There exists a pantheon of television characters who are among the most indelible faces of popular culture. Pick up any best-of list, and the same slate of names will likely appear. Walter White, if not already among them, will inevitably be added to these compilations -- and deservedly so.
Over the course of "Breaking Bad's" five seasons, Walt has produced one of the most layered transitions from morality to depravity ever featured in fiction. The milquetoast high school teacher who longs for a life of significance that feels foreign to him is precisely the sort of character we want to root for because, in some ways, we all relate to Walt's despondency.
But we aren't here to talk about Walt. He's billed as the center of "Breaking Bad," but my feelers have always been more attuned to Jesse Pinkman. It's he who will forever adorn my own pantheon of TV characters. Perhaps, in a narrative sense, it's because his story both mirrors and opposes that of Walt's. On a personal level, however, it's because Jesse is the one who truly exists inside of us.
While Walt started with a degree of purity comparable to the meth he goes on to cook, we first meet Jesse at a time when continence seems like an impossible feat. He's a thuggish junkie who flunked Mr. White's chemistry class and knows nothing but the "art" of manufacturing and selling drugs. Really, he was pretty unlikeable in a lot of ways. When placed next to Walt, he's rendered simple-minded and hopeless. But a bold statement is needed on my part: Jesse may be my favorite television character of all time. Walt kept "Breaking Bad" cooking, but it's Jesse who gave it heart -- a tall order for someone who treats crystal meth as his "Guernica."
Jesse is Shakespeare-level tragedy. He's not meant to be part of the world to which he belongs. How Jesse came to be a burnout riddled with substance-abuse problems exists beyond the realm of the show. When we first meet him, during Walt's ride-along with Hank in the show's pilot, he's clad in nothing but red briefs, tumbling off a roof and onto the lawn of a house being infiltrated by the DEA. In introducing him this way, Vince Gilligan offers a peek at what we'll see Jesse do consistently over the course of the series: fall to his knees, often awash in a stream of blood just a few shades darker than the underwear we first saw him in.
What eventually happens -- what quickly happens, really -- is we learn that the expectations for these two characters have been reversed. Jesse may be a meth head, but we realize it's a propensity he's convinced himself of by way of his surroundings, not one that's ingrained in him the way he'd like people to believe. Walt, on the other hand, is a natural fit. He had Heisenberg in him, somewhere, long before leaving the classroom behind. He, too, is a victim of his circumstances. Just as Jesse is told, by his own parents even, that he is unworthy, Walt is perhaps told he is too worthy, thereby prompting him to fear failure or even risk. Jesse is no villainous hero because, at his core, he is no villain. He's done despicable deeds, sure, some without remorse. But with his pain -- the agony of losing loved ones and watching innocent children suffer -- comes the confirmation that this isn't his true self. It's not the Jesse Pinkman he hoped to be when he appreciated selling meth because it felt like he had a hand in making "art."
Jesse is where the heart of the show lies, and in him I've found a character with whom I sympathize on the most poignant level. There's a piece of Jesse in each of us. The broken parts of our souls, the ones perhaps buried in the outer regions of the subconscious, carry the same burdens that Jesse's does. We must all, at times, endure moments wherein we know we have lost ourselves -- moments when we question our own judgment because the results of our actions, and the actions of our associates, produce jarring reverberations.
Jesse's chief tragic flaw is that he repeats his mistakes. He doesn't turn his back on the meth operation when he should, and what happens thereafter -- punctuated by Walt handing him over to Jack and proclaiming he "watched Jane die" -- shreds his humanity. It was hard to know when we first set eyes on him, but Jesse was always harmless. He can't hang with the big, bad meth distributors who use violence to weasel their way to success. We see that in the pilot episode when his macho facade cracks as Krazy-8 threatens him. It's a narrative in direct contrast with Walt, who felt useless in a world where his intelligence was never enough to attract the acclaim he deserved. Jesse isn't as discerning as Walt, though, and he can't recognize that the trajectory he's facing is a reflection of his vulnerability.
That brings me to the proclamation I've struggled to accept over the past few weeks: Jesse must die in the show's final hour. His humanity has been stolen from him, largely by Walt's cruelty. It's Walt's fault he is being held captive by Jack and his army. If they choose not to kill him, then to be made their meth slave for the rest of his existence is a punishment worse than death. Barring a craftiness that seems unlikely given the national manhunt to find his former partner, a potential escape would lead to life behind bars -- also worse than death as he rots away in a cell with memories of Jane's death, Andrea's death, Drew Sharp's death, Walt's betrayal, his parents' betrayal, his own betrayal of himself.
Gilligan and the actors have said much will change during the finale, but will it be enough to give Jesse the happy ending he deserves? It's unlikely, and that is the show's biggest tragedy. To see the punk kid we first hated become the most mangled -- and thereby most beloved -- soul on television today is "Breaking Bad's" sob story. Jesse's is a life tarnished in the worst possible way: by those who wield influence and power over you, rendering you helpless to their will. No, Jesse is not without blame. But he's a victim more than he is a criminal, and his long-standing imprisonment at the hands of his own demons will be what conquered him.
I have my heart set on redemption for Jesse, but not my mind. I've spent the weeks leading up to the finale making peace with what will likely happen to him, and hoping that a life of servitude or solitude will not force a graver fate upon this tarnished soul. More so than Walt, Jesse represents the paradox that lies within: a deep desire to be good -- a desire whose influence he doesn't even understand -- weakened by circumstances that thrust him out of that cocoon. Most of us are able to rise above those circumstances, and that is where Jesse's story becomes unfair and utterly tragic. He was barely even given a chance.
Welcome to the pantheon, Jesse.