Sure he cooks meth, but those blue eyes! Experts explain why we swoon for the "Breaking Bad" character and other unfit guys.
Sure, Jesse Pinkman is a high school dropout and former junkie who works in the drug business and has killed a man, but he has also captured the visceral adoration of every woman in America with a beating heart and a cable TV subscription. Attraction to the "bad boy" is hardly a new phenomenon, but this character, played by two-time Emmy-winning Aaron Paul on AMC's addictive drama Breaking Bad, has a singular ability to make the average female viewer feel like she has been in a tumultuous relationship with a meth cook since 2008. (It has been a rough few years but I'm getting through it!)
In honor of the much-anticipated premiere of the series' final eight episodes on August 11, we decided to take a deeper look at what it is about Jesse that makes us love him against our better judgment. Ladies, if you tend to choose the wrong guy, take note. This analysis by clinical psychologist and SHAPE advisory board member Belisa Vranich, PsyD, and biological anthropologist and scientific adviser to Match.com Helen Fisher, Ph.D., applies to real-life ne'er-do-wells as much as it does to our fictional blue-eyed boyfriend. ("Breaking Bad" spoiler alerts if you're not caught up!).
First, the obvious: That face! Standing at just 5'8", Jesse's frame may appear slim and small, which he often hides under oversized outfits and beanies, but his face reveals another story. “He has all five of the basic signals of a very high testosterone man: 1) an angular, strong jawline 2) heavy brow ridges 3) high cheekbones 4) thin lips, and 5) a high forehead,” says Fisher, who wrote the book Why Him? Why Her?.
“The reason why women will subconsciously find this attractive is because testosterone is a very caustic substance that requires an extremely strong immune system to tolerate high levels of the hormone,” she explains. “This means that these men are advertising through their face that 'my immune system is so strong that I can tolerate this amount of testosterone.'” In other words, his macho man mug is a walking billboard for good health. On a related note, the high testosterone also means that he's got a high sex drive, Fisher adds, and who doesn't want a bedmate who can keep up?
He's unpredictable. If you like roller coasters, you'll love Jesse, who seems to have the most ups and downs of any character on the series. He can feel happy, depressed, hopeful, and tragic all in just one episode. Not knowing how he's going to react to situations is part of the appeal. “Women love novelty,” Fisher says.
“It drives up the dopamine system in the brain and that gives you energy, focus, motivation, optimism, and mental flexibility,” she says. Basically, being around an unpredictable man, like Jesse, can be very exciting. At the same time, such volatile behavior can be maddening, which is why it would never work out.
He shows flashes of genius. Three little words: “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!” While his business partner and former high school chemistry teacher Walter White (played by the indomitable Bryan Cranston) had long-been established as the brains of the operation, Jesse has had his impressive light-bulb moments. In season five, his brilliant idea to use magnets to destroy the incriminating evidence on the defunct meth distributor Gustavo "Gus" Fring's laptop that had been locked away at police headquarters saved them from getting caught. Jesse's elevated testosterone, as indicated by his face, may have had something to do with it.
“Men with elevated testosterone tend to be analytical, logical, direct, decisive, tough-minded, skeptical, and good at engineering, mechanics, computers, and, in this case, cooking up crystal meth,” Fisher says. “For millions of years, women wanted to a man who could hit that buffalo on the head with a rock and had good spacial, analytical skills to figure this out. Women are attracted to men who could come home with dinner,” she says.
He's a lost soul. There's no doubt Jesse needs—and is desperately looking for—someone to save him. The former junkie has tried to clean up his act more than once throughout the series, especially since season three when he started dating single mom and recovering addict Andrea. It's evident that a part of him wants to believe he could be the good guy, but all of that goes out the window at the end of the season when he's forced to kill an innocent man, Gale, to save Mr. White's life. Seeing his hesitance before he pulls the trigger is enough to make any woman want to swoop in and talk him out of it.
“Some women tend to be motherly and believe that we can change people and save their lost souls. It appeals to our nurturing abilities, which are linked to estrogen,” Fisher says. And say you do successfully save him? It could blow up in your face. “Many women have helped a man see his potential and once he has reached it, he may leave her because he can find a better partner now,” Vranick warns. “You have to ask yourself, where's his support network? Why doesn't he have one? There's gotta be a reason.”
He's defiant. Given his unconventional and totally illegal career choice, Jesse is far from a conformist. Having the power to be his own person and not follow the rules that the rest of society lives by is kinda hot. “Women like to live vicariously through these men and get off on the excitement, but these selfish lone wolves don't make good husbands,” says Vranick, author of the book He's Got Potential.
On the other hand, going out on your own is a sign of bravery, which is what women needed from their partners back in the day to be both fed and protected. “Women want a man who can not only bring home supper but also defend them, and that's usually going to be someone who is aggressive and able to stand their ground,” Fisher explains. Throughout the last five seasons, Jesse's dark character has endured so much—life-threatening beatings, the death of his first love, the murder of an innocent man—that he's willing to risk everything, even his own life, for what he believes in. A perfect example: The time he confronted two competing drug dealers about the murder of Andrea's 11-year-old brother, Tomas.
He's emotional. He's no Tin Man—he has a heart! Season one quickly revealed that Jesse had moved in with his dying Aunt Jenny to take care of her during her final days battling cancer. By season three, he started to build a fatherly connection to his girlfriend Andrea's son, Brock. And from the beginning he's expressed a fierce loyalty to Mr. White, whom he finally pushed away after the murder of an innocent little boy (the kid had witnessed them rob a train of methylamine) made Jesse want out. His sensitivity paired with remorse is the most dangerous bad-boy combo, Vranick says.
“Women tend to eat up the erratic breadcrumbs that imply a man is good person because we're hopeful and positive and like to think people are generally good,” she says. “Women fall for the trap that deep down inside he's good with the hope that he'll recognize that she saw him for the diamond in the rough that he was, which makes her feel special too, but that never ever happens.”
The final episodes of Breaking Bad premiere Sunday, August 11, at 9 p.m. ET on AMC. Will you be watching? Tweet to us @shape_magazine and tell us what you think about the show and its lead characters.