With The Sopranos off the air and Dexter clearly unable to deliver after season four, Breaking Bad has cornered the market on morally ambiguous television characters.
By definition that means everything is subjective to the viewer’s perception and moral compass. Understandably, some people are unable to move past the widely-accepted commandment of “thou shalt not kill” and are therefore unable to get behind the serial killer killing serial killer, Dexter Morgan. By the same token, some viewers side with Mr. Garrison that, “Drugs are bad, mkay?” and therefore are unable to comprehend Walter White’s “steal a loaf of bread to feed his family”-esque dilemma.
I, on the other hand, find morally ambiguous characters to be the most intricate and fascinating. To that end, Breaking Bad offers me something that no other show has – the ability to see how a good guy turns into a bad guy. In this case, the journey of a mild-mannered teacher becoming a brutal drug lord. It’s that evolution that has me enamored with the tale of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).
In the weeks leading up to the season 5 premiere (which will be the final season, sort of. It’ll be split into two eight episode arcs under a season 5 umbrella – you know, so AMC can ride the wave as long as possible, plus boost DVD sales), a few friends have finally taken the time to catch up on what I consider the best show on TV. In talking to them, I’ve found that we have very differing opinions on the meth-making duo.
The story opens with Walter White as a kind, unassuming chemistry teacher who contracts lung cancer and decides to use his considerable chemical knowledge to manufacture meth in order to provide enough money for his family after his untimely demise. In the process, Walter involves former student, Jesse Pinkman – a small time ice dealer/manufacturer – to help him distribute his unparalleled crank.
As expected, the transition into his new role is not an easy one for Walt as he is quickly faced with killing in order to protect himself and his secret. After successfully dodging any consequence for the kill (or the drugs), we see Walt start down a slippery slope of ego, power and greed. In the final episode of season 4 (“Face Off”), it’s revealed to us that he has crossed a line into darkness for which there is no turning back. Docile Walter White no longer exists; only a cold, savage kingpin remains.
The yin to Walter’s yang is his partner, Jesse Pinkman – an underachieving drug addict known for his comedic use of the words “yo” and “bitch.” For all intents and purposes, Jesse is a burnout who, if not approached by Mr. White, would most likely have lived his life as an addict and small time dealer, maybe doing a little jail time, possibly cleaning up to have a quaint life with a wife and a couple kids… who knows. Jesse is full of potential, but it’s taken four seasons of killings, beatings, addiction and death to finally see it flourish.
Although they share the same occupation, Jesse’s narrative is one of self discovery. As Walt degenerates, Jesse “improves.” (I only include the quotes because, after all, he is still making and selling meth.) Once you get past the initial impression that Jesse is a useless idiot, you find that he’s actually a sweet kid that has made some bad decisions, likely driven by his desire for love and acceptance. Under the mentorship of Gus and Mike, Jesse is now clean and has the confidence, intelligence and drive to take charge of his life.
That is where the debate comes in.
It’s said that adversity reveals character. If this is true, then it seems to me that Jesse has been our protagonist all along. My friends don’t necessarily agree with that perspective. They’re of the opinion that Jesse only serves as an obstacle to Walter’s otherwise flawless master plan to become the overlord of New Mexico and beyond. What they fail to realize is that without Jesse, Walt’s scheme is impossible. At this point, Jesse is more valuable to Walt than Walt is to Jesse.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’ve watched this story unfold over a matter of four years; it’s been spelled out for them in the matter of four weeks. Without the gift of that time to ruminate about the characters, their situations, decisions and actions, perhaps Walt’s decline and Jesse’s ascent seem less drastic.
Maybe some viewers relate more to Walt’s initial motivations and are therefore more understanding and forgiving of him than they are of Jesse.
Maybe Jesse just rubs some people the wrong way, bitch.
Whatever the case may be, the discussion leads me to this: if the final season comes down to a showdown of Walt vs. Jesse (and I have no idea how it wouldn’t), who do you want to win?