Shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony Soprano and Omar Little, Brian Cranston’s Walter White from AMC’s runaway success Breaking Bad will undoubtedly go down as one of the very greatest characters of television.
As the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White transforms himself from an innocent father to a ruthless gangster across the course of five stunning seasons, Cranston’s development is marvellous if also genuinely heartbreaking. The reactions, shock, and heartbreak of his wife, son, and close friends as they see the man they once knew evolve into something quite terrifying are genuinely agonising, but only so because of Cranston’s central performance.
Though, arguably, such a character could not be constructed without the comradery and buffer of Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. The former pupil of Walter White at J. P. Wynne High School, Pinkman is a perceived lost cause ploughing down the wrong path of life when we first see his character escaping out of the second-story window after the threat of a police raid. Approaching Jesse after the incident, White conspires with his former pupil to cook methamphetamine as a way to pay for his treatment and provide financial security for his family.
Pinkman, more than willing to go along with White’s plan, secures an RV to create meth whilst White works to collate all the necessary unregulated chemicals, thus starting their drug empire from the back of the van. Throughout the course of Breaking Bad’s five seasons, this relationship blossoms into something far grander, with the reliance of Walter White on Jesse Pinkman slowly swapping to the point where Jesse is dependent on White for support.
Though their relationship is symbiotic, and just as Walter White is key to the growth of Jesse Pinkman, helping him to face the consequences of his own selfish actions, Jesse is also key to Walter’s growth, or rather his lack of it; grounding the protagonist to his familial connections. The two characters are codependent on each other’s existence which is why the psychological descent of Aaron Paul’s character in the final two seasons is so emotionally torturous for White.
Fascinatingly, the casting of Aaron Paul was initially called into question by the production team as they thought that the actor looked too good looking to be associated with cooking meth; breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan went back on this decision, however, after he watched Paul guest-star on The X-Files episode ‘Lord of the Flies’. Gilligan also revealed at PaleyFest LA that he had originally planned to kill off Paul’s character at the end of the first season, before noting, “It became pretty clear early on that would be a huge, colossal mistake, to kill off Jesse”.
If Gilligan had, in fact, gotten rid of Pinkman’s character, Breaking Bad would have been far worse off with no longer a physical representation of the damage Walter White was doing to those around him, as well as those who received the meth he was creating. Pinkman is a manifestation of all of Walter White’s guilt, fear, regret and trepidation; without him, the protagonist would merely be a fractured mind on a wild goose chase toward narcotic dominance. Bryan Cranston’s performance as the iconic chemistry teacher turned drug lord is a fantastic one, though without the existence of Jesse Pinkman, and the performance of Aaron Paul, he wouldn’t be half as compelling.