In AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ – arguably the greatest show airing on television at this moment in time – much of the tension centres on the cat-and-mouse chase occurring between chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook Walter White and his cocksure DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader, with the viewer’s assumption being that the truth will finally out as the show nears its conclusion. Needless to say, the proverbial doo-dah is expected to hit the fan in the most distressing fashion. Add to the mix Walter’s precarious, uneasy partnership with his calculating and frequently murderous boss, and you have yourself two boiling pots of tension that continue to bubble and burst, threatening to blow up at any moment. However, at both the beginning of the show and Walter’s beginnings as a meth cook, one key tension that is not currently present provided much of this drama’s sense of jeopardy. This jeopardy was created and sustained through the many ways in which Walter would attempt to conceal his double life from the apparent benefit of his family, most notably his wife, Skyler. Not one to drag out a goldmine until it runs dry, the show’s creators – led by the visionary Vince Gilligan – had Skyler confront Walter in the finale of Season 2, eventually leaving him and having the show’s audience presume that the pair would be going their separate ways.
Thankfully, this has not turned out to be the case. At the close of Season 3 and throughout much of Season 4, Skyler has slowly but surely come around to the gains of Walter’s misdeeds whilst casually glossing over the losses (until it’s too late, that is). Using her business credentials to assist her husband in the criminal art of money laundering, what could have easily been a messy break-up between the couple has indeed transformed into a mutual business relationship, seemingly tightening the bonds between them while not altogether eliminating the distrust and paranoia. In effect, Walter has brought the business aspect of his life into the home environment where initially he thought it too dangerous to share with, let alone involve, his other half. And yet, this development is not without consequence; for where Walter strikes up business relations with his wife, he thusly brings marital drama out of the household environment and into the workplace wherein it takes the form of a distrustful affiliation with his other partner, Gus Fring, an affiliation that is destructive to not just themselves but to everyone around them. In this sense, the cancer that is Walter White has formed together with another element, the two of them of threatening to envelope more lives in misery and tragedy through their eternal conflict.
In the midst of this maelstrom lies the soul of a child once innocent, once blessed with the gift of life and not the curse of living. From the very start of the show many presumed – just as with the trajectory of the Skyler-Walt relationship – that the dark secrets and increasingly hostile environment of the show both inside and out of the White household would impact badly on Walter Jr., ending in both horror and regret for his father. Indeed, one would presume that Skyler’s initial abandonment of Walter would tear the adolescent apart. Walter White’s symbolisation of the embodiment of cancer on the lives of everyone around him strongly suggests this, and Walter Jr. could still be hurt from this treachery, but that remains to be seen and time will surely tell. For now, the most vulnerable child in all of this (that’s not dead, of course), the one soul who is collapsing beneath the unbearable strain of two authority figures at war with each other, is Jesse Pinkman.
In this article by Chuck Klosterman, it is argued that Breaking Bad is such a unique television drama in part to its characters discovering the boundaries of their morality as they go along, as opposed to other high-end dramas such as The Wire and Deadwood where an individual’s moral code and ethical conduct is conditioned through the context of their surrounding environment. Klosterman cites the extraordinary example of Walter White going from timid school teacher in Season 1 to a black-clad, brooding Heisenberg in Season 4. In contrast to the decision-making Walter, I believe that Jesse is helpless in configuring his own moral identity. He is the lone child caught between an invisible war between Walter and Gus, impacted and shaped each of their swipes toward one another. Jesse has long been trying to convince himself that he’s the bad guy since the first episode, but as seen with his concern towards children in the show, he does indeed possess a good heart and the potential to one day redeem himself.
This potential for Jesse is ruined forever in the closing moments of Season 3 when he is left with no choice but to shoot Gale – Walter’s intended replacement as meth cook for Gus – point blank in the head. This is the pivotal moment in which Jesse’s innocence is destroyed forever, and the point of no return. The downward spiral continues in Season 4, whereby Gus increasingly wins over Jesse’s loyalty by manipulating his actions and ultimately turning him against his former ally. Where Walter had made Jesse murder a defenceless human being, Gus would later attempt the same; the marriage between Walter and Gus so volatile that it impacts the youth caught in the crossfire whose very future rests on their differences either being settled or leading to further bloodshed. With the finale upon us this Sunday night and tension mounting at an alarming rate, Season 4 looks to end the family unit once and for all, for better or worse.