Back when I was in grad school I had to read, study, pour over and absolutely dismantle so many case studies I swear it made my eyes bleed. Sometimes they were about interesting topics like the Bay of Pigs incident or the Valdez Oil Spill, but sometimes they were maddeningly boring. I am going to do a little case study today, but not the boring kind. This one is about Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, the two main characters of the TV show Breaking Bad.
For those of you who don’t know, when the show first starts off Walter White is a meek high school chemistry teacher, even though he is incredibly brilliant. You later learn he helped launch a successful multibillon dollar company but he bailed early. As if that’s not enough to make you wince, he then went to work for Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque (I knew quite a few people who worked there). For some reason he didn’t stay there, probably took at least a 60% pay cut and started teaching. He could have taught on the collegiate level, but he didn’t. Walter White seriously is the underachieving brilliant type everyone looks at and wonders when he lost his balls and if he will ever find them again. To add to his problems, at the beginning of the series he finds out he has lung cancer and likely has a short time to live. His wife is pregnant with a surprise baby and he has a disabled teenage son, so he suddenly realizes he will leave them nothing other than a crummy house in an okay part of Albuquerque and a Pontiac Aztek (which should be counted as a big negative). So Walt turns to manufacturing meth to make some serious cash, finally aspiring to do something aggressive in life, although it’s kind of the wrong way to go about it. More on that in a little bit.
Jesse Pinkman is a kid who grew up in a nice family but chose instead the “thug” life. He tries to dress like a rap star, drives a lowrider and says “yo” way too much (which is at all, unless you are speaking Spanish). Not only that, but Jesse is a drug addict and a meth manufacturer, but not a very good one. Jesse was also Walt’s former student, but he wasn’t exactly a stellar one.
I started off watching the series thinking Jesse was just a worthless punk, some kid who had all the opportunities in life but threw them away so he could find “joy” in a glass pipe. And my feelings about him stayed the same for a while as you see him go into his drug-induced stupidity sessions, lose his house and make a slew of other bad decisions.
At the same time, I started off watching the series immediately identifying with Walt. I didn’t identify with his underachieving side, but I did identify with him as a father trying desperately to provide for his family, willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. I rooted for him, hoped he would be successful so he could leave his family with a future.
The writers of Breaking Bad pull a slow switch as the series plays out. Now that the series is drawing to a close I can honestly say I wouldn’t shed a tear for Walt, even if he died in some horribly violent way. And I can also say that I hope Jesse walks out of everything alive and a better person. That kind of character development is amazing.
If you aren’t caught up on the series, you might not want to read past here. Getting into more detail, I will say there is one thing that separates Walt from Jesse: principles. Walt had some principles when he started out, but I believe he felt he could not go back when he crossed a line. And what was that line? It was taking a life, which Walt did in the third episode of the first season when he killed Krazy 8. You can argue that was in self defense, but Walt thinking about his discussion in college about the chemical composition of the human body indicates it was a breaking point for Walt. Later Walt tells Jesse that he thinks he is going to hell for all of the things he’s done, which explains why Walt’s moral compass seems to be deteriorating more and more. For example, he is adamant about protecting children when he finds out Gustavo’s men were using children as drug mules, but later in season 5 he treats the death of the child witness after their big train heist as collateral damage. Heisenberg, the persona of aggressive Walt who will do anything to build and protect his criminal empire, is taking over Walt more and more, making him cruel and calculating like Gustavo. The work is not about leaving anything for his family but it has become about Walt fulfilling his selfish desires, building up the empire he should have had with Grey Matter. His actions are damaging his family in tremendous ways as his wife teeters on the brink of insanity and his kids live with his brother-in-law.
Meanwhile there’s Jesse. He had a problem with kids being used as drug mules, probably more than Walt since he is the one who makes a big stink right in Gustavo’s face. He is the one who wants to teach the drug dealers using kids a lesson, meanwhile Walt tries to just smooth things over. And that doesn’t change as Jesse can’t handle what happened to the child shot at the end of the train heist. At the risk of being caught, he wants to call the police and leave a tip so the family can know what’s going on. Walt, on the other hand, can only think about what doing that will do to his empire. Even though Jesse starts off as a punk drug addict, he evolves over time. He quits the drugs, relapses, quits again. Jesse never forgets that he was in the meth business for money, not for some ego trip. He also still has limits and obviously does not think he’s beyond the point of return. Jesse is out of the meth business, at least for now, but Walt is so good at manipulating him I worry it won’t last. And that’s another thing, every time Jesse has kicked things up a few notches, it’s always Walt pulling the strings. Walt doesn’t want to get his hands dirty with killing Gale, enforcing their little drug dealer network and so on.
I could go on and on about these two characters, but their respective transformations are amazing to witness.