On Sunday’s episode of AMC’s self-referential chat show “Talking Bad,” actor Matt Jones observed that his character, Badger, a slacker/stoner member of Jesse Pinkman’s drug crew, had been kept around on “Breaking Bad,” along with his pal Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), mostly to remind us where Jessie came from. “Badger and Skinny Pete,” Jones said, “represent what Jesse was. And if Jesse never met Walt and they never cooked together, he’d still be us.”
Several scenes in Season 5 are designed to show us precisely how far Jessie has devolved from the innocence he used to share with his buds. Chief among these is Badger’s delirious rant promoting his “Star Trek” script (see below). At that point Jesse is trying to reconnect with his roots after witnessing death and suffering betrayal, and he just can’t hack it. His revulsion as he listens to Badger’s rant is finally what this classic scene is about. That it’s directed mostly at himself goes without saying.
There has always been a contingent of “Bad” fans who love Walt as Heisenberg and root for him to obliterate his enemies. Part of the appeal of the crime genre, after all, is the vicarious thrill of participation in lawlessness. “Breaking Bad,” however, has never allowed Walt to fully transform from Mr. Chips into Scarface, which were the two poles of Vince Gilligan’s original pitch to AMC.
Others of us have always known that the character who most closely represented our of view toward the story was Jesse. If you said Skyler, I would be happy for you, but she is way too level-headed to be my surrogate. I’ve met a couple of potential Hanks and Sauls over the years, too. Actually worked for a couple of them. But they are most definitely not me.
Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand, as embodied with heroic commitment by Aaron Paul, variously described as weak and impulsive, as incapable of thinking anything through to the end, of making a plan and carrying it out, rings true as one of the most closely observed non-heroes ever created.
Jesse has also functioned again and again as the show’s moral barometer. His wrenching emotions have offered us heartfelt alternatives to Walt’s narcissistic amorality. Jesse remains recognizably human, and unlike Walt (or Mike or Gus or Todd) he remains, I fervently believe, redeemable.
In fact, my wistful hope for “Breaking Bad” is that in its final moments we will see Jesse once again with Brock, determined to save something from the post-Heisenberg wreckage. It’s a mistaken view of the noir genre, in my opinion, that it must be nihilistic in order to be authentic. If everything is swept away by the black oil the exercise seems pointless, self-indulgently passive in the face of darkness.
At its best, noir is tragedy, and hapless Jesse Pinkman isn’t the sort of towering figure whose fall can feel tragic. What he has been is the appalled Everydude at the heart of “Breaking Bad.” We can’t help hoping that this long-suffering character won’t be shoehorned into devastation to serve some limited misconception of noir cool.