Jesse Pinkman had it rough. So rough that, if you’re like me, you may feel a tear or two of happiness form in your eyes as you think about that final moment of a battered Jesse driving away, laugh-crying, finally (maybe) free. While, admittedly, some of Jesse’s problems stemmed from his own bad decisions, he became a character we rooted for, a character we wanted to see escape.
Jesse’s an addict, and in a society that tends to shun addicts, Jesse could have just been another one-dimensional worthless druggie. But Breaking Bad did something great by giving Jesse a conscience and a heart and humanity, qualities TV and movies often ignore when portraying addicts. We get to see Jesse’s complexity in the episode “Peekaboo” when he sets off to retrieve stolen money and drugs for Skinny Pete and ends up forming a bond with the offenders’ son, a toddler left alone at home. This kid, a red-headed little boy with snot dripping out of his nose and a Marshmallow Fluff mustache, is the product of two addicts much worse off than Jesse. When the parents finally do get home, they’re dirty, scabbed, and incoherent – not exactly the picture of good parents.
Jesse puts on a tough-guy face when he’s dealing with the couple, pointing a gun at them throughout his tirade and overall acting like a careless, violent man no better than Walter White. Unlike Walter though, Jesse still keeps the kid in mind during his mission. He panics when the kid goes missing, frantically asking the parents where he went. He berates the mother for not taking proper care of her son. At this point, protecting the child is as important to him as doing what he was there to do.
It’s easy to look at this episode and say, “anyone would have sympathy for that kid, it doesn’t make Jesse special,” and maybe that’s true. But we are talking Jesse Pinkman, Walter White’s accomplice, here. He’s not supposed to be “good,” he’s supposed to be a morally skewed drug kingpin. As the show progressed though, as we now know, Walter White became the one with the problematic morals (if he had any by the series’ end) while Jesse continually strived to be better, to escape the life he was in. The “Peekaboo” episode was one of the finest instances of Jesse struggling between navigating a bad situation and retaining his morality because it gave him a choice: He didn’t have to protect the kid from the sight of his dead father; he didn’t have to call 911 so the cops would rescue the kid. He could have just gone on with his business, getting the drugs and the money and moving on with his life. But he was given the choice and he did help the child.
This episode and Jesse Pinkman in general wouldn’t have been as powerful without Aaron Paul, who received an Emmy nomination for his acting in “Peekaboo.” He plays the role of a frustrated drug dealer with an almost childlike aggression and turns his relationship with the kid from something slightly heartwarming – I couldn’t have been the only one who aww’d when Jesse first tried to make the kid smile with a game of peekaboo – to something heartbreaking. At episode’s end, Jesse struggles to leave even as the sound of approaching sirens becomes louder. He stares at the kid in a way that seems to say, I hope what happened to me doesn’t happen to you. Jesse’s life would only worsen from this point on – he’d go on to find Jane’s dead body next to him, to watch Andrea get killed, to murder Gale – which makes watching this scene again even harder. The kid, no matter how terrible his current circumstances, still had a shot. Jesse didn’t.
Jesse grabs the kid before leaving and sets him on the front stoop, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. Staying any longer could have resulted in a run-in with the cops, and with everything going on in that house, Jesse would have surely been arrested. But he did stay for just seconds longer to grab the kid by the shoulders and say, voice quivering, ”You have a good rest of your life, kid.” And man, I hope he did.