What Jesse Knows — and What We Still Don’t Know — About the Ricin on Breaking Bad

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 11 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 11 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC/Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures Television/AMC

One of Breaking Bad’s most impressive qualities is how well it plays with information disparity: Sometimes the audience knows more than the characters; sometimes the characters know more than the audience. In any given scene, no two people are operating with the same knowledge — not Hank and Marie, not Jesse and Skinny Pete, not Walt and, well, anyone. [Spoilers from last night’s episode from here on out.] Last night’s “Confession” took the show’s who-knows-what storytelling to its extreme: Hank knows Walt paid for his medical treatments. He knows Walt’s powers of manipulation are greater than Hank had previously imagined.

And Jesse knows about the ricin cigarette.

That’s the biggie from “Confessions,” Jesse’s sudden a-ha moment. But even as it all clicked together for poor Pinkman, it was perhaps less crystal clear to the audience. Here’s what we know:

About the ricin in general: Recall that back in season two, Walt cooked up a batch of ricin with the plan to use it to kill Tuco. (Plan thwarted.) Then he made another batch in season four, this time with the plan to take out Gus Fring. Walt stored this ricin in a tiny vial that looks like a perfume sample and fits neatly in an emptied-out cigarette — though one would have to take the vial out of the cigarette and stealthily pour the poison into someone’s food or drink or somehow get a target to inhale the particles. (Or one could dissolve the ricin in a liquid and inject someone with it, though that seems very hard to pull off.) Anyway, Walt never used the ricin on Gus either. In the first half of season five, he thought about using it against Lydia, but also decided against that, too. Walt stashed the ricin vial behind the plate of an electrical outlet, and in this season’s “Blood Money” flash-forward opening sequence, we saw him retrieve it. So: The ricin still has not been used. But … someone better get poisoned soon, or BB’s going to owe us and Chekhov* a big explanation.

What Jesse put together: Last night, Jesse realized Huell pick-pocketed his weed, and that might as well have turned on a cartoon lightbulb over his head. In season four’s penultimate episode, “End Times,” the one where Jesse’s girlfriend’s son Brock gets rushed to the hospital, Jesse also thought Huell had pick-pocketed him, that time lifting the pack of smokes that contained the ricin cigarette and replacing it with a non-ricin pack. This is exactly what happened, but Walt convinced Jesse that he was wrong, that the ricin-pack must have been stolen out of his locker in Gus’s lab, and that Gus was therefore behind Brock’s poisoning. Walt was very convincing, and if there’s anything we know about the Walt-Jesse dynamic, it’s that Jesse is virtually powerless against Walt’s manipulations. Just ask Gale! Jesse did what Jesse does and substituted Walt’s ideas and judgement for his own ideas and judgement, and thus assured himself that Gus must be behind the missing ricin.

After Jesse learns that Brock was not in fact exposed to ricin, he panics. That means Gus didn’t steal the poison — that perhaps Jesse just lost it, meaning an innocent person could theoretically be exposed to it. The ever-sensitive Jesse is beside himself, and he calls Walt for help. (Oy, always a mistake.) Walt, who in fact has the real ricin vial, creates a fake ricin cigarette that he then plants and “finds” in Jesse’s house. This gives Jesse peace of mind but also continues the gas-lighting process by which Walt teaches Jesse that Jesse’s own ideas are bad, wrong, dangerous, stupid, and short-sighted and that Walt’s are smart and for the common good. It’s part of how Walt has conditioned Jesse, the way lots of abusers condition their victims. At the end of the search for the ricin cigarette, a sobbing Jesse apologizes to Walt. That’s how much Walt can control Jesse! So, so much!

Which brings us back to “Confession.” Jesse had finally confronted Walt, finally accused him of lying, finally said that Walt killed Mike, finally tried again to stand up for himself. And Walt went in for a hug. (World’s most manipulative embrace.) Walt tells Jesse he should disappear, start a new life, let Saul wipe his slate clean and call the vacuum repairman. And as Jesse stands at the side of the road waiting for his escape hatch, he sees that his baggie of weed is missing, and he realizes that Huell took it out of his pocket on orders from Saul. Saul had yelled at him, Huell had patted him down — it made complete sense.

So what we have so far in the episode is (1) Jesse allowing himself to recognize how much Walt has lied to him, and (2) Jesse realizing that Huell is a good pickpocket. That’s when, in a moment of clarity, Jesse knows he’s been right all along: Huell did lift the ricin-pack back in season four, and the big guy was not working for Gus. Huell did that at Walt’s behest. That means Walt was behind Brock’s poisoning, and Jesse had been manipulated yet again.

What we still don’t know: So what exactly did happen to little Brock Castillo? In the season-four finale, “Face-Off,” we learn that Brock was not suffering from ricin toxicity but rather from Lily of the Valley poisoning. We also see that the Whites have a large potted Lily of the Valley plant in their backyard. We know Walt needed Jesse to be on his side against Gus, and that telling Jesse Gus had attempted to kill Brock was a great way to get there. But what we don’t know is how Walt actually poisoned Brock.

At Comic-Con earlier this summer, BB creator Vince Gilligan explained it thusly: ” I think probably what [Walt] did was crush some of the [Lilly of the Valley berries] up and put it in a juice box or something, and being a teacher, he probably knew his way around a school and he probably got into Brock’s nursery school. That’s our inter-story for how it would have happened. It would have been tricky.”

That is not that satisfying! This is a show that pulled off a train heist, for crying out loud. There’s got to be a better way to make a kid eat a berry. This also still provides Walt with way too much deniability when Jesse confronts him: Yes, I took the ricin back from you, but I didn’t do anything to Brock, and you certainly can’t prove that I did.

We also don’t know whom the ricin is now meant for. We saw future-Walt go and get it from the abandoned White home, but he also has a machine gun in his trunk. Under what circumstances is ricin poisoning preferable to shooting? Let’s see: When discretion is important. When immediacy is not essential (since death from ricin poisoning happens 36–72 hours after exposure). When one wants their victim to suffer both physically (ricin causes multiple organ failure) and psychologically (even if a doctor identified ricin poisoning correctly, there’s no treatment for it).

Five episodes left. And this is only a very small part of what’s left to be resolved.

* This article originally misspelled Chekhov. Later in chapter two or three, this will become meaningful.

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