Why Breaking Bad Fans Are Divided On Walt's Treatment Of Jesse

Not many TV relationships have ever been more toxic than the one at the center of the classic AMC drama Breaking Bad — that between high school chemistry teacher/meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his ex-student and partner in crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). It began as an association of pure convenience; diagnosed with terminal cancer, Walter was in search of someone with connections to the drug world to help him move enough meth to provide for his family after his death. Jesse, meanwhile, was sorely in need (whether he knew it or not) of a little discipline and structure to his illegal activities — and it certainly didn't hurt that Walter immediately proved capable of cooking the purest meth anyone had ever seen.

As the series progressed through its five seasons, the relationship between Walter and Jesse was in a constant state of flux. While it could at times carry distinct overtones of a father-son dynamic, it could shift on a dime to feeling more like dictatorial employer and put-upon employee. And while Walter could be highly protective of Jesse, he also never hesitated to steer him toward highly unethical, immoral courses of action when it suited his purposes. 

For a perfect example of the above, look no further than the events of the last few episodes of Breaking Bad's third season. When it becomes clear that the pair's employer, chicken restaurant magnate/drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is indirectly responsible for the death of the 11-year old brother of Jesse's girlfriend, Walter saves Jesse, who is bent on revenge, from Fring's wrath by killing the low-level dealers who employed the boy himself. Then, in the very next episode, Walter saves his own skin by directing Jesse to murder his replacement, the mild-mannered Gale Boetticher, in cold blood — an act which irrevocably stains Jesse's soul.

Breaking Bad fans on Reddit have recently engaged in a spirited discussion around a complicated question: Are Walter and Jesse friends? Did Walter really ever care about Jesse at all, or was he always just using him for his own ends? 

Fans are split on whether Walter cared for Jesse at all

Redditor milkcocoly kicked off the discussion with a post headlined, "What percent of Walter's and Jesse's relationship is manipulation?" They shared a pretty generous view of Walter and his motivations, pointing out, "There are many instances of Walter saving Jesse when he doesn't need to and there are many moments when he shows he loves and cares for Jesse a lot even though he may have done bad things to him...I think 30% of it was manipulation and 70% was friendship but that's my opinion."

Several users took a more hardline view of Walter — like Substantial-Dream, who pegged their attitude toward Jesse as "75% manipulation, 24% vanity, 1% genuine feeling." However, some of them had to admit that Walter's actions in Breaking Bad's finale seemed to betray actual feelings for his young protégé. "[Walter] was only friends with [Jesse] at first out of necessity and circumstance, but definitely cared for him almost like a son at times," wrote theflashsawyer23. "I mean just look at the end of season 5."

User rnickwill chimed in with a great point: that caring for someone and manipulating them are not mutually exclusive. They wrote that they felt Walter's fondness for Jesse was genuine, but that "he still manipulated Jesse to keep him around, do things to keep him alive and keep his plans moving forward. You can love someone and still manipulate them."

Redditor lyssmeouna offered perhaps the most thoughtful take on the relationship. "I think a part of Walt genuinely cared for Jesse but their relationship is too hard to define, it's so many things at once," they wrote. "For most, if not all [of the times Walter comes to Jesse's rescue], it's always hard to distinguish if Walt acts out of care or out of guilt... [and there are times when Walter obviously views] Jesse as a disposable tool to move forward his interests, the one he can, without second thought, ask and convince to risk his life or lose his soul, so it makes it all confusing."

Bryan Cranston shares his opinion on Walter and Jesse's relationship

Cranston offered up his own take on Walter's feelings toward Jesse in a 2013 chat with Entertainment Weekly shortly after Breaking Bad's finale. You'll recall that Walter's final act was to use an automated machine gun contraption mounted in the trunk of his car to annihilate the neo-Nazis who had been holding Jesse captive and forcing him to cook meth — a situation which Walter himself had been largely responsible for. Cranston implied that, at least in his estimation, Walter had been planning on taking Jesse out at that point, as well — but changed his mind.

"[When Walter] hears that the blue meth is still out there, that Jesse is still cooking, it's like, 'That bastard! He convinced them to be a partner with him, he's still cooking! I'll kill everybody!'" Cranston said. "And then when [the two are face to face], the shred of humanity left in Walter White is exposed at that moment and he [chooses to save Jesse]. So if there's any redeeming quality to him from the standpoint of the audience, it's that moment."

Cranston went on to explain that he felt Walter's sudden change of heart wasn't due to Jesse's relative innocence, but instead had everything to do with the pair's history together. "Their friendship did matter. And it was because of that history and friendship, that was the basis of his impulsivity," he said. "Because otherwise it would just be, '[Wow, look at that poor guy],' but I'm not going to risk my life for some stranger. There is more than familiarity. It's deep-rooted. And it's so true. Because sometimes you don't know the depth of what you feel until you're tested."

In the end, Walter seemed to feel that Jesse deserved a chance at reclaiming his life — even if he himself was all out of chances. Walter was without question a lying, egotistical, calculating manipulator, but in his final moments, he finally became the father figure and protector that Jesse had always needed.