This post contains spoilers through the August 19 episode of Breaking Bad.
It says a lot about how frightening Breaking Bad can be that as Walt, Mike and Todd prepared to dispose of the dirt bike of the child Todd murdered at the end of last week’s episode, I became increasingly anxious to not see Jesse among their number. As the minutes ticked by, I found myself typing “Where’s Jesse?” and then more urgently, “Where the fuck is Jesse?” My anxiety had a happier answer than D’Angelo Barksdale’s queries. But as Breaking Bad nears its conclusion, it was an emotional reminder that anyone seems to be fair game in this fascinating, terrifying television show.
It was a fitting key in which to begin an episode that helped me pinpoint part of what I find so heartbreaking about Jesse. I have a weakness for characters who are trying hard to abide by social norms to be decent to people, but who end up failing or embarrassing themselves. When Herc asks out Beadie in the second season of The Wire, the worst part isn’t even her rejection of him — it’s Carver cracking on him for trying to be polite and classy. Last night it was agonizing to watch Jesse, stuck acting as a buffer between Mrs. and Mrs. White, try to turn a miserable situation into decent conversation, fail utterly both because the Whites are at war with each other, and because he lacks the resources to draw Skyler in.
“I like how you’ve got the slivered almonds going,” he tells her, the phrasing and the contents of the complement fitting awkwardly together. When she tells him that “They are from the deli at Albertsons,” her refusal to cook a gesture of contempt for Walt, Jesse keeps trying, insisting, “Well good work on your shopping then, because these are choice.” As he stumbles forward, the gap between his conversational aspirations and the emotional vocabulary he’s acquired becomes even more obvious, even as Jesse ends up articulating a painful truth about the confines of the life he’s cobbled together for himself. “I eat a lot of frozen stuff. It’s usually pretty bad,” he tells Skyler, who has no intention of engaging with him. “But the pictures are so awesome. it’s like, hell yeah, I’m starved for this lasagna. And then you nuke it, and the cheese gets all scabby on top, and it’s like you’re eating a scab. And seriously, what’s that about. It’s like, yo, whatever happened to truth in advertising? Yeah, it’s bad.” There’s no question that Jesse has made choices that have narrowed his sense of the world and the skills he has available to navigate it. But scenes like this show how far he’s come in a year, from the angry addict who rejected his parents to someone who is deeply, even overly receptive to some sort of mentorship. The tragedy of Jesse is that the choices he sees before him are Mike and Walter, both professional criminals. When your decision is between a professional killer and a megalomaniac, it’s not much of a decision at all, and Jesse’s desperation to keep both men in the same camp makes for an even more unstable environment.
Still, I found it a relief to see Jesse talk honestly to Walt about what his own ambitions and values are. “When you started this thing, did you ever dream of having $5 million? I know for a fact that you didn’t,” he tells Walt. “I know for a fact all you needed was $737,000 because you worked it out, like, mathematically. If selling the methylamine now means no one else ever gets killed then I vote for that, hands down…You could spend time with your family, no more worrying about them getting hurt or finding out. Hasn’t that what you’ve been working for?…I don’t know how else to say it, Mr. White. $5 million isn’t nothing.” But for Walter White, the world is not enough.
I expect your mileage may vary, but I thought there was something useful about Walt drawing an explicit line between Gray Matter and the meth business. Once, cooking meth was something Walt would do for a limited time, towards limited ends. Now, it’s become part of a clear narrative for him, the way that he fulfills his greatness and atones for past errors of judgement. It’s a mindset that makes it somewhat less likely to me that Walt will repent of his own volition, but suggests that if he’s forced to recognize what he’s become, his reckoning could be even more devastating. If Gray Matter was a financial error of judgement, cooking meth could be both a fiscal and moral catastrophe. It’s one thing to resent raising a family in modest circumstances, another to bring pain, separation, judgement, physical harm, or even death down upon them.
And that raises an issue for me about whether this final season of Breaking Bad is too long: when are Jesse and Mike going to stop giving Walt chances? A hugely risky plan of his that lead to the death of a child doesn’t seem to have been enough, though perhaps if the investigation into his disappearance circles closer, that might change their thinking. I hate watching them continue to give this distrustful, selfish man chances. And to a certain extent, I’m starting to resent the show for continuing to rely on Walt’s genius. Breaking Bad and all anti-hero shows have a huge challenge in balancing how to get viewers emotionally attached to despicable characters and then get them to accept a necessary moral reckoning for them. Walt’s badass skills have been an excellent way to lure viewers in, but I wonder if they may ultimately make it hard for his fans to accept a just fate for him.