The Salvation of Jesse Pinkman: Is There Room for God in ‘Breaking Bad?’

The Salvation of Jesse Pinkman: Is There Room for God in ‘Breaking Bad?’ September 3, 2013

If you’ve been watching the most recent Breaking Bad episodes (recaps here and beware spoilers!), you know that poor Jesse Pinkman is a mess.

He’s addicted to drugs, wracked with guilt over murders he’s witnessed, consumed with rage toward his evil mentor Walter White, and desperate to somehow make amends. He’s so desperate that he drives around town in the wee hours like a demented tooth fairy, tossing bundles of cash to sleeping neighborhoods.

He’s got what we would call demons.

Any person of faith knows this moment, this recognition that things aren’t the way they should be, that I myself am not what I should be, that there is no way to fix the mess I’ve made and yet that it’s vitally important that it be fixed. In fact, fixing it is the only thing that matters.

We call it a “come to Jesus moment.”

And we see it, too, in real life: In the convicted murderer who dissolves in tears, in the addict who surrenders, in the white collar thief who gives up his wealth and heads for the mission field, and ordinary adulterer who hits bottom and calls out to a God, only faintly hoping there will be an answer.

It’s so common as to be a cliche. Life brings us to our knees. The results of our own misdeeds bring us to our knees.

Why not Jesse?

Series creator and head writer Vince Gilligan has made a pair of profoundly human, neo-Shakespearean story arc contrasting Walt’s descent into depravity with Jesse’s desperate clinging to something – anything – good. I am in awe of Gilligan’s storytelling prowess, and that of his team. I am in awe of the acting: Aaron Paul as Jesse and Bryan Cranston as Walt.

And yet – so far – they’re missing something so primally human, so common that it hides in plain sight: The desperate man’s desperate plea to his Creator.

As writer Anne Lamott has said, there are only three prayers: “Help me, thank you, and wow.”

Jesse is certainly at the “Help me” stage.

The final episodes are written and filmed, so Jesse’s future is set in stone, a future I doubt will include God, but I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye: Jesse wandering into a seedy, beaten-down Catholic innercity mission, talking to a priest who’s seen it all but still doesn’t know how to handle Jesse’s confession. Or, maybe, Jesse falling in with a Pentecostal black church whose members have seen the insides of prisons and love Jesus – and aren’t afraid to show it by rolling in the aisles. Or maybe Jesse slipping into the back pew of the church of a televangelist, a showman who doesn’t even believe his own show, but whose disingenuous words still strike Jesse with truth.

Someone who tells him God loves him, even him.

Man, it could be good, so….interesting.

The conventional wisdom is that Hollywood avoids faith in general because they don’t want to rule out any part of their audience. But I think it’s really because there’s a lack of imagination and experience in the people writing these stories. Evil they know well. But redemption tends to be boring. It’s terminally nice. It’s yawn-inducing in its vanilla blandness.

But Jesse is way beyond a boring future, isn’t he? He’s ruled out the picket fence and the Lutheran church on Sundays and two towheaded kids.

If I were writing the end of Breaking Bad, I’d follow the old mantra:

Go big or go home.

Jesse is a desperate man in need of redemption. So I’d give it to him, blown up large, exploding off the screen.

As a Franciscan monk, sweating in the war-torn wastes of Sudan, digging wells and risking his life to bring former enemies to peace.

Or as a soft-spoken man slaving away in a innercity mission, tenderly wiping the blood and spittle off raving addicts, like a modern day John Newton (a slaver trader who wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace”).

Or as the founder of an Indonesian orphanage, cleaning and feeding and loving children left parentless by the ravishes of drug use like a modern day Mother Teresa.

Go big or go home.

No revenge on Walt or tragic denouement would be as satisfying as if Jesse found real salvation and real atonement.

Read More:

Breaking Bad Season 6 Episode 1: Blood Money.

Breaking Bad Season 6 Episode 2: Buried

Breaking Bad Season 6 Episode 3: Confessions

Vote on how the series should end here.

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10 responses to “The Salvation of Jesse Pinkman: Is There Room for God in ‘Breaking Bad?’”

  1. I used to think the perfect ending of “House” would be House finding God, after desperately fighting Him for so long. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

  2. Jesse in rehab had the opportunity for salvation (albeit not God’s) and saw through it. He is intellectually honest; I think his response to accept himself was something like, what, I just get away with it? Then:
    Jesse Pinkman: You either run from things, or you face them, Mr. White.
    Walter White: And what exactly does that mean?
    Jesse Pinkman: I learned it in rehab. It’s all about accepting who you really are. I accept who I am.
    Walter White: And who are you?
    Jesse Pinkman: I’m the bad guy.

    It would be great if Gilligan could work in Jesse’s salvation in a realistic way, but I don’t think he sees the situation like that. Jesse’s gotta pay…

  3. You know, it’s so funny. Still, even at this point, I can see just about anything happening. Everyone getting away with it. Walt getting totally busted in some way. Jesse making atonement. Skyler losing the only thing that matters to her: her kids, or maybe Skyler keeping her kids but losing her soul.

    I have NO idea how it’s all going to wrap up.

  4. Love this!

    I SO hope for “grace interrupting karma” for Jesse. However.. Based on this quote from Vince Gilligan, I doubt it – unless he had a change of heart of course.. (Pun intended 😉
    But the real genius of the show is the philosophy behind it. Vince Gilligan was asked why he created this story. And what he said was so profound, I’ll just post it in it’s entirety:

    If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin (portrayed in the Last King of Scotland) living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.

    Did you catch that? “I feel this need for some sort of Biblical atonement, or justice or something…”Gilligan went on to say that he made Breaking Bad because he wants to believe there’s a heaven. “But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

  5. I don’t know either; at the beginning of the season, I thought the only ones left standing would be Marie, Jesse, and Saul. Now, I feel I know Walt isn’t going to make it out alive because he’s turned (using people like jesse, not caring if they live or die). Skyler has also turned (“What’s one more?”). Saul is true to his nature and I think, for that reason, will survive. But I have no idea anymore about Marie or Jesse. I want to *pray* for these folks! But their fates, at this moment, are predestined.

  6. I cried when Jesse said that. 🙁 I hope for redemption for him, but based on Vince Gilligan’s quotes listed above, I doubt it.. but I am still holdin’ out hope. 🙂

  7. redemption, atonement =/= God. God’s name doesn’t have to be uttered so that he can redeem himself. I like the idea you present, but it would gall me if he went the church route. It’s a cop out, I’d rather think he had the strength to realise all the evil he done rather than finding his way reading some stupid bible (no offense).

    Religion has been far distorted and convoluted from it’s original form, you don’t find God outside of yourself. You find him within your right actions and after getting rid of your egos. Church is maybe a stage for which it’s easier to connect, however the rituals lose meaning if you truly don’t understand for what reason you go there. It’s a personal experience, not some story book telling you how to live your life.

    So my proposition for Jesse’s redemption would be martyrdom. He won’t need to believe in god to do that, but just the contemplation of doing the right thing even if it means the ultimate sacrifice.

  8. I liked your comment very much and after reading it I thought martyrdom would be a good end as well.

    I like many things about what you say. My only sticking point is that I don’t think it’s evident that man has within himself the power to save himself. If you look at the world, I see no evidence of that. And certainly not in my own heart or experience. I came to the end of myself. I had nothing left. And then that’s when God stepped in.