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Jesse Pinkman Has To Die
We meticulously present the foreshadowing scenes and literary allusions that reveal Jesse's fate.
By Johannah King-Slutzky
There's this scene early in Season 3 when Jesse is in rehab -- this is just after the death of his girlfriend, Jane -- and Jesse, who is angry and numb, asks his group counselor for his credentials. "What makes you the expert?" he says. "Have you ever really hurt anybody?" And the counselor responds, very straightforwardly, "I killed my daughter" and everyone around the campfire goes agog, their faces illuminated by light like they're Breaking Bad's very own in-house TV viewers. It's a curious reversal of another trope in the series: patricide.
There are many permutations. Gus kills the Juarez cartel kingpin on his Mexican home turf; Walt kills Gus; and children, literal children like Tomas Cantillo, are murderers. Intergenerational murder is a classic theme, after all, and Breaking Bad makes no bones about its Oedipal allusions if you just do a little literary digging. The finale of Season 5A, for example, was titled "Gliding Over All," which is a reference to a Walt Whitman poem about the soul and a "ship on the waters advancing." Doesn't sound like much, until you realize that the metaphor of "a ship on the waters advancing" is an image straight from Plato, who uses the metaphor to discuss appropriate uses of power. And, to take it one step further, the phrase "ship of state," though prosaic in usage now, is also employed by the child-murdering Creon in Sophocles's Antigone. Not that you need that information to know that Walt has attempted to murder both father figures (e.g. Mike) and son figures (e.g. Brock) without remorse. But the literary allusions make nice seasoning.
More broadly, the latest Breaking Bad finale left us with the sense that Jesse is withholding something from Walt, whom the former increasingly perceives as a threat. Let's go over the scene from S5A's finale in which Walt gives Jesse his two duffel bags of cash.
Here's how it looks from the outside: Walt knocks on the door. Jesse scrambles around his apartment, does something off screen, and hides his bong. (More on that off screen behavior later.) After Jesse lets Walt into his apartment, the pair wax nostalgic about the early days of the meth game. Walter tries to reminisce about the crappy old RV and Jesse asks, (paraphrased) “Why did we keep it? We had enough money…”
Sounds innocent, but if you're a careful viewer you'll realize that this is crazy stuff. They had enough money to buy a new RV? That can't be true: back in Season 1, Walt was at shrew-levels of plaintiveness when it came to their relative poverty. Not having enough money was even the entire motivation for them to keep cooking. It's not until the invention of Gustavo Fring that the threat of violence becomes an overarching motivator for Walt to cook.
The mix up is especially strange because Jesse "purchased" the RV in the first place by taking Walt’s money, spending it on strippers, and boosting his best friend’s mom’s vehicle. Even if Jesse isn't exactly lying to Walt, it's odd that Jesse would bring up the shittiness of the RV without copping to the fact that he "misallocated" Walt's RV funds a year ago. It's a bygone era, right? Why shouldn't Jesse share that information, now that the pair are reminiscing and poking fun? Even though Jesse isn't lying with purpose, it does imply that he might be hiding something from Walt, to whom he still, in the throes of nostalgia, does not acknowledge his theft. And Jesse is. Besides his bong, Jesse is hiding a gun with the safety off, which he got (off screen) after he saw Walter at the front door. We know the safety’s off because we see him pull the gun from his pocket at return the latch to its ‘safety’ position after Walt leaves. (You can read the more detailed play-by-play and analysis of this scene on my personal blog.) But Jesse never fires the gun, he never even shows it to Walt. And by the rules snappy storytelling, that's a problem. That gun has to go off at some point.
So the finale of Season 5A sets Walt and Jesse up for a showdown. But is there any stronger evidence than an unfired gun? How about something more global than a single scene? I enter into evidence....
The final season's trailer, in which Bryan Cranston chillingly recites Shelley's "Ozymandias" over footage of the New Mexican desert.
You can chalk up the significance of the Ozymandias poem to simple resonance with the Romantic antihero. But there's more-- "Ozymandias" is also an allusion to the last time Walt injured a child: when he fed Brock Cantillo Lily-of-the-Valley. Let's go back to that moment. It's Season 4, Jesse has just figured out that Brock is a poison victim and guesses that Walter White fed Brock ricin. Jesse storms Walt's home and points a gun at his head, demanding an explanation. When Walt responds, "Why would I do this?" Jesse says, "To get back at me. Because I'm helping Gus, and this is your way of ripping my heart out before you're dead and gone. Just admit it."
Compare that to the text of "Ozymandias," a poem about a Walter White-type who had a "hand that mocked" and a "heart that fed" and whose condescending boast, in true Walter White style, is "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" That is to say, Jesse has just accused Walt of poisoning Brock for three reasons, each of which is reflected in "Ozymandias": first, to feed on Jesse's despair ("heart that fed," "ripping my heart out"); second, to mock Jesse with his cleverness ("hand that mocked," "admit it"); and third, to leave a mark before he dies. "Look on my Works, ye Mighty" is basically the gist of both "Ozymandias" and Walt's motivation to kill a child as it is interpreted by Jesse. It's not insignificant, then, that Breaking Bad's producers chose "Ozymandias" as their trailer for the show's final season: it is both a direct callback to the last time Walter threatened to kill a kid and an allusion to the moment at which Jesse's aggression toward Walt was at its fullest.
It seems likely that Jesse and Walter will have to fight again before the show concludes. But there are structural reasons why Jesse should be the one to die. For one thing, it would be absolutely devastating to Walt's character. Walt's death would be morally just; Jesse's, less so. For a show this dark, that's a problem. Showrunner Vince Gilligan famously pitched the show to AMC as "You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface." Even the conceit of Walter White's profession -- chemist -- is all about transformation. What would make kindly father, teacher, and cancer victim Walter White's transformation most complete? The murder of one of his charges, of course. Moreover, Jesse has always been a tool for Walt's own self definition. Walt is a father, a teacher, a meth man. Jesse has figured in each of these identities for Walt. Without Jesse, Walter White ceases to be.
I use the term "charge" ambiguously for a reason. Not only do I predict that Walter will kill Jesse, I predict that he'll do it to save his biological son; Walt, Jr. I don't really have a reason, it just seems appropriate that Breaking Bad's "hero" would kill his meth-era "son," Jesse, to save his biological son, the son whose financial security ostensibly brought Walt to break bad in the first place. Also, there was that moment in Season 4 when Walt was on painkillers and he confused his son's name with Jesse's. To me, the trade of one son for another seems poetically right.
This would also confirm Walt's biggest flaw, which has always been utilitarianism. The first time we really saw Walt collapse into Heisenberg was when he decided to let Jane die. One can imagine Walt's thought process: Jane, he must've said, was a necessary sacrifice to save Jesse's life. One life for another, an even trade. Walt's chemist logic falls flat when it comes to the dynamics of human intimacy. Jane's life was not equivalent to only one life: she was worth, it turned out, a whole plane's worth of people. It's a literalized metaphor for the emotional tolls of a loved one's death. Walt's resolute faith in the rightness of sacrifice and his failure to see that a human body is more than its raw materials has always been a capital P Problem. Were Walter to kill Jesse to save his biological son, the terms of that Problem would be complete. A son for a son, fair trade.1
Finally, Walt has to kill Jesse because doing so would resolve two of Walt's most persistent refrains: "Why me?" and its corollary, "That wasn't me." There's an article up on HitFix in which Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston reveal the thinking behind the first episodes of Season 5A. Here's Gilligan speaking: "It was one of the last scene[s] of episode 501 after the magnet caper with the big electro magnet....Walt and Jesse, by the skin of their teeth, they get away....We're like, 'What's missing? Something feels weirdly unsatisfying.' And then we thought to ourselves, 'You know what's missing is a whole new Walt.'....[W]e realized in that moment that what was far better and more important to us then the whole magnet gag...[was] Walt in the backseat going...'Because I said so.'"
All this time, Walter has asked himself, "Why me?" because he couldn't control his surroundings. Why do I have cancer? Why don't I have cancer? Cancer was out of his control, but Walt has always exerted control of Jesse. Killing Jesse would be volitional and vindictive; all he has to do is will it. It's a trick question: "Why me? Why am I a murderer?" "Because I said so." Likewise, because killing Jesse would be the ultimate Heisenberg move, Walter's insistence that "That wasn't me" will finally be confirmed. Who's going to kill Jesse? "That wasn't me," Walt will insist. And it won't be-- it'll be Heisenberg, through and through. Or if you want to look at it through a less alter ego-y angle, killing Jesse will finally stopper Walt's insistence that "That wasn't me." When you're caught with a smoking gun of that magnitude there's no room to escape.