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In Breaking Bad, Season 3 Episode 12 (Half Measures), Jesse is incensed with the rival drug dealers for using children (in particular Tomás) to do their killing and selling. Gus orders the dealers "No more children" and orders Jesse to make peace. Subsequently, Tomás is killed (presumably by the dealers), which triggers Jesse in to an attempt to kill the dealers.

As Jesse is approaching the two dealers with his gun, Walt drives in from nowhere and runs over the dealers. One is killed instantly, the other seriously injured. Walt jumps from his car, grabs a gun and shoots the second dealer dead.

Why does Walt do this? Is it simply because Jesse would likely have been killed during the showdown, or is it because he didn't want Jesse to become a murderer like he already was? If anything, I thought Walt may have been motivated to simply let Jesse die, due to Mike's "No half measures" speech.

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Is it simply because Jesse would likely have been killed during the showdown

That's probably a factor. However, the way I see it, Walt is trying to save Jesse - but mainly from Gus. Because even if Jesse survived the showdown, Gus will still hunt Jesse down and kill him for this. Walt has barely convinced Gus to spare Jesse after Jesse's failed attempt to kill the dealers with ricin, and it's obvious that shooting them would be the last straw. And Walt needs Jesse.

So there's one way Walt could save Jesse from both of these scenarios - and that's to take the blame, knowing that he's too important to Gus to die for it (and that he could always talk his way out of this, which he indeed does in the next episode). Walt often prefers unexpected power plays to get his way, and this is partly what he does here, IMO: Taking a seemingly reckless, but actually calculated, risk.

or is it because he didn't want Jesse to become a murderer like he already was?

I don't think so. I don't think Walt's mind works like that (at least not anymore), and we don't have to wait long for proof since in the very next episode, to save himself, he orders Jesse to kill a (relatively) more innocent man in cold blood, and when he reasons it, it's obvious Jesse's soul is a minor issue when it comes to Walt's pragmatism:

Walt: Look, I saved your life, Jesse. Are you gonna save mine?

  • One might posit that his calculation went deeper than that: intentionally creating a "life debt" that he could manipulate Jesse with when he decided said "more innocent man" needed to be eliminated. There are many other instances in the show where we see Walt go out of his way to manipulate Jesse emotionally just to get what he wants and make Jesse act in certain ways. This could be another such instance. – zibadawa timmy Sep 3 '17 at 9:25
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Is it simply because Jesse would likely have been killed during the showdown, or is it because he didn't want Jesse to become a murderer like he already was?

The way I saw from watching it was both:

  1. Jesse was walking right up to 2 guys with guns - chances are even if he killed one, the other would kill him.
  2. Walt sensed that Jesse would be emotionally destroyed by the murder, even though he hated the two guys, so took the matter out of his hands in a most definite and non-negotiable way. Note that later in the series, Jesse is forced to shoot Gale Boetticher to save Walt's life and it does affect him deeply.
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Simplest explanation is Walt wanted to be the "guy". It was his ego made him kill the guys before Jessie to prove that it's his game, his turf.

This show is phenomenal in the way it demonstrates human mind.

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Actually in the script it says Walt didn't plan to do what he did, he just reacted instinctively: https://www.scribd.com/doc/181023719/Half-measures-pdf

We didn’t see him but during Jesse’s confrontation with the Bulletheads, Walt was parked nearby, watching from the darkness. Getting involved wasn’t a calculated move -- if he’d had time to think about it maybe he wouldn’t have done it at all. But when he saw Jesse walking into a gun fight, Walt’s instincts took over.

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