‘Let me ask you something. If you had the chance to do anything you wanted, what would you do?’
So begins one of, if not the, most powerful scenes in television history. When people claim Breaking Bad only improved upon it’s muddled origins, peaking at it’s conclusion, I point them to season three’s ‘Kafkaesque’, and in particular this scene. It’s curious to say one of the show’s high points is absent of intricate plot weaving or murderous cartels, but it’s true; Breaking Bad is at it’s best when Jesse describes the story of the little wooden box.
In the scene, Jere Burns’ group leader first allows the members of his rehab support group to ‘bitch and moan’, before singling Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) out for his prior solemnity regarding his fabricated laundromat job. The group leader asks, sincerely, what Jesse would do if he could do anything, assuming you ‘have everything you wanted.’ Reluctantly at first, Jesse begins to open up as he shares the story of Mr Pike, the woodworking teacher who pushed him to craft a better product for his class, instead of hastily finishing the box bunk off for the rest of the semester and ‘blaze one with his boys.’ Looking at the box, Mr Pike asks Jesse earnestly, not spitefully if that was best he could do.
Unusually receptive to the query, Jesse finds himself answering ‘no’, making one box after another, each with more effort than the last. ‘By like box number five’ Jesse says, ‘I had built this thing. You should have seen it, it was insane.’
He’s caught in a moment of nostalgia, the last time someone ever wanted to see better things from him.
‘I built it out of Peruvian walnut, with inlaid cedarwood. Was fitted with pegs, no screws, and I sanded it for days until it was smooth as glass.
Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good, you know, you put your nose in it, and breathed it in. It was perfect.’
The faces of the rehab survivors are followed as Jesse talks. They glimmer with hope and indifference, pessimism that their most defensive member has a story of hope. Michael Slovis’ handheld camera work- the shaky, distant impact that has become a trademark of Breaking Bad - is delicately applied, never distracting, only intensifying. It’s otherwise shot uneventfully, the lighting offering no discernible symbolism nor flair, ensuring the dialogue remains centre stage.
The scene doesn’t end there, however much we’d have liked it to. The group leader, struck by curiosity, wants to know what happened to the box. Jesse replies casually that he gave it to his mom.
‘You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? It’s never too late?’
The group leader sees it as a victory, a breakdown of a meth addict he privately thought was too far gone. He nods in assurance, as if believing that converting Jesse will lead the others onto a path of salvation.
But Jesse’s not smiling, not hopeful. He still has one part left to say, and it’s changes everything.
‘You know I didn’t give the box to my Mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.’
The silence says it all, because there’s simply nothing left to say. Jesse sees himself as irredeemable, a belief that stretches even into his epilogue film El Camino. To Jesse, trading away that box was trading away the last of his potential, the last of his desire to do something outside of narcotics, for an ounce of addiction free of charge.
It is, in many ways, the most expensive drugs Jesse ever bought. The box and his teacher still affect him, and it’s echoed in Breaking Bad’s concluding episode ‘Felina’, where a daydream takes us speculatively into Jesse’s woodworking capacity to make a box. He’s disappointed with himself, wishing that he could tell the group leader it wasn’t like that, but in the end, he has nothing to prove he’ll do better. He cooks meth as a day job. In the same episode, he engineers the sale of it to other rehab survivors. Jesse Pinkman believes he’s past saving, in any capacity; and it’s only two seasons later that he’s proven wrong, and the final instincts of an irredeemable drug lord show him he’s worth it all.
The box monologue is Breaking Bad at its finest; not diving into the world of drug making but in its destructive aftermath, the hurt that’s left behind when the deals have been done and batches delivered. There’s a reason Jane’s death in Season 2 is an equally talked about moment – Bryan Cranston admitted it was the hardest scene he ever did – and it’s because of its realism. All of these survivors have a wooden box story, a last measure where they believe they disappointed themselves. By exploring this in one of the protagonists, we’re reminded once again that there are no winners in Breaking Bad; only survivors.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor