Breaking Bad’s finale had the impossible task of living up to the highest expectations any series finale has ever been asked to live up to. One of the big questions going into the episode was the fate of Jesse Pinkman: Would he die? Would it be at Walt’s hand? Would he kill himself? Walt’s fate had essentially been baked into the show’s very premise, but Jesse’s was up in the air until the last moments. And actually — it might still be up in the air. [Don’t read past here if you haven’t watched the finale yet. P.S., get on that.]
Our first shot of Jesse in “Felina” was in a sensuous woodworking fantasy — if not the show’s only dream sequence, certainly a rarity. (I can’t think of another.) The glowy, romantic lighting of the scene was the first clue that Jesse was not a budding Nick Offerman, and the way fantasy-Jesse cradled the box as if it were an infant was so tenderly tragic, of course it couldn’t fit into BB’s universe. The scene is a callback to season three’s “Kafkaesque,” when Jesse gives one of his longest monologues of the series in a group rehab counseling session.
Jesse: I took this vo-tech class in high school, woodworking. I took a lot of vo-tech classes, because it was just a big jerk-off, but this one time I had this teacher by the name of … Mr. .. Mr. Pike. I guess he was like a Marine or something before he got old. He was hard hearing. My project for his class was to make this wooden box. You know, like a small, just like a … like a box, you know, to put stuff in. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked. You know, for putting in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade, he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but … it was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better.” So I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs — no screws. I sanded it for days, until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put nose in it and breathed in, it was … it was perfect.
Group Leader: What happened to the box?
Jesse Pinkman: I … I gave it to my mom.
Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes, adult extension program at the university.
Jesse Pinkman: You know, I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.
Mr. Pike vs. Mr. White. We know Walt once wrote on Jesse’s chemistry classwork “apply yourself!” which is not so different from what Mr. Pike apparently said. And both his teachers were right: When Jesse applies himself, he’s good at things, be it box-making or meth-cooking. Unfortunately, it’s mostly meth-cooking.
No one’s life on Breaking Bad worked out how he or she thought it would. Yes, Jesse’s also the only one enslaved and tortured by a group of neo-Nazis, but he’s not the only person who’s had a rough go of things. We easily could have seen a similar setup for the spiritually battered Skyler, or magical thinking from Marie, or even fantasies of adulation from Walt. But Jesse’s the only one whose mind we get to peek into.
And that’s to give us a little hope about the fate and future of Jesse Pinkman. Over the course of the show, Jesse’s main activity has been suffering. He’s been confused and lonely and frightened, physically assaulted, psychologically tortured, grief-stricken, and addicted to drugs. He has a very limited education. He has no relationship with his parents, most of his friends are loopy drug addicts, one of his mentors killed his other mentor, and the most sensible, stable person in his life was murdered right in front of him. He’s seen a lot of people die, including children. He has killed multiple people. He was basically catatonic at the beginning of this half-season, a ghost with a bag of money and a passive death wish.
Walt could have sat in that cabin in New Hampshire for 30 years, but there would still be some Walt and some Heisenberg in him no matter what. Jesse, though, did seem to have lost his essential Jesse-ness — the Jesse candle had burned out. Even before being held captive by Uncle Jack and friends, Jesse was vanishing before our eyes, eventually collaborating with Hank and not caring about his own well-being.
We got to see him build that imaginary box, though, which means there’s still a piece of a Good-and-True Jesse in there somewhere — the part of him that Walt and Gus and Tuco and Hector and Mike and Gale and Hank didn’t reach. That’s the part that makes Jesse’s escape a happy ending and not just the next chapter in his book of misery. “The romantic in me wants to believe that he gets away with it and moves to Alaska and has a peaceful life communing with nature,” Vince Gilligan tells EW. Jesse can’t go back in time, but at least there’s reason to think he could move forward and not just drown in his own guilt. He’s got plenty of time now to apply himself.