Freaks And Geeks: Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, And The Moral Vision of ‘Breaking Bad’

“I’ve done a terrible thing. But I’ve done it for a good reason. I did it for us. That is college tuition for Walter Jr. And Holly, eighteen years down the road. And it’s health insurance for you and the kids. For Jr.’s physical therapy. His SAT tutor. It’s money for groceries, gas, for birthdays and graduation parties. Skyler, that money is for this roof over your head. The mortgage that you are not going to be able to afford on a part-time bookkeeper’s salary when I’m gone.” -Walter White

“New Zealand, that’s where they, uh, that’s where they made Lord of the Rings! I say we just move there, yo! I mean, you could do your art, right? Like, you could like paint the local castles and shit, and I can be a bush pilot!” -Jesse Pinkman

Pretty much as long as we’ve had television, we’ve used that medium to explore manichean struggles between good and evil. For much of television history, figuring out who’s on what side’s been relatively simple: cops and robbers, cops and rapists, cops and murderers. Perry Mason was a defense attorney, sure, but his clients almost always turned out not to have committed the crimes of which they were accused. If our moral art was about dividing the guilty from the innocent, that was a fairly easy project. The Wire basically preserved the distinction between criminals and the law, but suggested that there were people worth of sympathy on both sides of the divide. To a certain extent, Breaking Bad is the inverse of The Wire. Both criminals and the law are equally dislikable. And the key moral question of the show isn’t whether people commit crimes, or inflict vast damage on society. It’s about how clearly they see themselves, and what they’re doing.

I. Freaks

Where The Wire sketches a broad picture of the impact of the drug trade on society, the show doesn’t spend a lot of time with actual addicts. It’s a systematic show rather than an interior one. We see Bubbles on the nod, but not what it’s like to be on the nod. It’s characteristic of the interiority of Breaking Bad that we spend much more time with addicts, most important among them Jesse.

One of my biggest challenges with Breaking Bad has been the way the show handles origin stories. Jesse is probably my strongest emotional entry point into the story: the specificities of his fragility make me feel tender about him, the scene where he takes the fall with his parents for the joint his little brother had, then refuses to give the joint back to him feels incredibly familiar. In a way, his drug use is a much saner response to the intense pressure he and Walter are under than Walt’s stoicism. But I’m curious how Jesse got from that manicured house, those manicured parents, to addiction and to petty thuggery. Jesse has as crabbed a sense of the world as one of the kids in Roland Pryzbylewski’s class: “Is New Zeland part of Australia?” he asks Jane after Walt capitulates and gives him his share of their first big sale to Gus. “New Zeland is New Zeland,” she tells him. But it’s not as if he was abandoned. There’s something interesting there, about the way people back into mental closets and shut the door without being aware they’re doing it, or what they’re leaving behind in the light, that’s unexplored.

But in trying to make the horrors of meth use specific and grotesque, I think Breaking Bad sometimes ends up creating an emotional remove from the things it’s portraying. Take the season two arc where two methheads rob one of Jesse’s distributors, leaving him and Walt short both money and product. When Jesse goes to get both back, he finds the situation’s worse than he imagines. These two scabbed, twitchy addicts who look like Baba Yagas, like woods creatures out of Grimm’s fairy tales, they have a kid, unfed, underdressed, clearly undereducated and maybe even facing substantial communications deficits, but a kid none the less. While he’s waiting for them to come home, Jesse feeds him, watches cartoons with him, and when his mother kills his father in a uniquely brutal, emotionally detached way, Jesse calls 911 before fleeing the scene so the kid will make his way into family services.

But it’s the murder everyone remembers, the fact that, tweaked out of her mind, this woman literally pushes an ATM machine onto her husband’s head, squashing it flat in an act of supreme indifference. At first, Jesse gets credit for it, and the reputation for brutality that protects him and Walt for a while as they push out into new territory. Then, the woman confesses, and they’re vulnerable again. But if your’e really interested in illustrating the depravity that meth use can induce, you don’t need the baroqueness of the ATM machine and the crushed head. You need to force the audience to confront the little kid with the runny nose.

Walt’s contempt for the people who use his product makes sense, both from a moral perspective, and because it helps him distance himself from the damage he’s causing in the name of protecting his family. “We tried to poison you because you’re an insane, degenerate piece of filth and you deserve to die,” he spits at Tuco, when the hyperactive drug dealer takes Walt and Jesse hostage. The problem is, rather than treating these people as actual people who Walt damages, and leaches off of, and kills, the show participates in Walt’s diminishment of them. Tuco isn’t actually a person: the fact that he provides some minimal level of care for his aging uncle is the only human detail we have about him. Otherwise, he’s a snorting and beating machine. Similarly, the addicts Jesse fights with might have been people once, but we meet them when they’re essentially feral creatures. Rather than the show humanizing addicts as a way to illustrate Walt’s increasing cognitive dissonance and amorality, Breaking Bad participates, I think, in Walt’s worldview in a way that flattens the show’s moral power a bit.

Jane is an exception, obviously, but she’s emblematic of a problem of both the show’s origin stories problem, and its tendency to cycle through storylines faster than it seems it actually needs to. She’s there one minute, Jesse’s fantasy girl, and the next, she’s choking to death on her own vomit. The show demonstrates the cost of that death by making it explosive, by spreading the emotional fallout all over Albuquerque in the form of twisted metal and charred flesh and one-eyed teddybears. While Breaking Bad forces everyone to participate in Jane’s father’s grief, the show does it indirectly, shying away from actually showing him breaking down as he oversees the removal of her body, as he walks out of an FAA office into a bouquet of flashbulbs. One of the things I find fascinating about the show is its tendency to use magical realism to show us things that are strange but so overwhelming that we can’t quite reckon with them, whether it’s it’s Tortuga’s head gliding by on a turtle or the teddy bear’s wandering eye. Saul Goodman’s the warmest-blooded example of this tendency in a show, in clear competition with Lauren Ambrose’s character on Torchwood: Miracle Day for the title of my favorite mass-culture Mephistopheles.

II. Geeks

All of these critiques aside, the specificity of Walt’s relationship with Jesse is powerful, and powerful because of its contradictions rather than its clarity. Walt will watch Jane die in bed next to Jesse and fail to intervene because he believes Jesse is better off without her. He will, as we see at the beginning of the fourth season, risk death to protect Jesse. He’ll claim Jesse as his nephew, talking to Jane’s father at a bar as she is, presumably, overdosing off-screen. Walt will call Jesse “son” when he pulls him out of a drug den. But Walt is Jesse’s father in an old-Testament patriarch sense, judging, brow-beating, perpetually disappointed sense, rather than a modern and purely loving one. I think the moment that Walt really first struck me as a monster is the scene where he mocks Jesse for wanting to go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum with Jane — Walt’s willing to expand Jesse’s horizons when it comes to making up the chemistry education Jesse failed to absorb in high school, when it comes to the basic economics knowledge that it takes to expand their business, but no further. He needs Jesse to stay limited, to stay dependent on Walt for his glimpse of light outside the mental closet.

There’s a real tragedy to that dynamic. When Jane mocks Jesse for caring about Walt’s opinion, saying “What’s he going to do? Give you a B-minus? Send you outside to clap the erasers?” she misses how much Walt’s esteem means to Jesse, how much Walt’s achievements with chemistry expand Jesse’s sense of wonder and excitement. That Jesse keeps calling Walt “Mr. White” is one of my favorite things in the show, the younger man maintaining faith in the system because of a man who is manifestly unworthy of his deference and respect. In the scathing third-season scene in Jesse’s hospital room after Hank beats Jesse into a pulp when Jesse confronts Walt about how awful his life is since the two of them hooked up, it seems like Jesse might be able to break away from Walt. But all it takes is Walt telling his wounded partner “Your meth is good, Jesse. As good as mine,” and they’re back together. In this fucked-up cosmology, Walt may not be God, but the ideal seems to be that position which is furthest from the light.

There are obvious legal and operational reasons for Walt to want to keep Jesse locked down. But it’s also a larger part of Walt’s social interactions that, as I’ve thought about them more, seem characteristic of a nerd who never quite recovered. I think it’s a major plausibility issue for the entire show that the reasons for Walt’s split from Gray Matter Technologies aren’t really explained, and that it’s not particularly clear why someone with his skills isn’t, say, working at DARPA. But I suppose if the show isn’t going to sketch in the specific mechanics of his self-destruction, I can accept Walter’s anger at the world as somehow familiar, the rage of a man who will always see himself as victimized whether he’s ensnaring his former friends and lovers in a lie, getting kicked out of his house by his wife, who is understandably upset that he’s cooking meth, or lashing out at his partner for forging ahead in the criminal enterprise he walked away from. If Walt had been demonstrably wronged in any of these circumstances, we could sympathize with him. Instead, Jesse was wrong when he asked Walt in the first season “Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what — 60? He’s just gonna break bad?” Once we know Walt, it’s relatively clear that manufacturing drugs is the thing he was looking for all along: he didn’t break bad, he always was.

Paulie wrote in comments that he thought it was somewhat odd that I thought Walt was impossible to deal with in early seasons of the show, noting that he finds Skylar the more difficult character: “Once Skylar broke bad herself in the third season, she started becoming way more sympathetic.” I think that’s true to a certain extent, but I think it’s more that Skylar crossed over from the dominant morality of the world, from the rules that Walt thinks have screwed him, into agreement with his morality. It’s a sign of how effective the show is that it’s easier to agree with Walt’s worldview than it is to resist it, that there isn’t a viable alternative vision for us to agree with. But in this inverted world, the things that make Walt admirable by conventional standards actually make him less sympathetic, more limited, than Jesse.

Walt may be better-educated than Jesse, Walt and Skylar may have more noble stated ambitions than Jesse, but Walt’s more emotionally and morally limited than his junkie junior partner. “You either run from things, or you face them, Mr. White,” Jesse tells Walt after his stint in rehab. “I’m the bad guy.” And he never seems to really lose sight of that, even as he continues to use drugs, even as he continues working for Walt. In the episodes of Breaking Bad I’ve seen from this season (I’m one ahead of the actual air schedule), there’s an element of Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost in Jesse’s performance: “Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. / O then at last relent: is there no place/ Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?.” There’s no revelry in the nightmarish bacchanal Jesse’s created in his parents’ old house, just a profound knowledge. Walt, on the other hand, in that same post-rehab episode declares to Saul, “I can’t be the bad guy,” and lets Gus sucker him back into the meth game with the reassurance that since he has done what he’s done for his family “then they weren’t bad decisions…a man provides.” I wonder if this season will be about Walt’s crabbed vision, his inability to understand just because he’s doing what he does to support his family, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t become the man in the black hat, the monster in Gus’ custom-built basement.