El Camino — A Breaking Bad Epilogue
I watched El Camino three times and rewatched Breaking Bad yet again and now I’m ready to write about the movie. I’m pretty sure I like it.
Jesse Pinkman has been going where the universe takes him since the very first time we meet him all the way back in the first season of Breaking Bad. From that moment when he inadvertently locks eyes with his former high school Chemistry teacher/the worst person ever, Jesse has been pushed and pulled in every direction, each set of grasping hands dragging him somewhere more horrible than the last, and tearing off little pieces of him to boot. That’s why, even though the movie wasn’t perfect or exactly what I was initially wanting out of it in every sense, I can’t help but be satisfied with the ending we got for Jesse. I have to say though, satisfaction didn’t come after the first watch, it came after the the last one, which itself followed me rewatching the TV series again.
That’s the preface for everything I’m going to say about El Camino and the praise that I’m going to give it: that I would highly recommend (if you loved the show) rewatching the series and then this immediately after. The movie on its own, especially if you have very fond memories of the show, is a little disappointing. Watching it as an epilogue and without the expectations of the emotional heights that Breaking Bad took us to really reframes how you view it — it worked for me, anyway.
I don’t want to harp on about the series, but I have to use the affection I have for it and the pedestal I put it on (I honestly believe it deserves every bit of hype and is one one of the greatest shows ever made), to illuminate my expectations going into this movie. Rewatching Breaking Bad, and getting to those last few episodes, you really remember how emotional it had been to watch at the time, genuinely heart-wrenching. Marie trying to take Holly out of the house when she finds out what Walt has been doing? Jeez. Walt falling to his face in the sand when Hank is shot and he finally sees what his pride has wrought? Fuck. Jesse screaming desperately through his gag when Andrea is shot in front of him? Oh my god. Skyler streaked with blood, screaming in the middle of the road because Walt has run away with their baby and she really doesn’t know what he’s capable of? Holy shit, Anna Gunn.
And then finally, finally, watching Jesse burst through those gates to something unknown but that must be better than what Walter White did to him? What a perfect release. Which is why I was maybe a little disappointed at the lack of the kick in the chest this movie gave me. I am a cryer, at movies, TV shows, video games and sometimes podcasts, and I fully expected to cry at this, like I did several times in those last few episodes, but I didn’t. That really doesn’t say anything negative of the quality of the performances or the writing, but speaks to my expectations and the disappointment I felt upon first watch.
El Camino had the feeling of being set years later, probably in part because to us, it has been. That isn’t necessarily helped by the visible ageing of the actors here — it’s a small thing, but I can’t deny that it took me out of it a few times when I remembered how old Jesse is supposed to be, and how vital his age actually is in understanding his character. Did it ruin it? Of course not. It just made the flashback scenes feel a little off to me (Mike’s “teenage retiree” line springs to mind, as does the Walt/Jesse diner scene).
Finding a few lines to be a little trite and chuckling at 40-year-old Aaron Paul being referred to as a teenager were are not movie ruiners though, so I’ll get into what I liked about it (and I’ll return to that ageing point in a bit).
Every key player in the Breaking Bad universe is a fantastic actor, but Jesse Plemons really stands out to me as being one of the most interesting, and the stuff he has been cast in since the end of the show has really proved his talent. He really shines in even the smallest rolls he has been in, because there is something so natural and incredibly human about the way he performs. Fargo, Olive Kitteridge, Black Mirror, goddamn Game Night (“how can that be profitable for Frito-Lay?”), he’s just talented as hell and so fascinating to watch, even when he’s being as deeply unsettling as he is as Todd. The soft-spokenness, the awkward, skin-crawling touches like when he reaches out to tilt up Jesse’s chin and later when he puts his arm around him — I wanted to shy away from him in the same way Jesse did, that’s how good Plemons is in this role.
I think you can tell that Gilligan has been ruminating on Todd a lot, and the movie really asks ‘But how much of a weirdo is he actually? How far does this go?’ Pretty far, turns out. Todd is clearly an evil person, an absolutely remorseless killer, but I can’t deny being glad when he was back on screen because of how incredibly interesting he is to watch. I loved seeing the inside of his quirky, outdated apartment and watching him singing along to an easy-listening 70’s tune. Watching Jesse (Pinkman), so deeply affected by all the terrible things he has done, it’s especially strange to watch a character be entirely the opposite way. Strangling his housekeeper to death is as impactful on his life as cooking that can of soup, (side-note: him taking his belt back and putting it on was a virtuosic touch), it literally means nothing to him, where killing absolutely tore Jesse apart and made him break down.
In the way that Plemons is unsettling because of his lack of emotion, Aaron Paul, as he did in the TV series, brims with it. He’s a really great cryer, and Jesse is a raw nerve, that’s why even in the beginning it’s impossible not to care about him. While I spoke earlier about the fact that in the flashback sequences, his ageing rather took me out of the story, upon rewatches it really benefits the narrative of the present-day to have Jesse look older than he is supposed to be. It brings a new dimension to Paul’s performance that we haven’t seen before — Jesse is different now, scarred, traumatised, cornered, and desperate to somehow save himself. He’s also world-weary and aged by this trauma, ready to get away from Albuquerque not only because it is necessary if he wants to avoid prison, but because spiritually, there’s nothing left for him there.
Jesse was practically a child when we met him, that was part of why he consistently connected with them so much, and he has repeatedly seen childhood destroyed and unvalued. He himself is one of these destroyed children; he left his family home as a troublesome teen and was pretty much given up on by his parents after that point. It made him susceptible to corruption and it created his misplaced sense of loyalty to Walt as a father-figure, something Walt skilfully manipulated when required. No one cared that Jesse was so young when he was involved in all these awful things, and no one cared about the goodness he had in him either. That goodness is still there, but any kind of innocence is long gone.
The only way that Jesse can find any kind of redemption is by having the opportunity to figure out who he is now, not who everyone always assumed he was, and not who he convinced himself he could be, ie. “the bad guy.” While the flashback scene between Jesse and Walt dripped with fan service, I liked the fact that Vince Gilligan didn’t try to retroactively romanticise Walt as a person. He was only on screen for a few minutes, but he showed again that even in hindsight, he really did not know Jesse at all. If Walt had ever taken Jesse up on the times he tried to bond, to make conversation, to treat him like a person, he might have known that Jesse likes working with his hands, the only thing he was ever proud of at school was that wooden box he made. If he’d known him, or really cared, he could have urged him in that direction — but he didn’t. That’s why his suggestion about what Jesse could do with his life is so bland (go to college study… business, I guess). It’s based on what Jesse is to him and not on who Jesse actually is. He really had no idea who Jesse is in his heart. Walt had made all kinds of assumptions about him that were wrong; Jesse did get his GED, he’s not a useless idiot, or worthless, and his soul is redeemable.
The wild West theme has run throughout the entirety of Breaking Bad, and the film really ends on that note. Jesse walks into the Kandy Welding Company office like it’s a saloon, full of rough men sitting around, drinking and celebrating their crooked victory. If Jesse is the hero trying to leave the New Mexico badlands behind, then it makes sense that this would end with an old fashioned duel. It’s satisfying to watch, the way he uses his wits to win this fight, but Jesse’s worst enemies had been defeated before this. Neil Kandy might be the intimidating one to his friends and colleagues, but he has nothing on the kind of evil men Jesse has outlived already. After everything he has been through, Jesse is the quickest and cleverest in the room, and efficiently spills this last bit of blood before heading off for his new life.
This movie is not a redemption story, I feel that redemption is for after the credits have rolled, and can’t come until he actually has the chance to take control of his future. Jesse has involuntarily skipped young adulthood and is now forced, under the immense pressure of being a highly wanted man, to decide what he wants out of real adulthood. It’s not surprising that what he chooses is in every way the opposite of what he has had his whole life. Swapping the desert for the snow, the chaos for the calm, and the hoodie for the cable knit.
In the end, the universe did not bring Jesse to the long stretch of road he drives down with a small, hopeful smile — he brought himself here. I was glad that the last thought he had of his old life wasn’t Walt, his imprisonment, or even his parents, but Jane, the turning point that pushed Walt into irredeemability and Jesse into surrendering himself to wherever life dragged him. She had been the last time he had seen a different path for his future, so it’s fitting that she would appear to him now and remind him of some advice that he had been too young and naive to understand at the time. Making choices, decisions, taking steps towards who you actually want to be.
Watching Jesse drive through that beautiful landscape might not have been the emotional kick in the chest I originally wanted, but after rewatching the TV series, maybe Gilligan has kicked me in the chest enough. It wasn’t what I expected, and it wasn’t perfect, but if there’s a chance Jesse Pinkman can find some sort of peace, honestly, I’m happy.