“We Make Poison for People Who Don’t Care”
Throughout Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman represents a breaking down of the framework of patriarchal structures and the prescribed places of men and women within that structure. During the penultimate episode, “Granite State,” the Neo-Nazis watch Jesse’s tearful confession video: “Does this pussy cry through the entire thing?” Jack asks. While Jack was talking about the confession video, Jesse does indeed cry throughout the entirety of Breaking Bad. In his early 20s, Jesse has made an illicitly comfortable life for himself as “Cap’n Cook,” a small-time meth cook. For the first few seasons, Jesse is notorious for making homophobic slurs against Walt, and for using terms like “faggot,” “homo,” and “pussy” as pejoratives, and most famously, “bitch” as a punctuation mark. The slurs fade as the series progresses and he matures, but from the beginning, he is clearly sensitive and compassionate.
Jesse’s aunt died from cancer, and he helped care for her while she was ill. He lives in her home now, which is still decorated somewhat effeminately. Jesse’s role as caretaker and his relationship to the domestic space are highlighted early on. When Walt suffers the effects of chemo, Jesse fans him to cool him down, and asks about his radiation dot. He advises him to put an ice pack on his head during chemo to help hair loss (“Crazy Handful of Nothin’”).
In contrast, Hank calls Jesse a “junkie murderer,” and Walt belittles him for his lack of education and addiction at every turn. Walt consistently tells Jesse that his life is less important because he doesn’t have a family; however, Jesse shows more familial care and empathy than any other character.
Jesse’s relationships are always shown as incredibly important to him. When Combo is killed, Walt coldly asks, “Which one was that?” and incenses Jesse. He is smarter than Badger and Skinny Pete, but he treats them with respect and kindness. He’s polite to those in positions of authority—real or imagined—as he always calls Walt “Mr. White” and treats Skyler with an almost humorous level of respect, complimenting her “lovely home” and delicious green beans that have “slivered almonds” (she retorts that they are from the deli) (“Buyout”).
When Jesse rents a duplex, he excitedly shows his friends around and shares his plans for the decor. He shows them where the TV is going, and where he’ll place seating, candles, and a fountain. Badger talks about how a 3D TV would be great for porn, and Combo says that women will “cream up real nice for candles and shit” (“Breakage”). Jesse shows no interest in either of their comments; he’s attempting to set up a home.
When he and Jane meet, she’s drawing an angel. As they develop a relationship, she suggests they go to Abiquiu to see a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit. While Jane playfully promises paintings that look like vaginas, they focus on the painting “My Last Door” (“Abiquiu”). This visit happens in Jesse’s flashback while he is struggling with her death. Before Jane starts using again, and Jesse uses heroin, they had a promise of a future, highlighted by these feminine spaces of domesticity and art. Jesse would cook for her, and they imagined a different life. The first time Jane wanted to visit the O’Keeffe exhibit, Walt called Jesse and demanded he join him for a binge cooking session.
Jesse is a natural caretaker with children. In “Peekaboo,” Jesse has to go to the home of two addicts who held up Skinny Pete. He was willing to chalk up the loss to “breakage,” but Walt says, “What you call breakage is just you making a fool of yourself.” Jesse breaks into their house and has a gun pointed, nervous and terrified as he prepares to confront the thieves. A tiny boy emerges from the disgusting mess of the home and crawls up on the couch to watch TV. Jesse asks, “Don’t you want to watch Mr. Rogers?” but there are only shopping channels. He makes a sandwich for the child and plays peekaboo with him, putting him to bed and tucking him in when he hears the couple approaching. He even takes the boy with him outside after calling 911 because of Spooge’s death under the ATM. “You have a good rest of your life, kid,” he says. His discomfort and utter terror in the face of demands to enact violence and his compassion and care for the little boy show Jesse’s character. He convinces himself that he is the “bad guy” as the series progresses, but Jesse’s core ethic of care is the consistent heartbeat of the show. His relationship with Andrea’s son, Brock, also exemplifies his natural connection to children. The instances in which Jesse becomes intensely vengeful and violent are related to harm caused to children: when Andrea’s little brother is used and then killed by a gang that works for Gus, when Todd kills Drew Sharp, and when he figures out that Walt poisoned Brock. Jesse is selfless and self-deprecating, but will risk everything if a child is hurt.
When Jesse kills Gale (on Walt’s command), he is transformed (“Full Measure”). Gale softly says to him, “You don’t have to do this,” but Jesse feels compelled to save Walt since Walt had saved him. Walt/Gus and Jesse/Gale are certainly reflexive pairs, with Walt ultimately responsible for Gus’s death and Jesse responsible for Gale’s death. While these are ostensibly business decisions, considering these characters through the lens of gender provides support for Breaking Bad's commentary on gender complexity and anti-patriarchy. Gale’s sexuality is never mentioned, but he is a man who’s not constrained by gender expectations. He’s making tea and singing when Jesse knocks on his door. He sings “Major Tom (Coming Home)” on karaoke (which Hank berates), a song based upon David Bowie’s character; he loves Walt Whitman (Bowie and Whitman both defy gender expectations and were sexually fluid). Of all the characters in the meth business, Gale and Jesse were the most sympathetic; perhaps their lack of adherence to patriarchal expectations and their ethics of care intensified our sympathy. After Jesse kills, he slips into isolation and addiction; violence doesn’t give him the virile power that it gives Walt.
Capitalism is closely aligned with patriarchal thought and action. Certainly Walt’s efforts to build an empire (to psychologically and financially make up for his “lost empire” in Gray Matter Technologies) to gain power and money, which capitalism and patriarchy as we know it see as bedfellows. Jesse, however, makes clear early on his disdain for this system. In “Gray Matter,” he is in a suit, attempting to get a job. What he thinks is a sales job is actually an advertising job—dressing up as a dancing dollar bill on the street. He refuses. Meanwhile, Walt and Skyler attend a birthday party for Elliott Schwartz (he and his wife, Gretchen, who Walt had dated, now run Gray Matter). Walt and Skyler are dressed gaudily and do not fit in, and Walt’s pride is compromised at every turn. When Walt is faced with what he considers shame or affront to his pride, he doubles down. He will make more money; he will become more powerful. Jesse does not operate in that framework. The more money and power he has, the more uncomfortable he seems. In his darkest moments, he seeks to make more money (Season Three), but quickly finds emptiness. When he’s given bags of money in the final season, he attempts to give it to the family of Drew Sharp and to Kaylee Ehrmantraut after Walt kills Mike. When Saul refuses to let him, he throws money into the yards of strangers. Jesse realizes that money will not make him whole. In “Felina,” he flashes back to a story he had told his therapist: he loved woodworking in high school, and worked hard to make a beautiful wood box. He had traded it for weed, but the flashback shows the love and care—and beautiful craftsmanship—that Jesse is capable of.