Breaking Bad: Walter White’s Moral Demise and the People Jesse Pinkman Loves

Contains some spoilers (relating to the end of Seasons 2 and 4).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Walter White’s actions at the end of Season 2 and the end of Season 4. In both cases, he causes harm to someone close to Jesse, and I’ve been thinking about how these two acts of Walt’s alone tell us so much about the dark turns his character has taken. Even though what happens to Jane is worse (she dies) than what happens to Brock (he’s fine, as far as we know), the progression of Walt’s moral demise is still evident because what Walt does to Brock is in some ways worse, for Walt’s part anyway.

At the end of Season 2, Walt watches as Jesse’s girlfriend Jane chokes to death on her own vomit. When Walt goes over to Jesse’s apartment and finds Jesse and Jane passed out in a heroin stupor, he shakes Jesse which causes Jane to roll from her side onto her back and start choking. Walt mumbles, “No, no, no” to himself and you think he’s going to go over and save her but then he stops himself and lets her die.

At the end of Season 4, Walt poisons Brock, the son of Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea, a boy whom Jesse has become very close to. Walt does this as an elaborate plan to manipulate Jesse into thinking that Gus Fring has done it (Gus has used kids in the drug trade before, as well as allowing his guys to kill Andrea’s little brother, both points that Walt uses to convince Jesse that Gus would poison Brock) and win Jesse back on his side so they can work together to kill Gus.

So already, you have intention. With Jane, Walt didn’t go over there with the intention to do her any harm. He didn’t plan for anything bad to happen to her. In the moment, he decided not to act. With Brock though, Walt poisoned the kid on purpose. He did have intention. He made a premeditated plan and (it’s assumed) hired Saul to carry it out. So that already points to the dark turn that Walt has taken.

Then there’s remorse. Walt felt bad about Jane. He goes to some lengths to help Jesse afterward. When Walt rescues him from the crackhouse and Jesse is crying over Jane, Walt seems remorseful. Then he checks Jesse into rehab and lets Jesse stay with him (briefly) after he’s out. It’s almost like he’s trying to make up for what he did. He’s in denial about a lot of things at that point (the best line of that is when he’s talking about the plane crash and says, “I blame the government”) but it seems like he’s harboring secret guilt. There’s a reason he’s so out of touch with his responsibility in things: he wouldn’t have to go to such lengths to rationalize and absolve himself of responsibility if he didn’t, deep down, feel responsible. He also tries to get out of the drug trade at this point, refusing Gus’s offer. (One of my favorite lines at the beginning of Season 3 is when Walt says to Gus, “I’m not a criminal…no offense to those who are,” because it’s funny when he catches himself and attempts not to offend Gus, and because it shows how out of touch with reality he is). Heisenberg sorta goes away for awhile after Jane’s death.

And then, when Walt is going crazy in “Fly” and Jesse drugs his coffee and Walt, as he always does when drugged in any way, starts talking a little too much and a little too honestly, his remorse becomes even more clear. He says twice, “I’m so sorry about Jane,” and his tone of voice as well as his drug-induced lack of a filter, make his words sound heartfelt. Of course, Jesse has no idea exactly what role Walt played in Jane’s death and Walt doesn’t divulge that little tidbit, but his remorse seems sincere.

With Brock, there is no parallel. Walt doesn’t seem to have any remorse or guilt about doing it. He replies in a positive way when Jesse says Brock will be fine but that’s about it. There’s just something so cold and heartless about what Walt has done. Brock was an innocent (and adorable) little kid, and as Jesse says, “it was touch and go for awhile.” Walt could have killed him. There is also no such retreat after he does this, no going back to the old Walter White we once met, no shying away from the drug business that led to all this in the first place. Instead the poisoning is coupled with planting a bomb in a nursing home, killing Gus’s guys at the lab, torching the superlab and in the middle of all that, bringing a bomb into a hospital.

(By the way, I LOVE the callback. In episode 209, “4 Days Out,” Walt says with disbelief to Jesse, “You brought a meth lab to the airport?!” and then in episode 413, “Face Off,” Jesse gets to say to Walt, “You brought a bomb to the hospital?!” Love the symmetry.)

The other major difference I see in the two events is that in Walt’s mind he can rationalize letting Jane die as somehow being something he did to help Jesse. Of course, Jane had just blackmailed Walt, and I’m sure that was part of his decision to not save her; that alone could motivate Walt to stand by and watch her choke. But I think in Walt’s twisted mind, he was rescuing Jesse from this girl who had come in, turned his life upside down (though Walt has done that too) and got him hooked on heroin. I think the part of Walt that feels like a surrogate father to Jesse was weighing all of that in those moments Jane was dying. Again, this is revealed more fully in “Fly.” While drugged up, Walt recounts to Jesse that he had a drink with Jane’s father on the night of her death. He mentions that Donald told him to take care of his family, and Walt says, “I did.” In his own mind, part of his reason for not doing anything was for Jesse’s sake.

(BTW, I have to interject again to say that I think that Jane’s best line in the whole series is when her father storms in and finds her with Jesse and sees all the heroin paraphernalia, and Jane says, “We talk about rehab every night. It’s his idea.” That line is so brilliant, it’s exactly what she would say. It works on so many levels.)

But again, there’s no parallel with Brock. There’s no way he could rationalize it being for anyone but himself. Jesse would’ve been fine (okay probably eventually Gus would’ve found another Gale and offed Jesse, way down the line, or some shit would have gone down if Gus had killed Walt but in general, Jesse was doing okay with Gus and Mike), the only person who benefited from what Walt did was Walt. He clearly didn’t even fill Saul in on what he was asking him to do and Saul was pretty freaked out by it and wanted out, which Walt did not allow. Poor Andrea has lost her brother to drugs, then to death by Gus’s guys, then thinks she is going to lose her son.

All of this points to how far Walt has fallen, how dark and often heartless his character has become. What is he going to do next? Maybe murder Ted? You know he must want to, and now that he could use the excuse that Ted is a liability, maybe he will do it. Or would Walt kill or hurt Hank if Hank gets close to catching him? So far, for all Walt’s moral decay, he has always tried to protect his family, even as it’s his actions that put them in danger. He made sure Hank got put under protective custody when Gus threatened him. But if Walt continues down this path who knows what he’ll be capable of. Might he hurt or kill Jesse or Skyler? I tend to think that as bad as Walt’s gotten, he wouldn’t do that, that he still loves his family enough to not directly and purposely hurt or kill them, but I’m no longer so sure. But might Walt do something more to Brock? Is he a liability now? What would happen if he said something like, “the nice lawyer man gave me the berries?” to Andrea or Jesse? Is Brock another loose end that Walt must deal with? And will Jesse ever find out about Walt’s role in either of these events?

I hope it’s none of the above honestly, but with all the talk about turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” I have a feeling we haven’t seen the worst of Walt yet. On the other hand, I have a feeling (or a hope?) that after being the king for awhile, Walt might get some comeuppance and may wrestle with who he’s become.

Another note on Walt’s moral demise: Have you ever noticed that he’s the one character who never has any psychic pain over murder? Hank kills Tuco in that shootout and gets really bad PTSD for awhile, culminating in the moment when he tells Marie that things haven’t been the same for him since he shot Tuco. Jesse kills Gale (to save Walt) and he is a freakin’ mess for months, culminating in that brilliant rehab scene. But Walt never seems to suffer internally after killing Emilio or Krazy 8. And then his body count just racks up from there. Why do you think that is? Has Walt always had that cold-blooded killer side to him that the others don’t? Is he, at a core level, that damaged even when we first meet him back in the pilot episode?

Oh by the way, if anyone knows the answer to this, I’ve been curious about it for ages now: Who the hell is Mr. Chips???

~Emilia J

18 thoughts on “Breaking Bad: Walter White’s Moral Demise and the People Jesse Pinkman Loves

  1. I’ve been hearing about this show. Thanks for the commentary on character development I will have to check this out!
    I love the enneagram for character developent. It rings true and I’m guessing if this is a made up personality or how people are really wired in their shadow side!
    Hey someone’s got to own the shadow. Thanks Walt
    And Emilia ;)

  2. Hey Elynn, thanks for reading! I didn’t put the basic synopsis of the show in this post but Walt starts out as this underachieving, scared, kinda boring guy who teaches high school chemistry. He finds out he has terminal cancer and decides to start cooking meth as a way to leave behind some $$$ for his family and blackmails his former student Jesse (a meth cook/user) into working with him. At least, that’s where it all begins.

  3. “On the other hand, I have a feeling (or a hope?) that after being the king for awhile, Walt might get some comeuppance and may wrestle with who he’s become.”

    Me too. And I’ve totally noticed how heartless Walt is. It’s like he thinks he and his family is better than everyone else. Better than criminals like Mike and Gus, better than drug addicts like Jesse. Which is kind of strange, considering Walt’s first kill. He couldn’t just kill Krazy 8. Walt had to make a situation under which it would be morally acceptable to kill him (self-defense). It’s like he always has to (and always finds a way to) justify everything to himself.

    • Just a warning, this comment contains spoilers for the first half of season 5 so proceed at your own risk!

      So true. He has come a long way from the days when he made that pro and con list about killing Krazy 8. I wonder how much he can really justify killing Mike, now that that happened.

      I definitely think that he has treated Jesse as a lesser deserving human being for some time. It was really evident in the early episodes. And in Season 4 when he was completely callous to Jesse’s disintegration after killing Gale, which is something he did FOR Walt. I wonder if Walt giving the money to Jesse in this last episode signals a real respect that has never quite been there before.

  4. Mr Chips is from a brilliant old British film called Goodbye Mr Chips, about a reserved Classics teacher who falls in love in middle age. It starred Peter O’Toole.

    • The Peter O’Toole musical version of “Goodbye Mr. Chips” was a critical and commercial flop when released. The straight forward, 1939 version starring Robert Donat is considered the classic.

  5. I forget where I heard this but I think it applies well here, some men are killers and some arent. Jesse and Hank are not killers, they have killed but it was basically for self defense but Mr White is something more, Walt is a killer, he’s capable of killing w/o any remorse, he’s just one of those guys who can kill, now I dont know if I am like that or if you’re like that, we might probably never know. Walter White is not a sociopath, he has just gone so far off the deep end and like we’ve seen in season 5 so far, there’s almost no limit but he can be saved.

  6. Gotta say: he didnt play any par in the death of an over dosing drug addict. He may have witnessed it but that doesn’t mean he caused it or played a part in it.

    Maybe I’m a dick for saying it but if drug addicts were all dead then the stupid cycle of drug addicted/induced pain would end. Or maybe drugs need to go first? Been there, tried that.

  7. Also have to say… Walt’s continual demise IS his remorse over the turn his life has taken. Everyone deals with grief differently. He laughs in desperate moments and gets mean when he should break down in tears… How subjective reactions are to extreme situations. No one has a right to judge. Hank turned into a dick. Jesse turned to drugs. Walt turned inward and found a hardened yet strengthene self to carry him onward.

    …Yeah, his actions brought on more woes, though his decisions aren’t as simple as common day fuck ups. Bottom line is Jesse loves Mr White and Walt loves Jesse. I’ve been awaiting the moment they just shut up and hug! But they show love in vastly different ways than we are accustomed to. It’s twisted and wrong and also, extremely moving if you see the genius emotion behind it all.

  8. Thats an interesting point that Walt unlike the others doesnt seem to be too emotionally bothered about the acts he takes. There are some things to remember, Walt was always someone who lived in fear, full of anxiety always trying to do the right thing. in the early episodes when he finds out he has cancer, he quits the carwash, beats up his sons bully/taunters, has a new confidence. There are people who dont do bad things because they have a conscience and then there are others who dont do bad things because of fear, and anxiety, well once Walt gets his cancer diagnosis and comes to grips with his fear: then the monster is let out.

  9. Hi Emilia. Great posts by the way. I originally read the one you put up on evidence to Walt poisoning Brock and then it let me to this.

    The only defense – I suppose – I have for Walt not feeling any remorse for the Brock poisoning incident is because… he knew he was going to survive. Whereas with Jane, unfortunately, it was kind of in his best interest for her to die.

    I thought a lot about the term “moral demise” regarding Walt, and I think initially I would have agreed that’s what was happening. But now after some consideration, I don’t think it’s that simple – and I think that’s the point of the show. To me, it’s not so much that Walt is becoming a bad person – by the way, I haven’t watched Season 5 yet so I could be wrong – it’s more about someone (Walt) becoming comfortable in doing whatever it takes to… take care of his family, do whatever is important for him, survive. Which is probably why he has no remorse afterwards, because in his mind it’s justified. So with this in mind, I absolutely do not feel he would ever hurt his family, or even Jesse for that matter. (They are important to him. Plus, I feel Walt is a loyal person to his loved ones. One can be bad but still remain loyal.) But for anyone else that would threaten his family or him… Walt would not think twice about destroying that person, or doing whatever it takes. (Cancer taught him that.)

    Now is that bad? …. Sure, it is. But I think what might be worse… is perhaps doing something bad and being able to justify it.

    • @Tom – I’ll really be curious to see what you have to say after watching the first half of Season Five. But you know, I wrote the original post before that aired, I think, or very early in Season Five.

      Totally agree that one can be bad and loyal. That is one thing I like about the show. Walt loves Skyler (even if others don’t) and he doesn’t waver in that. Walt is even loyal in some ways to Hank, who could be his undoing. He’s definitely loyal to Jesse. I think some of these things lend some redemption to Walt. Like when Walt runs over the two dealers who were going to kill Jesse, it’s murder but it doesn’t feel like a bad thing.

      But I still think Walt has gotten worse. He had times where he really could’ve gotten out, where he could’ve decided, yeah the money’s great but it’s not worth all this death and destruction. Probably most “normal” people would. I am dying to say something about Season Five but I will restrain myself except to say that this comes up dramatically in those first eight episodes. And I think everyone rationalizes, everyone has reasons for what they do. I mean, if I think back to things I did in my life that weren’t great or moral (and there’s plenty, though nothing on WW scale of bad), there was always a reason or justification. Even the most diabolical people usually believe on some level that what they’re doing is right or justified, and Walt has become a master of convincing himself he’s in the right.


      • Thanks for the reply, Emilia. Yeah, I haven’t had a chance to catch any of Season 5 yet. I’ll definitely let you know when I do. =) I’m actually kind of curious how they are going to end the series, but I don’t want to overthink it and ruin it for myself. The great thing about this show is that I can just let it take me for a ride and the story does not fail to impress. The writers keep it fresh and moving, even when or especially when Walt makes those wrong/worse decisions.

        • Hi Tom, well sorry my original reply took so long (I was out of town at a convention and got behind on replies). I TOTALLY hear you on not wanting to ruin the ending. I’m actually kind of worried about that because I keep sort of…doing a little too much digging. I like to play detective but I HATE spoilers so you can see there’s a little tug-of-war going on. There is a post coming out next week with all the little tidbits I’ve been able to dredge up (no actual spoilers, just digging into the material that’s been released). But I do have a fear of guessing the ending. It’s kind of like watching a whodunit and figuring out way too early on who did it. I don’t think it will be anything we can guess though. People had a million and one theories about the end of Season Two and what was going on with the bear in the pool and the dead bodies and all that, and I don’t think anyone figured that out for real. So there’s probably little chance of actually figuring out the ending of the series either! At least I tell myself that so I can keep digging :)


    • @Stephanie Landry – Hmmm I want to reply but feel I shouldn’t say too much for the sake of spoilers and knowing people come here at all different points in the show. Have you seen the first half of Season Five?


  10. Not sure if this is the best place for this particular comment as I’m reading everything in random order (since I cannot get enough BrBa!) – but here goes: The Scarface references… makes one wonder if everyone will end up dead just like in the movie with Al Pacino. Remember when Walt & Jr were watching it on tv & Walt said, “I think
    everyone gets killed in this movie, don’t they?” Or something to that effect… Then there’s the ‘Mr. Chips/Scarface’ comment. Certainly hope that’s not our ending but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    How deeply I am going to miss these people!

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