‘Stop Working Me’: Jesse Pinkman as Child-Prophet in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  Mary McCampbell, who contributed to our Ten-year Anniversary series at the end of 2020, provides a more in-depth look into the television series she identified as one of the most significant in the past decade, as she explores the prophetic role of Breaking Bad character Jesse Pinkman.]

In a characteristically tense scene from the last season of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Walter White looks directly at his former business partner, Jesse Pinkman, and discloses his true motivation for the methamphetamine ‘cooking’ that has dominated their recent lives: ‘Jesse—you asked me if I am in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.’

Walt, known on the street as ‘Heisenberg,’ is a master manipulator; in this moment (and many others), he speaks as an endearingly nerdy father figure, smoothing over the horrors he has committed while gaslighting and feigning nervous care. Within seconds, he is an iron-faced drug lord protecting his power at all costs. The moment directly after, Jesse’s uncompromising response brings moral clarity to an often morally ambiguous show: ‘I don’t know, Mr. White. Is a meth empire really something to be that proud of?’

Just as Breaking Bad  is a primer on the amorality of empire building, it is also an exploration of the prophetic ‘weakness’ that resists the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes—and the pride of life.’[1] Much has been written on the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding how, why, and when Walt ‘breaks bad’ (was he always this evil or does power corrupt him?), but I find the tragic narrative of his ironically street smart/ endlessly naïve sidekick, Jesse, to be even more compelling. Although Jesse is a cog in the machine of Walt’s egotism, he never loses his moral compass, and his muffled prophetic voice grows increasingly powerful as more and more sacrifices are made on the altar of the Heisenberg empire. Jesse plays the role of the child-prophet, exposing the amoral decay of the very system that has provided him a place in the sinister industry while synonymously enslaving him via both an addiction to meth and his partner, Heisenberg’s, addiction to power. The ideology and practice of this empire preys even upon children, ‘the least of these’[2] in order to expand and colonize. Jesse’s righteous anger is stirred when he learns that Gus Fring, the drug boss that he and Walt have been working for, uses a child to kill others. Gus eventually kills the very child he has turned into a mercenary. Early in Walt and Jesse’s relationship, Jesse, along with the show’s viewers, thinks that Walt has not and could not reach this level of stony-hearted rapacity, but Walt’s lust for empire-building ultimately spares no one.

The aforementioned scene in which Jesse questions Walt’s pride in his empire follows a bold, tearful confrontation with Walt. Their new (and sociopathic) colleague, Todd, has shot and killed another child point-blank because he witnessed the trio stealing barrels of methylamine from a freight train. After this occurs, Jesse wants to leave the business, and he soon returns to the self-annihilating addiction that flares up in the face of trauma. In another pivotal scene, Jesse and Walt take a break from cooking to watch television when the story of the ‘missing’ boy that was just killed comes on the news. As they learn that his name is Drew Sharp, Jesse’s eyes grow teary and distant, and he barely forces out, ‘It’s just—that kid’s parents.’ Walt looks at him impatiently and half-heartedly responds, ‘I know, I know—believe me. I have not been able to sleep tonight.’ In order to maintain the normalcy of the grim empire’s status quo, Walt dismisses Jesse’s tortured conscience: ‘But finally we are self-sufficient…After we have made our money, there will be plenty of time for soul-searching.’ As Walter Brueggemann explains, ‘Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right.’[3] Jesse begins to leave the makeshift lab site, and once he has turned his back, he can hear Walt carelessly whistling while finishing up the batch. The contrast in their reactions is chilling.

The ideology and practice of this empire preys even upon children, ‘the least of these’

Even after working together for two years, Jesse still calls his former teacher ‘Mr. White’ and their crusty colleague, Mike Ehrmantraut, always refers to Jesse as ‘kid.’ Jesse’s baggy jeans and casual slang (‘Yo, Mr. White!’) are childlike, even goofy. Because of his addiction, Jesse is estranged from his parents, not allowed to come back inside their home.

Walt feeds on this vulnerability, feigning a great deal of parental care for an often-receptive, clearly needy, Jesse. And Walt is very convincing in this, even for the show’s viewers. But in season five, we learn that this surrogate, sinister ‘caregiver’ has actually poisoned Brock, the child of Jesse’s ex-girlfriend. Previous to this revelation, Jesse accuses Walt of the attempted murder, and Walt manipulates him into believing that he is innocent and a victim himself for even being accused. Just as Brock has been poisoned, Jesse is continually metaphorically poisoned via his proximity to Walt’s seductive greed. And, in turn, the trauma of his exposure and sometimes, his complicity, leads him back to the poisoning needle.

Jesse’s role as the show’s prophetic conscience is made crystal (no pun intended) clear in a harrowing episode called ‘Peekaboo’ from the show’s second season. The show opens with a scene of a bleary-eyed Jesse waiting on a street corner to make a drug transaction. He sees a beetle on the sidewalk and, immediately, his countenance transforms from that of hardened criminal to that of a curious child. Transfixed in a state of joyful wonder, Jesse watches the beetle crawl over his tattooed hand. A few moments later, Jesse’s colleague and friend, Skinny Pete, walks up to join him, sees the beetle on the ground, and aggressively steps on it. This simple scene is also a character sketch revealing the empathetic, sensitive, and childlike (not childish) aspects of Jesse’s character. His tendency towards tenderness is displaced in an underground industry built on the Nietzschean anti-ethics of power. These contrasting visions of empathetic character versus inhuman, brute strength continue as we see Jesse break into the home of two meth addicts who robbed his operation. In their filthy, dark drug den, he finds an equally filthy young child, left alone in front of an outdated television set. The child is non-verbal and shy yet indicates to Jesse that he is hungry. The two also play ‘peekaboo’ together until his high, reckless parents show up. The partners get into a fight, and the strung-out woman kills her equally high boyfriend by crushing him under an ATM machine that they have stolen, a gory scene echoing Skinny Pete’s flippant stomping of a beetle. Jesse knows he must leave—but then he remembers the child. He calls 911, rushes back into the child’s room and asks him to play ‘peekaboo’ and to keep his eyes closed until he is told to open them. Cradling the child, he rushes past the bloody crime scene out to the porch, where he covers the child in a soiled blanket. As sirens blare in the distant background, Jesse puts his hands gently on the little boy and says, ‘You have a good rest of your life, kid.’

Jesse plays the role of the child-prophet, exposing the amoral decay of the very system that has provided him a place in the sinister industry while synonymously enslaving him via both an addiction to meth and his partner, Heisenberg’s, addiction to power.

Jesse is also an abandoned, soiled child—the victim of trauma who continues to walk into more trauma. He is pushed over the edge into addiction multiple times, including when Walter forces him to kill a chemist name Gale, and when his girlfriend, Jane, dies of a heroin overdose. Walt witnesses Jane’s death and could have saved her, but he chooses not to. It would be bad for business to have Jesse tangled up with another addict. Jesse never knows about Walt’s dark sin of omission, but this emphasises the power of Walt’s puppet master strings. Gilligan reminds us, once again, that the most precious victims of this depraved empire are someone’s children when Walt meets Jane’s father in a bar, and we see how helpless he is the face of Jane’s unrelenting addiction. When he learns that his daughter has died, Jane’s father commits a fatal error in his air traffic control job, costing the lives of many who die in a plane crash. Walt’s backyard is in the path of the plane and collects steaming fuselage. In his pool, he sees a single pink and white stuffed animal drowning. Another reminder that a child has died for the sake of the empire.

Jesse’s guilt over his complicity in the empire grows as the bodies pile up. He regularly attends a twelve-step group in a church basement to pose as a recovering addict in order to gain customers. But during one meeting, he can no longer pretend. With glassy eyes, he tells the entire group about the shame he feels over killing a dog a few weeks ago, a dog that was ‘not sick’ but a ‘problem dog.’ He is actually speaking of Drew, the child that Todd shot in the desert. When the group leader tells the others not to judge him for killing the ‘dog,’ Jesse grows enraged and begins screaming: ‘If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?’ ‘No matter how many dogs I kill, I do an inventory, and accept?’ His anger is directed towards a seemingly unjust world in which children are killed and no one pays the price. The most anger, of course, is directed at himself. After informing the group that he has been attending only to sell them drugs, he tells the leader ‘I made you my bitch!’ and storms out.

Jesse’s salvific feelings of guilt and shame prompt him to want to give away millions of dollars of what he calls ‘blood money.’ He goes to his lawyer, the comically garish Saul Goodman, and leaves the bags of money, telling him to give them to the parents of Drew Sharp and to the young granddaughter of Mike Ehrmantraut, another victim of Walt’s ruthlessness. Saul refuses to give the money away and sends Jesse to Walt who tries to pacify him, saying ‘Drew Sharp. That is a terrible memory, no doubt about it.’ When Walt says the child’s name, Jesse closes his eyes, wincing in heavily drugged pain. Walt’s impersonal, objective way of speaking about the child’s death as a ‘terrible memory’ is unbearable. The smooth rhetoric of the empire attempts, once again, to create a false peace when Walt says: ‘Son, you need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past.’ At this painful moment, Walt’s use of ‘son’ is grotesque. Jesse has been nothing but a pawn in this game of empire-building, and he is being told ‘peace, peace’ when ‘there is no peace.’[4] He proceeds to lie to Jesse about the murders he has committed. Jesse now understands this, and in a poignant moment asks, ‘Would you just, for once, stop working me?’

Jesse’s eyes look dull and dead but are full of life. In his painful exhaustion, he still has eyes to see and ears to hear the evil that Walt has manipulated him into doing. Walt’s eyes are shiny pinpoints, glassy but empty, reflecting only himself. Jesse leaves Walt’s house, still carrying the large bags of money. He drives aimlessly and finally sleeps in his car in a random parking lot. A homeless man comes up to the window, waking him up to ask for help. Jesse ignores him, then calls him back, handing him thousands of dollars in cash. He drives away, tires squealing, intensely sobbing and violently grunting as he throws bundles of hundred dollar bills out the window onto yards, onto driveways, even into gutters. His anger and pain are released as he is purged of the blood money, his reward for two years of grueling work. He wants to be unsoiled. He wants to be redeemed. While still an addict and a criminal, Jesse Pinkman thirsts for righteousness so intensely that he is willing to throw away everything he has in order to be cleansed, to be made new. This act that looks like absurd foolishness is an act of prophetic disruption to the empire’s power over his life.

 

[1] 1 John 2:16.

[2] Matthew 25:40.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 40th Anniversary Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 11.

[4] Jeremiah 6:14.

Author

  • Mary McCampbell is Associate Professor of Humanities at Lee University and author of the forthcoming book, Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: Empathy, The Arts, & the Religious Imagination (Fortress Press, 2021).

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