The Rolling Stones sang about sympathy for the devil.
And in the manic teaser for next week’s episode of Breaking Bad – episode 12 – we hear the gravelly, strained, almost animal voice of Jesse saying, “Mr. White…he’s the devil.”
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve primarily set my sights on the series’ protagonist (antagonist?), Walter White, and the question of his original sin. In what sense, really, did Walt break bad? Did he begin basically good and then simply stumble onto this sinister path of destruction, or was there an evil deep within him for years and years, waiting to manifest at the opportune time? Are his lies merely fruit of the deep-rooted Lie?
Is Walter White a sociopath?
The psychological definition is, for me, not as important as the theological one. And, apparently, Jesse agrees. Please allow Walt to introduce himself. He is the devil, and very few of us feel any sympathy at all anymore.
That’s Walter. But I have come to believe, especially in the wake of tonight’s heart-pounding, jaw-dropping sprint of an episode, that this show may really be all about Jesse Pinkman. It is no secret that series creator Vince Gilligan planned to kill Jesse off in the first season, but realized, as his sympathy for mustached Mr. White was already waning, that Jesse was going to be essential in redeeming something – an ounce, perhaps – of this devastating pile of crystal blue corruption. And this week, I think, we got a glimpse of just how true this is.
Jesse has been in a desperate, suffocating fog since episode 9, something far beyond depression and more like the last gasps of existence. We have already seen Walt manipulate him about the money – which led to Jesse’s mobile cash grab box in the Albuquerque ghetto – but the manipulation was turned up to Heisenberg tonight. Saul brings Jesse to a desolate desert meeting spot, and Walt soon arrives in a cloud of dust. The fatherly chat about how Saul knows a guy and it’s time for a change so Jesse should just disappear, skip town, start fresh (you’re so young!) ensues. But Jesse calls bullshit:
Can you just stop working me? Can you stop working me for ten seconds straight? Drop the whole concerned dad thing and tell me the truth… It’s really about you. Just say so! Tell me it’s either this or you’ll kill me like you killed Mike!
Just tell me you need this!
In a moment more murderous than any to this point, Walter, saying nothing, embraces Jesse Pinkman.
And it’s like the deadly coil of the old serpent himself.
The red, sobbing, suffocating devastation on Jesse’s face is the image that will stick with me all week. Who would have thought that the ruined, reckless tweaker of season 1 or 2 would become our last glimmer of hope for redemption in season 5? If we are all somehow bad deep down, at least to a degree, we are not all hopeless. Jesse is not hopeless. We can now see so much good in him, even if his exterior shielded it from view in the beginning. There is now, at least, the gutted realization that his humanity was there all along and is not yet all gone.
Last week, my conversation partner Zac pointed out that to write Walter off as a sociopath may go against the viewer’s experience of relating to the snowballing choices he makes – which would then bring all of our sanity into question. (And indeed, our sanity, in light of Walt’s descent, may be a worthy thing to explore.) But what about Jesse Pinkman? Do we relate to him? If we really think about it, I’d wager that we do. Jesse is a vision of our reality in all the places that Walter is a vision of our fantasy; where Walt’s risks – and astounding acts – make us feel like we could, Jesse’s fumbles make us feel like we have. Even his more surprising moments, like the time he killed the chemist Gale, are more authentically like our own moments under pressure, feeling desperate, breaking bad.
Jesse is not like Walter.
And not in the sense that Jesse is perfect. No, he suffers from sins at the root. But his trajectory is virtually opposite of Walt’s. Whereas Walt’s reassuring exterior slowly crumbles to reveal the demons within, Jesse’s disturbing exterior fades to reveal the divine.
Tonight, I think we saw Jesse’s righteous, indignant God to Mr. White’s slithering devil.
Oh, and might I add: The “Confession” for which this episode was officially named?
It was diabolical indeed.
What did you think of last night’s episode? Is Mr. White the devil or WHAT?!