Jesse Pinkman was never supposed to make it that long on Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, who is refreshingly open about communicating the thought process behind creating one of TV’s best ever shows, says he envisioned Jesse Pinkman dying at the conclusion of Breaking Bad‘s first season. Then two bits of divine intervention occurred. The writers’ strike of 2008 made it so that Breaking Bad season one didn’t even get an ending for Jesse to be killed in. But even if it did, the stunning performance of Aaron Paul made it a near impossibility for Gilligan to follow through on his initial plan.
Paul was a revelation as Pinkman, racking up three Emmy victories and turning what could have been a simple sidekick character into an indispensible witness to mankind’s heart of darkness. Jesse lived through all five seasons of Breaking Bad and is now headlining the first ever Breaking Bad movie, El Camino (which is streaming on Netflix now).
The end of Jesse’s story will surely come one way or another in El Camino. With that in mind it’s worth examining where exactly Jesse has been. What follows are his most crucial moments and what made him the man we will see in El Camino. Major spoilers for all five seasons of Breaking Bad obviously follow.
Season 1 Episode 4: Cancer Man
The moment that told us everything we needed to know about Walter White happens in season 1 episode 5. His old Gray Matter associates Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz offer to pay for his cancer treatments. And Walt, creature of pure pride and spite that he is, says no. Well the moment that tells us everything we need to know about Jesse occurs one episode earlier.
When Jesse needs a place to lie low after the Krazy-8 affair, he decides to head home to crash with his parents and his overachieving younger brother, Jake. His folks are unsurprisingly not stoked to have their drug-dealing son live with them and when they find some weed they kick him out of the house for good. The weed, however, belongs to Jake. Jesse never sticks up for himself or sells Jake out, giving his brother a second chance and forever casting his lot with the street and the Walter Whites of the world.
Season 2 Episode 6: Peekaboo
Breaking Bad is an inherently exciting show and it’s thrilling to watch Walt and Jesse climb up the ‘corporate ladder’ of drug dealing operations in the Southwest. But the product that Walt and Jesse sell comes with a severe human cost. And thanks to episodes like ‘Peekaboo’ the show never loses sight of it.
Jesse gets the address of some meth addicts who ripped out Skinny Pete and heads to their house to confront them. They’re not there, but their neglected young son is. Jesse spends the day with the boy, getting a first hand look at the human wreckage he has helped wrought. When the couple returns home, they attempt to open a stolen ATM with the wife eventually killing her husband, ‘Spooge’, with a falling ATM to the head. Jesse calls 9-1-1, hoping the kid will get a better life somewhere, somehow.
Season 2 Episode 13: ABQ
Jesse is usually the first to pay for the sins of he and Walt’s acts, and the death of Jane Margolis is the first huge cost for Jesse. Jesse’s girlfriend Jane overdoes and chokes to death on her own vomit overnight. Walt is actually around to intervene and chooses not to, but Jesse doesn’t know that. Instead Jesse blames himself for Jane’s death.
Jesse is a fundamentally changed person after the loss of Jane. Jane’s death occurs quite early on, but it’s an event that Jesse carries the scars from for the rest of the series.
Turned to Shit
Season 3 Episode 7: One Minute
Jesse Pinkman has a lot of great monologues through Breaking Bad. But there is one that stands above them all. After Jesse has been beat to within an inch of his life by Hank, Walt comes to the hospital to visit him. It is from his hospital bed, that Jesse is finally able to communicate to Walt just what the presence of the great Heisenberg in Jesse’s life has done to him.
“I’m not turning down the money, I’m turning down you! You get it? I want nothing to do with you! Ever since I met you, everything I’ve ever cared about is gone. Ruined, turned to shit, dead; ever since I hooked up with the great Heisenberg. I have never been more alone, I have nothing! No one! Alright it’s all gone! Get it? No, no no, why? Why would you get it? Why do you even care as long as you get what you want. Right? You don’t give a shit about me.”
It’s not only a powerful speech; it’s crucial to Jesse’s development. Aaron Paul said as much in announcing El Camino, saying the moment will “prepare” viewers for the film.
Season 3 Episode 13: Full Measure
People die because of what Walt and Jesse do. There’s no way around that. But oftentimes they die, offscreen, far away from the duo, or because they served as some sort of threat (like Krazy-8 and the two gangsters Walt ran over with his Aztec one episode previous to “Full Measure.”). None of that applies to poor, sweet Gale Boetticher. Gale’s only crime was being good at his job, good enough to make Jesse, Walt, and all the headaches they create for Gus dispensable.
Someone has to kill Gale to ensure that Gus can’t kill Walt and Jesse. And of course that someone has to be Jesse because Walt finds himself in the custody of Mike. Misery has this weird way of always finding Jesse on Breaking Bad. It’s like the cat who somehow always gravitates to the feline-phobic in the room. Jesse is a sensitive soul, nearly broken from losing Jane, so obviously he has to be the one to kill Gale. Of all the tragic events in Jesse’s life, the killing of Gale is like the second ‘Grand Breaking’ after the death of Jane.
Season 4 Episode 7: Problem Dog
The thing about the damage to Jesse Pinkman’s psyche and soul is that he’s tragically aware of every single dagger. In season 4 episode ‘Problem Dog’, Jesse visits his 12-Step program to try to come to terms with it. He tells the group about the murder of Gale in the only way he can think to articulate it – as him having to put down a problem dog.
When the group urges him to forgive himself, Jesse lashes out. Is he just supposed to accept that he’s a fundamentally good person regardless of how many ‘dogs’ he kills? And therein lies the beauty of Jesse’s character. He is fundamentally a good person. We can see his goodness through the tremendous pain he’s put himself through all these misadventures. But he’s right; his goodness doesn’t matter if he’s not in a position to act on it. Perhaps he can begin to right some wrongs in El Camino.
Season 5 Episode 1: Live Free or Die
Alright this one isn’t that crucial to Jesse’s development but we gotta include it.
Season 5 Episode 5: Dead Freight
TODD NO! Even when Jesse is reduced to a bystander in an evil event, he is always the one to receive the lion’s share of trauma from it. Todd certainly doesn’t care about the young witness he kills at the end of the train heist. Walt cares in his own way, but not enough for it to derail his plans for worldwide meth domination. Jesse though? Jesse cares. Jesse can seemingly do nothing but care.
Jesse is like the grand witness for all of Breaking Bad‘s events. He’s something beyond a simple stand-in or cypher for the audience. Breaking Bad is ultimately about humanity, evil, and the often-inseparable nature of the two and Jesse is here to bear witness to all of it. The killing of a young boy leads to a division between Walt and Jesse that never truly heals.
Season 5 Episode 16: Felina
While the Breaking Bad series finale serves as the final hurrah for Walter White, it now seems as though it’s just the first act of the emancipation and redemption of one Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is essentially a slave for nearly all of ‘Felina’ chained in a basement by Jack and his skinheads to continue to churn out the blue stuff.
There’s a sense of resigned acceptance from Jesse throughout the proceedings. It’s as though he understands this is the appropriate fate for him. Jane is gone. Andrea is gone. All hope is gone. But then there’s that El Camino. After Walt does arguably the first selfless thing in his life and rescues Jesse, Jesse rides off to freedom in a stolen El Camino.
That one moment of pure bliss seems to undo so much of the pain that Jesse has experience up to that point. Still, there are more scores to be settled and another story to be told. Now it’s El Camino‘s job to tell it.