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The Reason Jesse Pinkman Wasn't Killed Off During Breaking Bad Season 1

AMC's Breaking Bad was a landmark television drama, and it wasn't just because it was brilliantly written, expertly plotted, and beautifully photographed (although the series was totally all of those things). From its leads all the way down to its one-off, single-episode characters, the show's cast turned in some of the best performances the small screen has ever seen — and among all of those amazing pieces of acting, few could argue that Aaron Paul's turn as Jesse Pinkman, the hapless accomplice of Bryan Cranston's high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White, was one of the best.

Paul created a character that, while riddled with faults, was incredibly easy to root for. Sure, Jesse was self-centered, endlessly self-pitying, always in pursuit of a quick buck, and before the series was over, he would progress from small-time drug dealer to reluctant murderer. But he also had a remarkable capacity for caring, loyalty, and trust — qualities which, unfortunately, made it all too easy for him to tumble down the endless rabbit hole of crime, deception, and death created by "Mr. White."

So indelible was Paul's portrayal of Pinkman that it's virtually impossible to imagine the character being played by anyone else. It wasn't just the crack writers' room that made audiences sympathize with Jesse, but Paul's nuanced, soulful performance. The actor made Jesse unforgettable — but he almost didn't get the chance to. Originally, it was the plan of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan for the character to die violently near the end of the first season, a development which was intended to raise the stakes for Walter, and hasten his transformation into the ruthless, deadly drug lord known as Heisenberg.

A writers' strike helped save Jesse Pinkman

One of Gilligan's pitches to studio executives before Breaking Bad entered production would have seen Jesse killed in a drug deal gone bad. Blinded by rage, Walter was to kidnap the guy responsible, holding him captive in his basement and torturing him in unspeakable ways. (via IndieWire)

Studio brass talked Gilligan down from that particular ledge, but the idea of killing Jesse off remained — until fate intervened. Jesse was to meet his fate in the ninth episode of Breaking Bad's first season, but you may have noticed that said season only consists of seven episodes. This is because in the middle of its production, the 2007 Writers' Guild of America strike got underway, forcing the season to be shortened.

Faced with having a bunch of time on his hands while the issue slowly resolved itself, Gilligan got to thinking. As he began to plot the trajectory of the show's second season, he began to have a change of heart about Jesse — which never would have happened if the writers' strike had been averted, and the first season of Breaking Bad had kept to its intended production schedule. It may be the only time in television history that a character was given a stay of execution on account of writers refusing to do their jobs, but as Gilligan was forced to admit, the strike wasn't the only factor in his eventual decision to let Jesse live.

Aaron Paul's performance kept Jesse Pinkman alive

While telling the story of how Jesse was saved by the writers' strike at PaleyFest 2010 in Los Angeles, Gilligan had the opportunity to go into a little more detail. With the principal cast, including Paul, seated next to him, he explained that Jesse's eventual fate — being spared, only to get put through the wringer for five increasingly harrowing seasons — was actually on account of Paul himself.

"You wanna know why I almost [killed Jesse off]?" Gilligan asked the moderator; he then gestured toward Paul, and said, "Because I didn't know how damn good this guy was... I'm selling the story a little bit. The truth is, actually, that is technically true [that the writers' strike altered the series' trajectory]." He then turned to Paul and addressed him directly, saying, "I have to say, the writers' strike, in a sense, didn't save you. Because we knew by episode 2 — we all did, all of us — our wonderful directors and our wonderful producers... everybody knew just how good you are, and a pleasure to work with, and it became pretty clear early on that that would be a huge, colossal mistake to kill off Jesse."

In fact, Jesse managed to outlive Heisenberg himself — and even found a modicum of peace at the conclusion of the Netflix original film and follow-up to the main series, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Paul has gone on to an enviable career, but he'll always be remembered for being the bleeding heart and tortured soul of the greatest hour-long television drama ever produced.