Breaking Bad's pilot is possibly the best television pilot of all time. It introduced us to a guy who's entire life was falling apart. A guy who needed money, respect, and another chance to do right by his family.
I know what you're thinking: "Yeah. Walter White." Yes... but all of that was ALSO true about the show's other lead...
By walking through the incredible character arc of Jesse Pinkman (how he went from the devil on Walter's shoulder to a fallen angel we hoped would get a second chance) we can see how a great show evolves from its pilot, and how great drama uses characters as both protagonists and antagonists.
Let's do this, bitch!
How Jesse Pinkman Became the Moral Compass of 'Breaking Bad'
When Vince Gilligan envisioned Breaking Bad, he always thought the show would be Walt's story and the meth heads he met along the way. In fact, when they were writing the first season of Breaking Bad Gilligan had scheduled Jesse Pinkman to die.
But then they started watching Aaron Paul... they saw the chemistry he had with Bryan Cranston and how well the character fit into the world they were trying to create. The character of Jesse was allowed to survive.
Still, with that survival came a price.
Things were about to get a lot worse for him.
You see, as Walter White became Heisenberg, we learned how badly Jesse wanted to become a guy like Walter White. That's how his character would arc.
Jesse at the beginning
When we meet Jesse Pinkman he's a loser. He's having sex with someone else's wife, going by the name Captain Cook, and he's a high school drop out. His parents kicked him out. He lives in a house his dead aunt left him, and there is nothing going right for him.
Jesse is the guy who enables Walter White's downfall.
But that's just the beginning.
Early seasons of Breaking Bad, we spend a lot of time unpacking Jesse Pinkman.
See, when they developed this character I'm not sure they ever thought they'd take him this far. He was supposed to show how drugs ruined lives. And he does. But maybe not the way you'd think.
Sure, Walter helps get Jesse off the drugs, but at what cost?
As Walter becomes our eyes and ears when it comes to learning the drug game, Jesse becomes our eyes and ears when it comes to rehabs and relapses. As Walter gets Jesse clean we see what he's gone through.
We learn about his home life. See him gain his parent's trust only to be tossed for his pot-smoking brother.
The story of his aunt dying, of Jesse caring for her, and the general trauma around him makes us understand how drugs would be a comfort. It makes us empathize with a character we saw as raw and terrible before.
This emotional investment sets us up for who Jesse is going to become. Even if he's not there yet.
Jesse at the middle
As Jesse was coming to the light, Walter White was succumbing to the dark. We saw the greed and anger that fueled much of his id and ego. And when Jesse fell out from under his thumb, we saw Walter wanting to act.
You could make the excuse that Jesse was turning back to drugs, that there was a bad influence in his life.
Those excuses would be right.
But as an audience member, we felt sorry for him. We wanted him to get help.
Walter just wanted him back.
So instead of trying to cure Jesse and his new girlfriend, Walter let her die.
Jesse spiraled here.
And the world never let him mourn.
But the pain inside Jesse began to drive a wedge between him and Mr. White. That wedge was hit harder by the addition of Gus and Mike. Jesse wanted out of the relationship, Gus wanted control, and everything went to shit.
These issues allowed Jesse to begin exploring the world for himself. And it allowed us to become invested in his freedom. We saw Jesse's escape just at the moment we saw Walt's point of no return.
Walt had left his family. Walt was now only Heisenberg.
Jesse wanted the life Walt had left behind.
And I think the real turn for Jesse and the audience is when he met the child of two meth heads. This moment changed him in our eyes. He became one of the heroes.
This is when Jesse becomes our moral compass. When he sees that the manufacture and sale of drugs will always hurt someone innocent.
And this is the final straw.
Jesse at the end
Jesse became a father figure to Andrea and Brock and embraced it. But his refusal to come back and cook shows us how hard it is to leave the life of crime when you're in too deep.
His paranoia about the ricin and Brock cause Jesse to search for a way out.
He turns police informant and it makes sense.
He wants revenge.
And I would argue we want him to have it.
But that backfires and gets Andrea killed.
Jesse is captured, chained, beaten, and goes through hell.
The Aryans hold him and basically try to work him to death. At this moment has Jesse has paid for his crimes? We just want him to make it now. To find a new life. At the end of the series, when Walter saves him, Jesse gets to leave.
We want him to deserve a second shot but we also know there will be cops looking for him no matter where he goes.
What's next for Jesse Pinkman?
While the end of Breaking Bad provided us with an image of a free Jesse, the trailer for El Camino confirms freedom comes at a price. Jesse always mused he'd go to Alaska, but his arc and development suggest that might be harder than planned.
It's hard to predict where this story will go or how you can take Jesse further than we've seen...
...but if anyone can do it, it's Vince Gilligan.
The showrunner ran one of the most secretive and complicated writers' rooms in history. But what was his average day like?
We find out with Vince Gilligan.
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