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Remembering the Worst ‘Breaking Bad’ Character, Jesse Pinkman’s Punk Brother

Who the hell was this oboe-playing, weed-smoking, smart-ass math wizard?!

Netflix/Ringer illustration

One problem with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie being set after the events of Breaking Bad is that basically everybody is already dead. (Oh, sorry: spoiler alert.) In the movie, Jesse Pinkman will turn from second fiddle into main attraction, and will apparently reunite with his friends Skinny Pete and Badger, the streetwise meth funnels he called his friends. But everyone else is gone: Walt, the show’s protagonist, is dead. The fourth guy who hung out with Jesse, the lip-gauge-sporting Combo, is dead. Gus Fring is dead. Mike Ehrmantraut is dead. The prison Nazis are dead. Lydia is dead. Hank is dead. Hank’s partner Steven Gomez is dead. Everybody with the last name “Salamanca” is dead. Jesse’s first girlfriend, Jane, is dead. Jesse’s second girlfriend, Andrea, is dead. ¡DON ELADIO ESTA MUERTO! ¡SUS CAPOS ESTAN MUERTOS!

Who else could Jesse possibly hang out with? Saul Goodman is alive, but he’s unreachable, managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, exactly as he predicted. Walt’s family is alive, but Jesse’s not exactly close with them. Maybe Jesse can track down Huell in the safehouse he’s presumably still waiting in, since Hank and Gomez told him to stay there and await further instructions before promptly dying. I dunno. Maybe he strikes up a friendship with a hospitalized Ted Beneke, or tries to get Twaüghthammër back together, or hangs out with that meth head who showed up at his parties to rant at length to nobody in particular about the dangers of being squeezed through a chain-link fence, like Play-Doh or some sort of soft meat?

Then again, there is one group of individuals with a legitimate, close link to Jesse who we can reasonably assume remains alive and unharmed by the violence of the meth industry: Jesse’s actual blood family, the Pinkmans. In the first few seasons of Breaking Bad, we periodically heard from Jesse’s disappointed parents. His father, Adam, set a hard line and refused to let Jesse back into the family after his repeated drug use. His mother, whose name went unmentioned, had a softer heart, but was eventually persuaded that the best way to help Jesse and protect her family was to cut him off. Jesse showed up at their house a few times, and at one point, Mrs. Pinkman helped Hank track Jesse down to Tuco Salamanca’s desert hideout. Then, in Season 3, the Pinkmans were blackmailed by an anonymous buyer as they tried to sell their house, forcing them to drastically lower the sale price. The buyer? Jesse, who purchased the house, straight cash, with his meth earnings. That emphatic victory provided a clean break for Jesse with his family: It was the last time we heard from the Pinkmans on Breaking Bad.

However, one member of the Pinkman clan didn’t even make it into Season 3: Jesse’s little brother, Jake. Jake is a clean-cut overachiever and clearly the apple of his parents’ eyes. He appeared in only one episode, “Cancer Man,” the fourth episode of the series. He is mentioned again as the Pinkmans clean out their house—his doting parents lament that the decreased sale price means they couldn’t afford to send young Jake to space camp—but Jake is never seen again.

There could be several reasons the youngest Pinkman never showed up again. There’s a believable explanation that fits the narrative: The Pinkmans were wildly protective of Jake; they refused to let Jesse even sit in the same room with him with the door closed. Perhaps Jesse just never got to see his little brother again, a subtle note about the consequences of Jesse’s lifestyle. There’s also a believable behind-the-scenes explanation: The child actor who played Jake, Ben Petry, had eight acting credits before he turned 15, including a role in 3:10 to Yuma, but none since 2009, the year after “Cancer Man” aired. It’s pretty common for child actors to realize acting isn’t their calling. Some light internet stalking reveals Petry went on to have a normal, non-acting life, playing for his college tennis team and going to dental school, so maybe Jake disappeared from the show because the actor who played him opted to attend middle school like a regular kid instead of shooting more scenes, and the show opted not to recast the role. But I’m going to stick with the explanation that makes the most sense to me: Jake absolutely sucked, and the show’s writers just decided to move on. Over the course of its run, Breaking Bad introduced us to all sorts of sociopaths and murderers, awful people who astound in their selfishness, evil, and cowardice—and yet Jake might be the show’s worst character.

Jake’s first flaw, both as a character and a human, is that he’s just too good. I get that the show’s writers wanted Jesse’s little brother to serve as a polar opposite of Jesse, a kid who diligently does his homework instead of making meth with his chemistry teacher. (“Cancer Man” is also the episode where Jesse discovers his old doodles in his childhood bedroom, including the one where Walter has a graduated cylinder shoved up his asshole.) But they went a bit overboard on the overachieving. Did they have to make Jesse’s little bro a damn Rhodes Scholar?

We first meet Jake when Jesse returns to the family home in a tight spot. Just a few episodes into the series, Jesse is still coming to understand the consequences of life as a meth producer. His attempt to dissolve the body of his former partner, Emilio, failed, leaving blood and organs scattered throughout his home. A paranoid meth binge convinced him that people are coming to kill him, and he decides to quit the game and move back in with his parents. There, he finds his parents sitting down to dinner with Jake, heaping praise on Jake’s prodigious skills. (“I’m telling you,” Papa Pinkman says, “you really shine on that oboe. You have real talent, and I’m not just saying that!”) Jesse later tries to sit in a room with Jake and reconnect, but Jake remains completely focused on his homework while his mom opens the door to keep a more watchful eye on the pair. In those two scenes, we learn a lot about Jake’s accomplishments.

  • He is his school’s “most distinguished mathlete,” per a plaque on his wall.
  • He received an “environmental consciousness award” for busting open a story about the chemicals used by a local paper company. (Or, as Jesse describes it, for “makin’ mad inroads with the business community!”)
  • He has no fewer than a dozen awards and medals for playing soccer.
  • He is a star on both the oboe and the piccolo, a source of conflict at the family dinner, where it is revealed that Jake’s music teachers are forcing him to choose between the two instruments. Jesse later finds Jake’s piccolo and mistakes it for a flute. (“Play some Jethro Tull,” he excitedly demands.)

This is where the show loses me. DO YOU GUYS REALIZE HOW HARD IT IS TO PLAY THE OBOE? I played clarinet in high school and I think I would faint before I managed to get a single note out of a double-reed instrument like the oboe. AND THIS KID IS ALSO PLAYING PICCOLO?!?!?!? An instrument from an entirely different branch of the woodwind family? The show’s writers could’ve portrayed Jake as an overachiever by having him be, like, captain of the swim team and a straight-A student. Instead they have him simultaneously dominating math, soccer, journalism, and two very different woodwind instruments.

The next problem is Jake’s age. It’s unclear how old Jake is supposed to be—a Breaking Bad wiki lists him as 14, although I can’t find any evidence on the show to confirm that. Suffice to say, the actor certainly does not look 14. According to IMDb, Petry was born in August 1995, which means he was 11 or 12 when Breaking Bad was filmed in 2007. So let’s say Jake is in seventh grade at the oldest. Quite frankly, that is way too young for all of this to be happening. My research into oboe playing (five or six Google searches of “how young should somebody start playing oboe”) reveals this website, which says oboe-ers (my word) begin learning to play around 10 or 11. I also found this message board post, where an oboe teacher says his students must be at least 9 and be “robust in physique” (i.e., not like scrawny little Jake). And I kind of thought “mathletes” was a high school thing, not a middle school thing, although I must confess my frame of reference on this stems primarily from Mean Girls.

And of course, there is the question of the weed. Jake’s story line ends when a maid finds a joint in a vase on the nightstand in Jesse’s bedroom and snitches. Jesse’s parents understandably believe the joint belongs to Jesse—honestly, a reasonable conclusion, considering they just allowed their drug-addicted son back into their house and days later weed showed up in his bedroom. They kick him out of the house for good. But as Jesse waits for a cab to pick him up, Jake sheepishly walks out of the house and thanks Jesse for taking the fall—the weed was actually Jake’s. Then! Jake has the gall to ask for the weed back, before Jesse vindictively stomps the joint on the ground and says, “It’s skunk weed, anyway.” Even in this act of cruelty, Jesse is in part being kind, preventing his brother from smoking trash weed. And even in Jake’s moment of utter embarrassment, he’s still selfish enough to ask for the weed back. Anyway, maybe I lived a sheltered life, but … did you guys know where to get weed when you were 11? Who the hell is this oboe-playing, weed-smoking, athletic, smart-ass math wizard?!

But the weed incident also reveals the biggest problem with Jake: He’s a punk-ass coward. First of all, we can assume that he planted the weed in Jesse’s room. He had the foresight to understand that his parents would be more likely to blame his druggie brother than him. But while Jake’s smart enough to concoct such a plot, he’s either too dumb or too callous to grasp the stakes of framing his big brother. If the Pinkmans had found weed in Jake’s room, what would’ve happened? They would’ve grounded him? Great, more time for Mr. Mathlete to do homework and practice his multiple woodwind instruments. But instead of facing minor punishment, Jake let Jesse take the fall and stood by idly as his parents sent him back out on the streets.

Of all the moments in the show when Jesse seems capable of avoiding the life of destruction he builds, his brief stay at his parents’ house is perhaps the one with the most potential. After life as a low-level cook, his brief foray into high-scale meth production with Walter nearly got him killed several times, and caused the deaths of two people he previously trusted—and barely made him any money. He’s spooked, broke, and seems willing to work his way back into his parents’ good graces. Then Jake comes along, gets Jesse kicked out, and within a few minutes of the beginning of the next episode, Jesse is talked into cooking again by Badger. It’s probably dumb to assume Jesse could’ve gotten back to normalcy after a stint in the Pinkman house, but thanks to Jake, he never got the chance.

I can imagine a world where this is part of a grand master plan by Jake. There’s a moment in their first scene together when Jesse implies that the Pinkmans prefer their smart son to their druggie dropout. Jake disagrees. “I’m the favorite?” Jake snaps. “You’re practically all they ever talk about!” What if, seasons later, it had been revealed that Jake, perpetually pissed that he’s accomplished so much and still can’t win the attention of his parents, concocted this scheme to get Jesse out of the house once and for all? Like a newborn baby bird shoving unhatched eggs out of the nest, Jake would have secured his family’s plentiful resources to ensure his success as an athlete/mathlete/musician/social activist. He’d fit in with so many of the sociopaths who populate Breaking Bad. It took Walter 50 years before he acquired the cutthroat cunning to try ruining Jesse’s life with planted drug-laced cigarettes. What if Jake figured it out in middle school? But Jake never comes back. We’re left to assume that Jake was just a spoiled brat trying to avoid punishment for C-grade weed.

Breaking Bad is the only show I’ve seen where every subsequent season is better than the last. Part of that is because of the preposterously executed buildup that leads to the grand finale. Part of it is because the first season, while great, is occasionally dull and has some missteps. (Only two of the seven first-season episodes cracked the top 30 of our ranking.) For a while there, the show’s writers seemed to believe the coolest thing that could happen on Breaking Bad was for Walt to defeat drug dealers with cool chemistry tricks. (This happens like four times in Season 1.) But another part of it is that, simply, the writers trimmed the fat and eliminated parts of the show that weren’t working—and by “parts” I mean “Jake Pinkman.”

There could be logical and practical explanations for why Jake never shows up after the fourth episode, sure. But I prefer to imagine that the writers just looked at him and said “Wow, that kid really sucked.”