in the first season, among the first in a long line of Heisenberg’s casualties. Instead, Jesse’s existence became a fascinating—and arguably, necessary—antithesis to Walt’s moral decay.

From the outside, Walt seemed like a normcore citizen, and even his apparent intentions for cooking crystal meth—using his skills as a chemist to provide for his family following a terminal cancer diagnosis—could be perceived as a moral imperative. Conversely, Jesse was your run-of-the-mill high school dropout, whose only function (to Walt) was being enough of a scumbag to know the ins and outs of selling drugs on the streets of Albuquerque. If you started Breaking Bad without knowing of the Heisenbergian chaos to come, it was easy—encouraged, even—to consider Jesse on those terms. Jesse wasn’t the guy you were there to root for; he was just the mope along for the ride.

But just as Breaking Bad slowly exposed Walt’s true nature—that of a self-gratifying sociopath trying to satiate his ego by becoming the mythic Heisenberg—it revealed the complicated humanity inherent to Jesse. The further the two cooks plunged into their (lucrative, grade-A) work, the harder it was for Jesse to turn the other cheek from the horrors he enabled. (See: the standout Season 2 episode, “Peekaboo” when Jesse encounters two meth heads and their mute, malnourished child.) This didn’t make Jesse a saint—far from it, he was complicit in enabling the expansion of Heisenberg’s empire for most of the series—but his moral reckoning was, for the low standards of this show’s seedy characters, a lifeline for Breaking Bad’s audience. As Walt continued to reveal himself as a monster, Jesse became more and more sympathetic. (To be clear: Skyler White deserved viewer sympathy most of all, but drew a lot of unfounded and sexist ire for reacting like any rational person would to finding out their partner was an aspiring drug lord.)

There were other through lines on the series crucial to understanding Jesse. For one, he always had a soft spot for children—first with the aforementioned malnourished kid and later with his girlfriend Andrea’s son, Brock. Jesse’s affinity for kids was a weakness that Walt could use to his advantage, punctuated by Heisenberg’s poisoning of Brock with Lily of the Valley berries and pinning the blame on Gus Fring to maintain Jesse’s allegiance. That was also the tragedy of associating with Walt: Jesse thought of him not just as a mentor, but a father and authority figure. (He never stopped calling him “Mister White.”) It was a dynamic that Walt picked up on and often manipulated to his advantage. In Season 3, Jesse unloaded a heart-wrenching monologue in the hospital after Hank Schrader beat him to a pulp, accounting for all the ways Walt has ruined his life; all Walt had to do was tell Jesse that he’s his proverbial number one boy to get him back in the saddle.

That manipulation even led to Jesse’s point of no return: killing Gale on Walt’s orders in the Season 3 finale, which would force Gus to continue allowing the two of them to live/keep cooking meth for his empire. If the situations were reversed, Walt would’ve shot Gale without much in the way of remorse, but the murder becomes an irremovable stain on Jesse’s soul. And that’s the thing: Any of these moments Jesse experienced in Breaking Bad is devastating in a vacuum; taken as a whole, they amount to a tortured existence for one of television’s most distressing and multifaceted characters. Jesse was simultaneously a victim and an orchestrator of his own demise.

If redemption isn’t in the cards in El Camino—and it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen in the movie; the trailers have been nothing if not super ambiguous—then hopefully Jesse can achieve some type of solace. After leaving Jesse’s fate intentionally uncertain in the series finale, Gilligan told Entertainment Weekly that his own hope was that the character moved to Alaska so he could live a peaceful life surrounded by nature (isn’t that what we all want for ourselves?). It’s nice to get the creators’ endorsement for a character’s happy ending—with El Camino, though, the ball is officially in Gilligan’s court. Jesse made a lot of egregious mistakes in his life before and after he teamed up with Walt—but good god, he’s been through enough, hasn’t he? Lest you need another reminder, Netflix provided its own recounting of the character’s journey as a prelude to El Camino. Like most other Jesse Pinkman YouTube videos, it’s a portrait of despair.