It’s hard to imagine Breaking Bad without Jesse Pinkman, but show creator Vince Gilligan has said he originally planned for Aaron Paul’s character to be killed off at the end of the series’ first season. Jesse quickly became integral to the show, however, serving as the flawed moral center to—and increasingly frequent victim of—Walter White’s rampaging ego. Paul’s portrayal of Jesse earned him an Emmy in 2010 and became a highlight of season four, where Jesse sank further than ever as a result of Walt’s machinations, then started to emerge just in time to be struck down again. Heading into the first eight episodes of Breaking Bad’s final 16—which are being delineated as separate seasons, five and six—Jesse and Walt’s relationship stands on the precipice, even though Jesse isn’t fully aware of why. In advance of the season-five première, Paul spoke to The A.V. Club in broad, secretive terms about what to expect this season, where he found Jesse’s humanity, and his hopes for a Saul Goodman spin-off. (Note for the spoiler-averse: This interview discusses major events from Breaking Bad’s previous seasons, and hints at events in the first episode of season five.)
The A.V. Club: You just recently wrapped production on the first eight of the final 16 episodes, right?
Aaron Paul: The first eight, yeah. Yeah, and it’s a brutal, brutal eight.
AVC: You’ve said in other interviews that this is the darkest season yet. Is it a relief to get away from that darkness for a little while? Does it take a toll on you?
AP: It does, but you’ve got to zip off that skin when you leave work as much as you can. I always love working, especially on this show. But it is nice to have a little bit of a break. I’m glad we didn’t shoot the final 16 all in a row. We’re doing eight, and then we shoot the final eight at the end of November. It’s always fun going on this ride.
AVC: It seems unbelievable that it could get even darker than last season, especially for Jesse. Last season was really rough for him. Do you think there’s any way things could end on a positive note for him?
AP: I have no idea. There’s always the glimmer of hope that you wish for for Jesse, but I just don’t know if that’s going to happen. This show is called Breaking Bad, and it keeps getting more twisted. We’re already seeing the finish line, so we’re starting the steady pace to go for a full sprint, and the final eight, I know it’s just going to be a bloodbath.
AVC: In the early episodes of the series, Jesse could have easily gone into the realm of caricature, this numbskull thug, but he quickly became much more than that. What did you see in the character at that point that grounded him for you, gave him that humanity?
AP: Well, in the pilot, I thought he was just this black-and-white character, this lost kid without any hope, really. But as the scripts were revealed, there were more and more layers that were also revealed for me: He didn’t come from a battered home. He came from a middle-class home with good morals, but I think maybe a little bit too much pressure on him. But when you meet the family, it just really showed that he had a heart. He’s a good kid; he’s just struggling in many different ways. And then obviously throughout the series, he dives deeper into that. He has a huge heart; it just got messed up.
AVC: It’s pretty common knowledge by now that Jesse wasn’t supposed to live out the first season of Breaking Bad. At what point did you start to get a sense of how important he was going to end up being to the show?
AP: Man, I don’t know. I didn’t even know Jesse was supposed to die in the first season. I found that out toward the end of the first season, and then the next couple of years, I was in a constant panic, thinking that this kid is going to meet his demise at any time. But I think once they really started revealing who he was, I think maybe in season two where he tries to save the little boy [in “Peekaboo”], I think that really showed me that this character is pretty important.
AVC: What’s motivating Jesse this season? He was pretty nihilistic for a lot of season four.
AP: Yeah. I think this season, he’s always looking for someone to—I don’t know if he’s looking for a father figure or what, but he just wants Walt’s approval, really. And he would do anything for Mr. White, and I think that’s what’s driving him. He doesn’t need to be in this business anymore, and he’s terrified of it, but he wants Walt’s approval. This season especially, Walter White is such a puppeteer; he’s such a manipulator, and we’re just all on his little strings. He absolutely has Jesse in the palm of his hand.
AVC: How aware do you think Jesse is, either consciously or unconsciously, that he’s being manipulated by Walt?
AP: I don’t think he’s too aware. I think he knows what Walt is up to, but Jesse is just so—that’s really all he has. Everyone else has turned their backs on him. It’s just so sad. The only person he has is this guy. But Jesse definitely sees that Walt is turning into someone else, and he’s scared of that fact. And there’s more and more revealed this season, and I think next season is just going to get really scary.
AVC: It’s interesting that you say Jesse might be looking for a father figure, because last season, he really thrived under Mike’s tutelage when Walter wasn’t in the picture. It does seem like he needs that authority figure.
AP: Yeah, he just wants that. It makes him feel comfortable.
AVC: Do you think he needs it to function? We saw him, last season, not functioning very well.
AP: Yeah, I think so. Toward the beginning of last season, Jesse just needed to keep his brain preoccupied, because if it wasn’t, he would be trapped with his own inner demons, and he needed to just keep busy, because he was fighting a lot of badness after the murdering of Gale. I love the relationship between Mike and Jesse last year. I thought it was great.
AVC: And we get to see more of it in the season-five première, where Mike, Jesse, and Walt are forced to team up. Is that something we’ll see more of?
AP: It was so fun. Yeah, it’s definitely the trio—the Three Amigos—this year. It’s really exciting. In the years previous, it was really just Walt and Jesse a lot of the time, in terms of me working. And then last year, it was so much of Mike and Jesse, and now it’s nice to bring those worlds together. It’s a blast. And it gets really complicated. Mike and Walt, I don’t know if they are that fond of one another, but they’ve got to be in the same room a lot of the time, so it’s exciting to watch.
AVC: It seems likely that Jesse might end up caught in the middle between those two.
AP: Ah, yes, for sure. [Laughs.]
AVC: Jesse seems pretty confident in the first episode, helping conceive and implement this plan they have. Do you think, as the season goes on, we’re going to see him more in that mode and not just at a loss, like he was for a lot of last season?
AP: Yeah. I mean, Jesse, especially after that idea—because he has ideas, they just usually don’t stick, and they’re usually not that great. [Laughs.] So yeah, he starts to have more confidence, and they definitely play around with that this season, and it becomes pretty interesting.
AVC: Is it getting harder to talk about this series as secrecy becomes more and more of an issue going into the final seasons?
AP: It does, yeah. I definitely felt that this year. They were so secretive. It’s hard to get people on set to visit. It’s just such a different dynamic. And this is the first year we’ve seen the finish line, really, truly. We always knew it was going to end, we just didn’t know when. And it’s sad. I mean, I’m happy I’m still talking about it because it’s still alive. But it’s just, each episode we do, that’s one less we get to do. It’s depressing.
AVC: As you get closer to the finish line, with the stakes as high as they are at this point, it seems less likely that everybody is going to come out alive and intact in this show. Do you feel less secure as time goes on, like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this season?”
AP: Yeah. I mean, I’ve never really had much security, to be honest. You never know. With this kind of show, anyone can go. Skyler [White] could go; Mike could go. I don’t know if Saul [Goodman] could ever go. He’s like a cockroach that could never die. I hope they make some sort of spin-off with Saul Goodman. He’s so good.
AVC: When the news came out that you’re doing a pilot for HBO, a lot of people seemed to think that meant something about Jesse’s fate. But it’s just a pilot, right? Can you tell us anything about that, or how it relates to where you are in Breaking Bad?
AP: To be honest, I’m just focused on Breaking Bad right now, but I’m happy to be in the conversation with HBO. There’s three networks you want to be on: It’s either AMC, HBO, or Showtime. I think they’re telling the most courageous and daring stories out there. But it’s exciting to be a part of that conversation; it’s a great story, and it’d be an honor to be a part of it. But that wouldn’t shoot until I’m done-done with this show. That wouldn’t shoot until next year.
AVC: So to put any fears to rest…?
AP: Yes, yes. [Laughs.] Jesse is definitely going to be around. I don’t know how much longer, but he will be around for sure.
AVC: Last season, a lot of Jesse’s story had to do with accepting that he was the bad guy, that he was a murderer. And hooking up with Mike, he embraced it a little. But his familial relationship with Andrea and Brock runs in conflict with that. Going into the fifth season, do you think Jesse sees himself as the bad guy?
AP: Yeah, I do. All of season three, he was trying to convince himself that he was the bad guy. You know, it’s all about self-acceptance after Jane died at the end of season two. Then he proves that to be the case when he murdered Gale. And that still haunts him. This entire show, from the pilot until now, has only been one year, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s gone down, a lot of bad things. So Jesse’s still lost in that turmoil. I don’t think he’s had any sort of revelation where he feels somehow enlightened. He’s walking the straight and narrow, and he’s a good guy, but I think he’s definitely still haunted by all of those demons.
AVC: It’s easy to forget only a year has passed on the show, because so much happens. Do you ever have to remind yourself that, “Oh yeah, this just happened. He just killed Gale a couple of months ago?”
AP: [Laughs.] I do, a little bit. The thing is, it’s on the page in every episode, and we usually start right where we left off. So it’s kind of easy, in that way.
AVC: Jesse had a couple of really memorable scenes last season: that incredibly intense speech in “Problem Dog,” and then the scene where Jesse and Walt beat the shit out of each other. You’ve actually gotten the shit beaten out of you a couple times on this show—
AP: [Laughs.] “A couple of times”?
AVC: Which of those two things do you find more challenging: that intense, more cerebral stuff like the speech in “Problem Dog,” or the more physical, action-y elements?
AP: I think probably the more physical is tougher, just to make it look as real as possible. We were really pretty much beating each other up, just throwing each other around. It was so much fun. That took all day. That was the only thing scheduled on that day. We shot all of the dialogue up to the fight the day before, and once the fists started being thrown, we would cut. Then we’d pick that up the very next day, and it was all day, just beating each other up. It was exhausting. There’s this behind-the-scenes of the fight online somewhere; you should check it out. It’s really great. But the scene in “Problem Dog” you’re talking about, that is just a nice release for the character. It’s almost like a confession. Even though he’s talking about a dog, he really means Gale, obviously. It feels good for Jesse to just admit what he did, and tell people, “No, it’s not okay. How can you accept…?” It’s a nice confession for him. I’m glad they wrote that in there, because it just felt good as an actor who’s playing this character to get that off his chest.