armchair analyst

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Breaking Bad’s Skyler, Walt Jr., and Jesse

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

With the Breaking Bad finale, Vince Gilligan succeeded in giving viewers some much-needed resolution. [Spoilers abound here, but the warnings stop after this week! Just watch it!] Not all of the characters he created were so lucky. Walt died at peace with himself, but his family still has to live, literally and figuratively, with the wreckage he left behind. Jesse drove away a free man, but can he ever really escape his own memories? Yes, we realize that these are fictional characters who don’t technically have a future. But if Gilligan is done with them, then why not pick up where he left off? To discuss the potential effect of Walt’s death on Skyler, Junior, Jesse, and baby Holly, we called up UCLA faculty psychiatrist Dr. Paul Puri for one last conversation about Breaking Bad.

Looking at the finale from a psychological point of view, which character got the least resolution?
I think Walt Jr., because he was completely peripheral. He didn’t experience any of Walt’s changes or even get any new information. The information that Walt passed to Skyler made him more sympathetic to her than he had been, but Junior is probably not going to be privy to any of that. So he would probably end up still thinking of his father as a monster and a killer. He believes his father killed Hank, and that’s not something he will likely find easy resolution for.

How about the most resolution?
The most resolution of anybody, I would probably say, is Jesse. He was able to get the revenge of killing Todd, he felt independence from Walt by not obeying him and standing up for himself, and then he was able to walk away cleanly without any probable legal consequences. So all of those things left him with the cleanest slate in the future.

Looking to Walt Jr.’s future, he’s going to inherit a whole lot of money out of nowhere. How does it affect people when they suddenly accumulate massive wealth?
People in that life are put into a position where their normal restrictions are unchecked, and their impulses are unchecked. So for a while, they can get out of control until they get checked in some other way. This was actually shown very well on the show through Jesse, when he bought his massive TV and bought a lot of drugs and made a lot of enabling friends. For Walt Jr., though, inheriting the money would potentially be a step toward some level of empowerment, because it gives him some control in his life; he’s not dependent on his mother, just as he’s no longer dependent on his father. The question becomes: Will the money be tied to any level of mentorship from Elliot and Gretchen? They’re providing the money, but they could also provide a different model of adult success — other than Walt, Hank, or Skyler — that Junior would be able to follow.

What’s the right age to tell baby Holly about her father?
This is a thing that’s debated in parenting circles, in relation to things like, when do you tell someone that they’re adopted? And there are many models that show, if you tell them from a young age, before they even understand it, then it just becomes included in their personal narrative. They develop their identity from that. So the best time to tell Holly would probably be at an age when she has some level of language, so she can actually understand what it means to a small degree, but not so late that it’s a jarring break to her image of herself or of her family. If she’s been living with an image that her father is a misunderstood man, and then she finds out that he hurt a lot of people, it’s going to be a big blow to her ego and maybe a break with the family members who deceived her.

I don’t know that I trust Skyler to tell Holly the truth.
Yeah. Walt Jr. might, though, and that’s an interesting other dynamic: Where will their sibling relationship go? Particularly since Walt designated the trust for Walt Jr., not both of them. Walt cared more about making it up to his son than making it up to Holly, who probably won’t remember any of this. But as a result, she’ll probably come out the least wounded.

Not to put you on the spot, but what would you even say to a young child to explain something like this?
That daddy was dying, and he did bad stuff thinking he was helping the family, but he ended up murdering a lot of people, and it didn’t work out so well. That’s about the best I can imagine. The more complex explanation she wouldn’t be able to understand until she’s in her teens or twenties.

Skyler was the only person who had an honest conversation with Walt before he died, which probably will help her move on. Even so, there’s a lot of baggage there. What will she need to work on?
I think she may have less anger toward Walt after that conversation, and may feel a little more sympathetic, and thus he’s less demonized in her mind. The difficulty, though, is that she will likely end up with a classic kind of PTSD, i.e. fear conditioning, because she knows there are gang members who may still come after her. She may live in fear for years, and be on edge and hyper-vigilant, never really sure who to trust. And also, when you’ve been married to someone for twenty years, and all of a sudden he becomes this monster, how could you ever trust again?

So Skyler won’t be dating again anytime soon.
There’s not a whole lot that’s actually positive for Skyler in this, aside from maybe bonding with her sister again. Her prognosis is not good. But maybe she’ll be able to write a great book about it.

Back to Jesse: He has now broken all ties with his former life. Will he be able to completely start over? Is he in danger of developing some kind of dual identity because of his secret horrible past?
Theoretically, that is the reason behind the “dissociative fugue,” which is what Walt faked when he was naked in the grocery store. Someone has a bad experience, disappears, creates a new identity somewhere else, and barely remembers their old identity. They just shut that off. What we understand from a lot of trauma research is that people commonly end up avoiding reminders, anything that would stir up anxiety. So he might do any number of things to not be reminded about the negative aspects of his past. What might be interesting is if he develops a different outlook on his past. He was always searching for a father figure, and he may end up remembering Walt as someone who rescued him.

So in order to make peace with himself, he’d have to look back at these years as a time when he learned a lot of valuable life lessons?
I think that would be a good reframe about the experience. If and when he can come to view it that way, then he can view himself as a better person, having gotten beyond that. He’s no longer the punk guy that’s a wannabe drug dealer. He’s a guy who knows better than all that.

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