Jesse Pinkman: A Lesson in Likeability
With spoilers for: Breaking Bad – Season 1, Episode 1
Jesse Pinkman is not a good guy.
Pretty obvious statement really. I mean, the guy comes from a comfortable, middle-class family, goes to a fairly good school and still ends up as a drug dealer with a drug addiction. He’s the worst kind of person. Bad by choice.
And yet I can’t help but not want to write that. There’s something about his character which is so likeable it pacifies the rational, judgemental part of my brain and makes me want the best for him, makes him one of the heroes. So why is he such a likeable character?
Everything about Jesse Pinkman shouts a kind of childish insolence. His clothes are gaudy and several sizes too big. He speaks in a slang vernacular, peppered with bitches and yos. He greets his elders with smart-ass adolescent backchat – which, naturally, lacks any real venom or sincerity, as it’s just a guise to hide his underlying vulnerability.
In fact, he comes across as being half his age a number of times, either through words (“cowhouse”, “the dude that sells Starbucks his beans”, always calling Walt “Mr White”) or by actions. You can take pretty much any screenshot of Jesse from the first three episodes and it’ll be there to emphasize his childlike nature.
This all goes to help us forgive Jesse for his shameful behaviour. We appreciate that he isn’t really a bad person, just ethically short-sighted – and this moral myopia may be corrected once he realises the full impact of his actions. His naivety, in a sense, promises moral development. I mean, the prodigal son didn’t return home only to start acting like a dick again, did he?
It could be that, or it could just be that we have a natural affection for kids, puppies, kittens and the people who remind us of them. I’d ask you: are there any characters you hate because of their immaturity? I can’t currently think of any, although I might turn to this question in another post.
It’s a fairly obvious point, but we tend to like characters who make us laugh. And Jesse Pinkman is definitely one of them: either intentionally, as the sulking wisecracker, or accidentally, as the slapstuck fool.
Like I came to you, begging to cook meth. “Oh, hey, nerdiest old white guy I know, you wanna cook some crystal?” Please. I’d ask my diaper-wearing granny but her wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the RV.
Okay, he’s hardly professorial – but Pinkman’s no idiot either. He’s smart enough to be a smartass and, even in the first episode, he’s the one who suggests the idea of a mobile meth-lab. We like characters who are good at what they do and earn their destiny, rather than rely on luck. By making characters intelligent, we’re more likely to admire them, at least.
Screenwriters seem to create their own moral universe, where each character’s goodness is judged relative to that of the others. Thus, a guy who’s rude to his Grandma could be the prime antagonist of a family sitcom, but less so in a slasher film. This technique (of Making the Bad Guys Badder, as Blake Snyder calls it) is intrinsic to the concept of Breaking Bad. Sure, we can say, Jesse might not be the model citizen, but he’s white bait compared to the loathsome individuals he shares the screen with. Even in the first episode, we have badder bad guys in the shape of Emilio and Krazy 8, who train dogs to rip men to bits in their spare time and seem to have no qualms about murdering two guys out in the desert.
By comparison, Jesse is just a drug-dealing kid who finds the idea of dissolving bodies disturbing, let alone murder – and who is in the business for the money, rather than a personal enjoyment of it.
Finally, and this is the technique I’m least certain about, an audience is possibly more likely to like a character if he or she is good-looking. This seems to be the case in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where, as Rich Hall puts it, “the Good is worse than the Bad and the Bad is uglier than the Ugly.”
There’ve been a few contradictions in this post. And I hope you picked up on some of them. It’s like this, I say, you can make a character likeable by giving him the qualities of a child – but also by making him intelligent and mentally developed. Likewise, people like characters who are good at what they do – but we also like characters we feel sympathy for. The question, “How do you make a character likeable” appears in pretty much every screenwriting textbook, but maybe this is the wrong question.
Maybe what we should be asking is: how do we not?
If you liked this, you might also like:
Antagonists: When Vice Becomes a Virtue – a look at the Salamanca Cousins, Gus Fring, Anton Chigurh, Moriarty and how extreme evil can make a character likeable
Joffrey Baratheon: Creating the Hate – if people like Jesse for his childlike naivety, then why is Prince Joffrey one of the most hated characters of all time?
About the author
Software developer turned rookie farmer. I'm interested in screenwriting, film, linguistics, science. Also co-founder of Vocular, the voice-deepening app.