Breaking Love In “Breaking Bad”

“Breaking Bad” has been one of the most violent shows on television in its five year run. We see countless people, including some children, shot, run over by cars and blown to pieces. But one of the show’s most important themes is that though drugs, guns, bombs and irresponsible driving kill, there is no weapon so powerful as love.

It’s love, according to Walter White, that drives him into the drug world in order to provide for his family. It’s love that causes a family to undergo tremendous strain when one of its members is sick, or badly injured, as Hank was a few seasons back.

For Jesse, the desire for love has been his greatest obstacle. While Walt has been able to diminish his humanity to precipitate success, Jesse has proven unable to keep it together when confronted with death and suffering. Jesse consistently seeks companionship and approval with the same vigor that Walt seeks supremacy. He is repeatedly denied meaningful relationships and has nowhere to turn but to partnership with Walt, even against his moral inclinations.

Now that we’ve reached the last few episodes, Jesse is fully aware of his perceived fate—to destroy everything innocent and genuine that he encounters—and to glean false happiness in his professional expertise, contingent upon meeting the requirements the sinister craft. He is aware that Walt is manipulating him, and he knows he has no choice but to let him. When Walt proposes that he skip town, Jesse knows Walt only wants him gone for Walt’s protection and that it has nothing to do with a fatherly concern for Jesse’s well-being. Walt has never done anything to suggest that he genuinely loves or cares about him.

Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman: always the reluctant criminal

Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman: always the reluctant criminal

All that changed on Sunday when we saw Walt refuse to kill Jesse despite the not-so-subtle suggestions of Saul and Skyler after Jesse comes within a match-strike of burning the White residence to the ground. Presumably, Walt has realized his fondness for Jesse, but it’s too little, too late. Jesse has discovered that Walt was responsible for Brock’s poisoning and if there was ever any doubt that Walt was all about himself, it’s gone now. Jesse seems to be a man on a mission. Of course, even with his emotional plate filled with vengeance, Jesse’s search for love hasn’t disappeared. Despite of (or because of) his recent strategic blunders, Hank has added his name to the long list of characters who recognize and manipulate Jesse’s vulnerability; only this time, Jesse’s services to a would-be father figure may prove to serve his own agenda.

At least we know that now. Breaking Bad has so few characters you can root for and Jesse is one of them. He still doesn’t deserve it, but you want things to work out for him. You want to believe the hardened intensity in his eyes is contrived, even though you know it’s product of bone fide suffering. You want to believe he’s just a kid in clownishly baggy clothes who lost his way, even though you know he is a murderer. There was a moment when I believed Hank actually cared about Jesse. In the flashback to Jesse dousing the house with gasoline, Hank convinces him not to torch it and gets him into the car where Jesse, exhausted, appears to pass out in the passenger seat. What does Hank do? He reaches across the boy’s body, and for a moment, it seems like a hug. His real father, Walt, Mike all proved to be interested only in what Jesse could do for them, but could Hank be the father figure Jesse has longed for? After all, Hank and Marie have no children, but appear to wish they did, and Hank has certainly shown parental warmth to Walter Jr.

But no, Hank turns back from the reach and clicks Jesse’s seat belt into place. This is not a rescue, but an arrest. Of course, Hank confirms this later when he’s happy to send Jesse to his potential death in order to catch Walt in a criminal act. Jesse makes a declaration of war against Walt and may work with Hank to do it. Whether it’s an act of personal vengeance, or justice for the pile of dead left behind Walt’s assent, Jesse is poised for an act of self-assertion Walt hasn’t anticipated. In a subconscious way, he wants to stop Walt from wreaking more havoc. Angry and distraught as he is, Jesse is acting according to what he thinks is morally right. It may be murder, but it will be a crime of passion.

In Breaking Bad, love serves as a prime mover, but it is always a liability. The characters thrive when they care about nothing, but anyone who cares deeply about anything other than methamphetamine pays the price. Mike’s weakness was always his granddaughter. Even Gus was ultimately undone by his desire to avenge his friend (lover?) who was murdered by the Salamanca cartel.

This bodes poorly for Walt, who has not yet hardened into a man capable of choosing himself over his family. Then again, what of those introductions to the first two episodes that augur some apocalyptic future?

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