Jesse Pinkman and Eklavya: Teacher-Student Relationships Broken Bad

The grand old Indian epic Mahabharata contains, among its thousands of stories, several which unsettle us by their moral ambiguity. One such story is that of Eklavaya. The Wikipedia entry for him notes:

He is a young prince of the Nishadha, a confederation of jungle tribes in Ancient India. Eklavya aspired to study archery in the gurukul of Guru Dronacharya, the greatest known teacher in the use of weaponry and martial knowledge at the time. He was son of Vyatraj Hiranyadhanus, a talented soldier in the army of King of Magadha….Eklavya sincerely sought the mentorship of Drona in weaponry and martial art. Drona discouraged him, and ultimately rejected the boy due to his caste. Out of respect for Drona, Eklavya began a program of self-study, using a clay image of Drona for inspiration. Eventually, Eklavya achieved a level of skill superior to that of Arjun, who was Drona’s favorite and most accomplished student, and part of the royal Pandava family. The Pandavas come across the boy in the forest one day, and Eklavya told them of his self study under the idol of Drona. In a cruel move, the guru demanded that Eklavya cut off his right thumb in obeisance to his guru, a request that could not be refused by a student in a gurukul. Eklavya agreed to the demand without hesitation, severing his right thumb and presenting it to Drona.

The story of Eklavya horrified me when I first heard it, and it continued to exert an unsettling effect on me as time went by: it acquired the stature of a singular betrayal of the student by a teacher, a figure in whom the student had reasonably accorded some faith, trust and hope for ethical treatment. Years later, as a doctoral student who had heard too many stories of horrific dissertation supervisors, I would often recount this story as an archetypal instance of the abuse of the student-teacher relationship.

Thanks to Breaking Bad, and the sorry story of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, we now have yet another such demonstration of the flagrant disregard of the moral parameters of the teacher-student relationship.

Jesse is not Walter’s student in school anymore, of course, but he does function as a junior understudy, one mentored and taught by Walter. In his continuing references to ‘Mr. White’, in his awkwardness around Walter’s family and in his home, it is clear a certain impression of Walter White has not been erased from Jesse’s mind. The old teacher-student relationship has now been replaced by a new one; the classrooms and homeworks are admittedly different, but it is evident that a basic, familiar template still persists. It is thus all too easy for Walter and Jesse to fall back or rely on the behavioral patterns and expectations prescribed by it.

For Jesse, this is a persistently abusive relationship. From the very beginning, from the time that Walter threatens to betray him to the DEA, through the twists and turns of his tortured partnership with Walter, one marked by hectoring, verbal expressions of contempt, overt and covert manipulations, and almost right up to the end, Walter takes advantage–among other things–of whatever psychological and emotional edges might have been afforded him by Jesse’s memory of him as his teacher in high-school.  Walter White was always keen to draw upon any weapons available to him when he waged his battles; his drawing on the status he had once enjoyed in Jesse’s life was, for him, a foregone conclusion. If Jesse is deferential to Walter, it is only to the latter’s benefit.

Many of us cheered Jesse on when he punched Walter senseless during their fisticuffs in the fourth season; I suspect some of our anger at Walter was driven by the sense that he had betrayed an implicit trust that Jesse had in him, one that would, hopefully, protect him from the kind of abuse Walter subjected him to.

By saving Jesse from the purgatory of a life as a meth-manufacturing slave, Walter White partially redeemed himself. But his actions before that fateful night had already become established in the annals of moral failures in teacher-student relationships.

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