Breaking Bad Aaron Paul
Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
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This Sunday, AMC’s Breaking Bad begins a final run of eight episodes, bringing the tale of Walter White to its inexorable conclusion. The show has become one of the great running masterpieces of the last half-decade of television, bringing the post-Sopranos model of anti-heroic TV drama to new critical highs (and terrifying new moral lows). What makes it even more impressive is that — in an era defined by ever-more-gigantic ensembles — Breaking Bad has unfurled its epic American tale with a relatively small cast of characters. While other shows opt for cast breadth, Bad has explored each character’s depth, sending them on fascinating byzantine journeys into the interior of their souls. This week, we’ll be taking a close look at all the show’s main characters and presenting a suggested viewing list for the five episodes that best define their arc. We started with alpha-male DEA agent Hank on Monday. On Tuesday, we covered Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walter’s wife and sometime accomplice, who went from unwitting victim to money-laundering queenpin. Walt and Jesse’s cockroach of a lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) got the spotlight Wednesday. And today, we’re focusing on Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt’s tortured on-again, off-again partner.

“Peekaboo” (season 2, episode 6)

Originally, Jesse wasn’t supposed to make it to season 2. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan planned to kill off Walt’s right-hand man at the end of the drama’s first season, leaving the chemist (Bryan Cranston) plagued with guilt and thirsty for vengeance. Thankfully, Aaron Paul’s strong performance (and an episode order truncated by the 2007-08 Writers’ Strike) convinced Gilligan to do some rewrites — paving the way for Jesse to evolve from comic relief wankster to complicated, three-dimensional character.

Walt’s partner in crime began to show new depths in season 1’s fourth episode, “Cancer Man,” which delved into his difficult relationship with his family. It also introduced Jesse’s much-younger brother, whose importance would long outweigh his brief screen time. (Jesse’s got a weakness for kids, particularly little boys who are hurt or in danger.) But he didn’t really come into his own until this ultra-tense season 2 ep, in which Walt orders his partner to “take care of” a couple of thieving methheads. Under the impression that he’s been asked to kill, Jesse can’t bring himself to close the deal — and ends up trapped with Spooge, his “skank,” and their nameless, neglected son. The ordeal proves that Jesse’s much more than a clownish second banana or a pathetic junkie: He’s a gentle soul caught in a harsh world he’ll never really be able to handle, even after a rogue ATM helps him earn a fear-inducing street reputation.

“4 Days Out” (season 2, episode 9)

Walt and Jesse’s relationship has many facets: student/teacher, father/son, abuser/abused (especially in later seasons). Their bond takes center stage in this early bottle episode, which finds the cooks stranded in the desert after Jesse mistakenly drains their RV’s battery. (If only he had just gone to Santa Fe with Krysten Ritter’s Jane!) As anger turns to despair — nobody knows where they are; the battery’s destroyed; they’ve run out of water — Jesse furiously demands that Walt “think of something scientific” to get them out of their predicament, then throws out a bunch of ideas: Turn the RV into a dune buggy! Send up a signal flare! Build a new battery! Make a robot! Miraculously, his Hail Mary galvanizes Walt, showing that Jesse really does bring something important to their partnership — and that he’s more valuable than Walt initially suspected. Plus, the whole thing leads to the series’ funniest exchange:

Jesse: Okay. What are we building?

Walt: You said it yourself.

Jesse, in wonderment: A robot?

The part where Jesse thinks “wire” is an element is a close second.

“Full Measure” (season 3, episode 13)

Breaking Bad‘s body count was in the hundreds at this point, thanks to season 2’s concluding plane crash. But somehow, Jesse managed to get this far while still preserving one shred of innocence: He had never killed anybody. (Walt, on the other hand, had already gassed one drug dealer, strangled another with a bike lock, hit two more with his car, and watched Jesse’s beloved girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit.) All that changed in season 3’s nail-biter of a finale.

After running afoul of drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), Walt tells Jesse they have no choice but to kill the one other person who knows how to cook their meth recipe: nerdy, genial Gale Boetticher. Though Walt plans to do the deed himself, fate intervenes — meaning it’s up to Jesse to pull the trigger. Some viewers thought the episode ended on a cliffhanger; after all, we didn’t actually see Gale’s body fall to the ground. Still, deep down they must have known that despite his tears and shaking hands, Jesse ended up doing as he was told — leaving him irreparably broken, even more so than after Jane’s untimely death. Kudos to Aaron Paul for making us feel worse for the shooter than the guy being shot.

“End Times” (season 4, episode 12)

Jesse spends the first half of season 4 dealing with the psychological fallout of Gale’s death, alternating between reckless behavior and drug-induced numbness. He begins to find a way out of his self-destructive hole when gruff Mike (Jonathan Banks) and fastidious Gus informally adopt him, giving him greater responsibility and slowly driving a wedge between Jesse and Walt. Eventually, Jesse is rewarded with a spot in Gus’ inner circle, while Walt’s been forced out of the superlab — and faces certain death at Gus’ hands.

Then Jesse’s girlfriend’s son (Ian Posada) gets mysteriously, deathly ill … leading a furious Jesse to accuse Walt of poisoning the kid, then to reluctantly join forces with him when Walt swears Gus must be the culprit. Knowing what happens next, this could be Breaking Bad‘s most heartbreaking Jesse episode. He’s one of the only essentially good characters left at this point, but in Breaking‘s world, all that means is that Jesse’s still capable of being manipulated.

“Buyout” (season 5, episode 6)

After an innocent boy is shot and killed by one of his associates — sensing a pattern? — Jesse finally swears off the meth business for good. Well, until he accidentally finds himself sharing dinner with Walt and his contemptuous wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). The meal is a hilarious, horrifying gem of a scene, highlighted by Jesse’s earnest attempts at conversation (on frozen food: “I mean, the pictures are usually so awesome, you know? It’s like, hell yeah I’m stoked for this lasagna! And then you nuke it, and the cheese gets all scabby on top… and it’s like you’re eating a scab. And seriously, like, what’s that all about?”). But there’s nothing funny about the guilt trip Walt feeds Jesse afterwards, which persuades his partner not to leave the biz just yet. Poor, sweet, naive Jesse — will his innate moral compass help him get out of this thing alive? Or will his vulnerable, trusting nature be his undoing?

Honorable Mentions:

“Cancer Man” (season 1, episode 4): We learn Jesse’s backstory; also, he asks his brother to play Jethro Tull on the piccolo.

“Fly” (season 3, episode 10): Another bottle episode that crystallizes the grief Jesse still feels about Jane; it’s more of a showcase for Walt, though.

“Sunset” (season 3, episode 6): Jesse and Walt are trapped in the RV and forced to fend off a hungry Hank (Dean Norris).

“Half Measures” (season 3, episode 12): Jesse is determined to avenge his fallen friend Combo, even if he destroys himself in the process.

“Cornered” (season 4, episode 6): Jesse bonds with Mike and teaches us all how to distract a methhead: Just give him a shovel and tell him to start digging.

“Live Free or Die” (season 5, episode 1): “Magnets, bitch!”

Episode Recaps

Breaking Bad

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.

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