Walter White, Abuser

Much of the last season of Breaking Bad involved a growing rift between Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the show’s high school teacher-turned drug kingpin, and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his stoner partner in their meth business. It was a divide that almost ended in murder before Walt closed it in a terrifying act of deception, poisoning the son of Jesse’s girlfriend, and successfully blaming Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) for that monstrous act. In the fifth and final season of the show, which will air in two parts beginning on Sunday at 10 PM, it was inevitable that the two men would have a conversation about Gus’s death and their reunion. But I didn’t expect it to be so horrifyingly clarifying.

“I almost shot you. I almost killed you, all because…No, no, no. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know how I could be so stupid,” Jesse breaks down in an upcoming episode. “I’m so sorry.” Walter comforts Jesse, rubbing his shoulders, telling the younger man soothingly: “You and I working together, having each other’s back, it’s what saved our lives. I want you to think about that as we go forward.” There’s something repulsive about that gesture of physical tenderness, of Walt forgiving Jesse even as he reels him in, yet again.

Walter White sells drugs. He’s committed murder. But underlying his crimes is a common dynamic. Walter White is an abuser. With his wife, Skyler, he is manipulative, physically cruel, and threatening. Last season, when he told Skyler that “A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks,” he had no real interest in reassuring her that he was safe, but in asserting that he could, and would, do great violence to anyone who stood in his way. This season, he’s setting himself up as the tin god of the White household, a man with the power to dispense forgiveness for the manifest wrongs he believes have been done to him, even as he becomes less and less able to see his own monstrosity.

With Jesse, his behavior is more like an adult abusing a child, which was one of the reasons watching him touch Jesse was so clammy. One of the show’s first iconic lines was Jesse’s delight at discovering that Walt had discovered a way to circumvent the central problem of meth production, obtaining pseudoephedrine. But it’s what comes after “Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!” that matters. Jesse demurs, saying he’ll leave the state and start over. And Walter reels him back in, neatly undercutting Jesse’s self-esteem, but promising that Walt can be the one to make Jesse a real boy:

This is the pattern of their interactions, whether with Jane, Jesse’s addict girlfriend, whose death Walt caused by negligence and callousness, or Brock, who Walt poisoned. Walter does dreadful things to Jesse, allows Jesse to shoulder responsibility and crippling guilt for them, and feeds on Jesse’s vulnerability by convincing the younger man that only Walt can restore him to wholeness, whether by sending Jesse to rehab or reenlisting him in an expanded drug production scheme. Jesse has sought out other mentors, most notably in the last season, Mike. But one of the great tragedies of the show is its illustration of how the claws Walt’s sunk into Jesse’s brain exert a more powerful pull than Mike and Gus’s treatment of Jesse as someone with potential. Walt has groomed Jesse to respond to his own guilt and shame more strongly than to straightforward affirmation, perverted his job as a teacher so they only thing Jesse is supposed to learn is Walt’s authority.


“You are trouble. I’m sorry the kid here doesn’t see it, but I sure as hell do,” Mike tells Walt at one point. James Poniewozik asked today in Time what a fitting outcome for Walt would be at the end of Breaking Bad, whether death might be an escape compared to the torture of shame and exposure. But I wonder if focusing on retribution for Walt might distract us from a more powerful and important outcome: freedom and wholeness for his victims.