Jesse Pinkman Was The True Heart And Soul Of Breaking Bad

"Breaking Bad" has plenty of funny moments, but at its heart, the story is a tragedy. The acclaimed series follows put-upon high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who begins to deal meth in order to ensure a financial future for his family after a cancer diagnosis. As Walt's morality crumbles and he becomes a drug kingpin, the only character to really hold his humanity accountable is his business partner, former student and meth dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Walt slowly alienates himself from his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn), son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), and brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), but Jesse never quite gives up on "Mr. White." 

Jesse was initially supposed to die at the end of the first season in order to make Walt realize the dangers of his new lifestyle, but the chemistry between Paul and Cranston was undeniable. From the first time Jesse shows up in the series, dropping out of a window shirtless during a DEA raid, he's a bright spot in the darkness of the show, youthful and earnest and mischievous. He's the perfect foil for Walt, who is older, bitter, and jaded. Their partnership is the driving force of the story, and while Walt is definitely the brains of the outfit, Jesse is the pair's beating heart. 

Love and laughs

Just as Jimmy and Kim's romance on "Better Call Saul" keeps viewers rooting for the pair, the bizarre friendship between Walt and Jesse is what makes "Breaking Bad" work on an emotional level. Walt's relationship with his family is deeply strained even at the beginning; there's simmering resentment between everyone at the breakfast table going all the way back to the pilot. He has nothing to lose, so his descent into being a drug kingpin loses some of its weight and becomes just sort of a weird joke about a chemistry teacher related to a DEA agent who becomes a criminal. Jesse gives Walt's journey real stakes and breaks up the tension with some humor, which is much-needed several times throughout the grim and often heart-wrenching series. 

Some of the series' funniest moments happen through Jesse's good-natured goofing around and juvenile sense of humor. He finds ways to entertain himself because he's basically a child in a world of stern adults, and that entertainment gets passed onto us. Whether he's awkwardly sipping water during dinner between Skylar and Walt and making the world's most uncomfortable expression or playing around with the equipment in a meth lab, Jesse's whimsical nature brings necessary levity. 

A kicked puppy

The characters in "Breaking Bad" and its spin-off series "Better Call Saul" are almost all doomed to tragic fates, because Gilligan apparently really enjoys torturing his characters. In a podcast with IndieWire in 2013, Gilligan revealed that he not only originally planned to kill Jesse at the end of season 1, but that Jesse's death would lead to a series of events that ended with Walt Jr. dying horribly as well. The studio executives weren't exactly thrilled with the idea, and the other writers helped him take things down a few notches. Some of the ideas he came up with would be repurposed for other storylines, but Jesse (and Walt Jr.) would live. 

That didn't mean that Jesse was off the hook completely, however. Because Walt is dying and he grows progressively more heartless, he's impossible to hurt. Jesse, however, is an empathetic, broken creature who just wants to be loved. Over the course of the series, Jesse is brutalized mentally, emotionally, and physically, eventually culminating in his capture and literal torture at the hands of a group of neo-Nazis. It's harrowing stuff, and Paul plays it to perfection. His humanity is raw and real, a stark contrast to Cranston's calculated cruelty as Walt. He repeatedly tries to get out of the business or to step things down, desperate for a return to the days when he cooked garbage meth laced with chili powder because at least things were simple. 

When Jesse finally escapes the neo-Nazis and runs away for good at the end of "Breaking Bad," he cries with both pain and joy. He's free, but he's survived so much and the future isn't going to be easy. 

Important enough to earn his own movie

Gilligan had too many ideas for the "Breaking Bad" universe, and the incredible characters he created eventually spun the series off into a whole franchise. The incredible sorta-prequel series "Better Call Saul" has given so much more background to Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) that he might actually be the franchise's main character, not Walt, but Jesse is still a vital part of the whole shebang. In fact, the first addition to the "Breaking Bad" canon was "El Camino," a Netflix film from Gilligan that told the story of what happened to Jesse after he escaped in the final episode of the series. While some fans found the movie to be extraneous, those who had become attached to Jesse finally got a satisfying conclusion to his story. After all, the end of "Breaking Bad" gives Walt the ending he deserves, so why not poor Jesse?

"El Camino" shows Jesse as a deeply broken man who will never be the same, but there's hope that he can start a new life in Alaska. His heart was almost always in the right place, and Walt often pushed him to do things he would never have done otherwise, going all the way back to dissolving a corpse in acid in season 1. Jesse went from a goofy little punk who said "b****" too often to one of television's most compelling characters, and without him, "Breaking Bad" would have been just another story about a seemingly normal guy turned evil because of dire situations. Instead, it's a perfect character study of two men who couldn't be more different, and that duality is everything. Look, they don't build bronze statues in downtown Albuquerque of just anyone, okay?

"Breaking Bad," "El Camino," and "Better Call Saul" are all streaming on Netflix.