How did we get here?
Consider a central storyline of Season Two: if the first season focused on Walt’s family and the meth-cooking crew that he attempts to assemble, Season Two has much to say about the neighbor. And who is a “neighbor”? A family is constituted by bonds of consanguinity (ones that, as both Aristotle and Hume remind us, are profoundly deep), and the shared task of survival through shelter, food, socialization; but a “crew” or “team” is assembled and disassembled as the goal of the shared project shifts (is Mike, or Lydia, foe or friend? That depends). The “neighbor,” however, seems conceptually distinct from both of these: it suggests a person in regular proximity, whether next door or down the street. Neighbors are, at the very least, potentially involved in maintaining a common environment; watering plants, taking in the mail, watching out for children playing in the street or suspicious characters loitering. One funny moment in the series’ final season (“Blood Money”) is the White’s next-door neighbor’s reaction to the sight of Walt in front of his former house, now fenced off and boarded up. Walt, who has become nationally infamous as the drug lord “Heisenberg,” greets her with a smile and the usual friendly greeting: “Hello, Carol.” Carol, terrified, drops the sack she’s holding.
We may, and often do, feel a special kind of civic responsibility for the people we live among. If I see a neighbor struggling with their groceries, I may help out (open a door, carry the bag); the neighbor is a fellow dweller, and some sense of maintaining an orderly, even friendly, environment, is important. Again, proximity matters: I probably won’t attempt to help a stranger in a different community with those groceries—my efforts might be misunderstood.
In Season Two, the crucial story about neighbors and their mutual care (or the disastrous abuse of it) is, of course, Jesse’s arrival at Jane’s duplex. Both are wounded creatures—Jane is in recovery from drug use, and Jesse is now estranged from his family. Jane is initially dubious about Jesse; Jesse tells her that he “didn’t meet his parents’ expectations again” and that he just “needs a chance;” she relents and rents him the adjoining, identical apartment. These neighbors become friends and then lovers. Jane, like Jesse, is an artist, and their conversations provide a respite from Jesse’s world of drug distribution. When Jesse assembles his team to describe their “sales protocol,” the meeting is “clean”—soda, pretzels, and the warning that no drugs will enter, or be used, in his house (thus keeping his neighborly promise to Jane).
In this “duplexity,” one side of the building houses a recovering addict, while its mirror-image, its conjoined “other,” hides a drug dealer: which apartment will prevail in defining the neighborhood? Jesse’s sense of himself and his environment begins to shift, but the terrors of selling meth are never far away. One of his distributors, his friend Combo, is gunned down in a territory dispute, and Jesse’s horror and rage tip the balance. He tells Jane that he is going to smoke some meth, and that he wants her to leave. She replies, “You could come with me to a meeting—” and reminds him that drugs won’t help. Jesse insists that they will, and the next scene makes it clear that Jane is now using again. The fall from fragile grace is swift: Jane brings home a heroin kit and teaches Jesse how to inject himself.
Walter—who claims that he is trying to get out of the business—finds them both passed out when he breaks in to retrieve the 38 pounds of “product” that Jesse has stashed under the sink. The sale is made (and prevents Walt from being present when his daughter is born); Walt subsequently tells Jesse that he is keeping his half of the money until he stops using. When Jane discovers that Walt has Jesse’s money, she blackmails him into returning it. Now Jesse and Jane can run off to New Zealand.but of course the temptation to have one last heroin binge is too much (indeed, it is what their lives together have become). Walt returns once more, and again finds them in a drugged stupor. He tries to wake up Jesse, but accidentally knocks Jane onto her back. She begins to choke on her own vomit, and Walt makes no effort to save her. She dies as Walt watches.
Before thinking about what kind of responsibility is at work here, and who bears what sort of blame, we should revisit the concept of the neighbor, this time in an existential mode.