‘Breaking Bad’ Character Analysis


Anna Ferranti '24, Writer

Breaking Bad, produced by Vince Gilligan, has been a classic TV show since it first aired in 2008. The show follows Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, whose life is permanently altered upon hearing the news that he has terminal lung cancer. Panicked by the high costs of treatment for his cancer, Walt enlists the help of his former student, Jesse Pinkman, to start a business cooking crystal meth. The pair quickly develop a high-demand product that leads them further and further down the rabbit hole, permanently altering the course of their lives. Before long, they become extremely notorious and make a lot of powerful enemies. Yet throughout this journey, their characters’ dynamics and personalities change in significant ways.

At the beginning of the show, Walt is a timid, nervous man who has to heavily rely on Jesse Pinkman. While Walt has extensive knowledge of chemistry, he has no experience with the world of drugs. Jesse, however, is the one with the inside connections to the drug world, the one in charge of distributing the product. At this point in the show, the relationship between Walt and Jesse is fairly egalitarian; Walt handles the cooking and chemistry and Jesse handles the business and distribution. While they quarrel over a number of things, there is no significant power dynamic informing their interactions. Walt and Jesse are both still amateurs in the business who equally rely on each other to make a profit. 

As the show goes on, Walt increasingly becomes the more powerful and ruthless component of the pair. He is influenced by powerful kingpins such as Gustavo Fring, who leads him to believe that he doesn’t need Jesse. As Walt becomes increasingly obsessed with the business, he also develops a tendency for violence, something that Jesse struggles to cope with. One of the most striking moments from the show was in the season 3 finale, in which Walt manipulates Jesse into killing Gale Boetticher, a kindhearted innocent man. Jesse is extremely affected by this horrific tragedy, while Walt remains nonchalant. Jesse throws huge parties at his house, even paying people to continue the party so he doesn’t have to be alone with his own thoughts. Conversely, Walt pressures Jesse to keep up with their business, acting as if nothing happened at all. The juxtaposition between Walt and Jesse in the aftermath of Gale’s murder is a key turning point in the future of their relationship, showing how Jesse becomes the pawn in Walt’s twisted game of chess. 

Walt also uses a variety of manipulation tactics to keep Jesse under his control. The most glaring technique used by Walt was the way he capitalized on Jesse’s lack of parental relationships. Jesse’s poor relationship with his parents was seen in the show very early on, coming to a head when his parents kicked him out of his house in season 2. After this moment in the show, Jesse does not have any interaction with his parents, something that deeply affects him. Walt takes advantage of this gap in Jesse’s life by taking on a fatherly attitude when he is trying to get Jesse to do something for him. For example, when Walt is trying to get Jesse to leave his hometown of Albuquerque forever, he embraces Jesse and cradles his head, employing body language and gestures that would be typical of a father to a son. While this originally seems like a heartfelt moment between the two men, it becomes clear that Walt was just trying to take on a fatherly role so Jesse would trust him and do what he said. Walt and Jesse’s relationship is finally irreparably destroyed when Walt poisons Brock, a young boy who is very important to Jesse. Walt used Jesse’s highly emotional and distressed state after learning of Brock’s poisoning to turn him against Gustavo Fring. He manipulates Jesse to believe that Fring poisoned Brock when all along it was actually Walt. This shows how while Walt may have once cared about Jesse’s well-being, by the end of the show his own personal motivations and greed far outweigh any care he has for Jesse. 

Breaking Bad is a fascinating look into how far someone will go for money and how much the pursuit of wealth can change a person. This is exhibited through the development of Walt and Jesse’s relationship, shifting from an equal partnership between two men to an increasingly more pronounced hierarchy between a king and his pawn. Walt becomes consumed by greed and arrogance, turning him into someone completely unrecognizable when compared to how he was at the beginning of the show. As Walt becomes more and more predatory, Jesse becomes increasingly caught in the crossfire. By the season finale, it is clear that Walt has essentially ruined Jesse’s life. When looking back through all the tragedy the pair endured, one question emerges: was it all even worth it?