26 STINGING SERPENTS
Jane Margolis is as important to Breaking Bad as the ghost of the King is to what happens in Hamlet. Jane is the lover of Jesse, and the ghost is the father of Hamlet. Fathers and lovers, neither accept being forgotten. The plea from the ghost to Hamlet is explicit and demands violent vengeance for being murdered by the lover of his Queen. Hamlet is a troubled and indecisive adolescent but, because a ghost insists on hanging around, the Prince from Denmark is transformed into an avenger. Jane leaves nothing but a memory but this obliges Jesse to acquire a conscience. Working amongst violent and corrupt drug dealers, his rebellion, which is a Hamlet blend of diffidence and aggression, is also a form of vengeance. Some men walk away easily from women and relationships. Jesse and Hamlet are different. Their punctured spirits and damaged souls cannot forget.
The importance of Jane to Breaking Bad is confirmed by her return in the movie El Camino. Jane has the last line of dialogue in the movie, the final word in the whole crystal meth saga of Walt and Jesse. Aware of failure and mistakes the memory or ghost of Jane advises Jesse to accept responsibility and make his own decisions. ‘Going where the Universe takes you is a terrible philosophy,’ she says.
Some blokes may abandon women without regret but no man walks away from Jane Margolis and forgets her. There are three scenes in which the ghost of the father of Hamlet appears. All those who see the ghost are startled and affected. In Breaking Bad heroin addict Jane transforms the lives of at least three men. Her father, Jesse, and Walter are the ones we know about. The father of Jane is wrecked by her death and an aeroplane crash that, thinking of his daughter, he helped to create. Well before that, though, Dad is exhausted by his attempts to mitigate her self-destructive drug addiction. The ghost of the father of Hamlet may be eloquent and soft spoken but he urges homicide. The behaviour of Jane to her father is as wilful. Her hedonism is not mere indulgence. It is defiant aggression and a consequence of the struggle between the wills of two very different people. A decent, modest and responsible parent has acquired a burden and foe that he never anticipated. His daughter is what every protective father fears.
Jane is an artist that illustrates comics. She draws lines. The woman leaves marks on paper and her mark on people. Walt is a mature, educated and intelligent man. He has no excuses but things happen in a life and under pressure he can be impulsive. The death of Jane and the complicity of Walt define together the moment or mark after which he will be damned. Rather than intervene to save her life Walt lets Jane die. He crosses the line drawn by her death and steps towards a different destiny. Later, Walter identifies the death of Jane as the one moment in his life that he regrets. He has done more than make a mistake or moral error. Walter White has offended the gods.
Gods and devils claim souls and when their promises fail the ghosts do the dirty work on their behalf. Jane is more than the ghost that nags at the memory of three troubled men. Because of her, all three take decisions that will change their lives. After the death of Jane, her father is a broken man. Albuquerque air traffic control will just have to cope without him. Her father owns properties and presumably is entitled to a pension. We assume he will at least have sufficient income as consolation for his desolation. Walt and Jesse, though, need to make money and survive. With the help of a rehabilitation clinic for Jesse the two men grit their teeth, resume manufacture of an illegal drug and, because they have obligations, murder some troublesome people. The trail of destruction left by Walt and Jesse might have been inevitable as soon as they were tempted by easy money. But who knows what would have happened without the ghost of Jane. Ghosts are terrifying because they disrupt the plans and often modest ambitions of humans. We know this from those horror movies set in the suburbs. The really terrifying ghosts are those that persist in haunting. Such ghosts become close to the gods that they assist.
Jane has the power and presence of a god in Breaking Bad. The death of Andrea and Brock are important to what follows but their deaths only heighten the conflict that already exists between men of different ambitions. Jane is the true fulcrum point in Breaking Bad. After Jesse meets Jane any hope for him and Walt working together as supportive partners is lost. She may be a flawed character fighting her own demons but Jane has been granted by the writers of Breaking Bad the power to change lives and people.
The classical tales of Greek drama needed gods to wave their hands and utter a few curses. This was how really old school dramatists propelled plots and protagonists. Jane waves nothing more than a cigarette but she more than anyone is the god that shapes the fate of the characters in Breaking Bad. In Greek drama the gods would be lifted on to the stage by a machine. The term for this is deus ex machina. Nowadays it refers to a surprise intervention in the plot that either rescues or condemns the hero. Jane intervenes in a way that is beyond Andrea, Because she uses heroin and wants money and independence, Jane challenges the relationship Walt has with Jesse. Her death, which Walt facilitates, tilts him towards authentic criminality. Walt and her father are condemned by her death. The memories of Jesse and a lot more that follows will help him find redemption. With everything that happens it is not cheating to call Jane a god. She is, in fact, two.
As we all know, Freud identified two instincts as the source of human behaviour. These were the life and death instincts. Jane is Eros, the god of love that lights not just the cigarettes of Jesse but the sparkle buried deep in his soul. She brings him to life. Jane is also Thanatos the god of death. Although she educates Jesse about art and love, Jane is willing to lead him into heroin addiction and premature death. And as the god of death she is more than mere intentions. At her own death she transforms the soul of Walt a previously timid schoolteacher. If the gods can damn souls, they also offer salvation. Even in her least attractive moments when she covets the money that Jesse has earned from making crystal meth Jane has a spiritual presence. She resembles a corrupt medieval bishop demanding money from the poor while offering them grace.
The character of Jane may be flawed but she is not responsible for Walter and Jesse becoming competitive violent criminals. That would be a misogynistic step too far. Unlike whoever wrote the opening chapters of the Bible and more than a few that contributed to classical Greek drama, the creators of Breaking Bad are not women haters. But if Jane is the victim that enables the writers to sneer at the limitations of Walt, she also resembles a vamp from a forties film noir. Her hair is thick and black, she smokes a lot and has Machiavellian instincts. Her artistic talent for drawing is something that she shares with Jesse but it is also a creative gift comparable to the singing ability the vamps often had in those forties noir movies.
Albuquerque is not the Garden of Eden, which is good, because Jesse and Walt were definitely not in paradise when Jane first appeared, and the name Eve would have been too obvious. Jane is also the name of the lady that turned the head of Tarzan in the 1932 Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie Tarzan And The Apeman. Metro believed escapism and glamour were what persuaded audiences to pay for cinema seats. Jane was altogether nicer than Eve, the chimpanzee of Tarzan was an improvement on the serpent and thankfully for Metro the human race had been banished by angry God well before Tarzan discovered coconuts. Put like that the Metro happy ending in the jungle sounds almost inevitable.
In the Garden of Eden the true deus ex machina is the serpent. Some editor somewhere soon realised that the snake was a redundant character. Blaming the woman alone was simpler. The names Eve and Jane are iconic, the reward for creatures whose subtle omnipotence has to be feared and crushed. A deus ex machina, especially the one that diverted the fate of Walt, Jesse, her father and others, is entitled to nothing less than the name Jane and being remembered as iconic.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.