An Opinion on EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE

Jesse gets closure in a methodical but rewarding epilogue. WARNING: Some Spoilers.

So I was definitely in that camp of people who thought a whole movie centered around Jesse Pinkman was a bad idea. Not that I didn’t like the character; I did. He was the heart of the show for a lot longer than people gave him credit for. Even as early as the end of Season 1, around the time the creative staff realized having Tuco beat him to death was probably a bad idea, Jesse became if not quite the audience surrogate then at least some kind of throughline of basic human empathy.

That’s not to say Aaron Paul’s performance was always seamless. It took him a long time to really move past the snarling doofus he was originally. By the time he did, the shadow of Walter White and Cranston’s performance made his progression as an actor and Jesse’s as a character seem less like organic growth and more like detritus in Heisenberg’s wake. By the time he emerged from that hole in the ground on Uncle Jack’s compound, he seemed like an entirely different person, one we never really got a chance to know.

So we pick up on El Camino essentially right after Walter’s death, just where we left Jesse. He avoids the cops as they swarm onto the compound and hightails it to Skinny Pete and Badger’s place, where he heals up, ditches his car (after a welcome experience with Old Joe) and scrambles enough cash together to stay ahead of the cops, who seem to be characterized more or less the same as they were on Breaking Bad — not wholly incompetent, but generally a few steps behind the major players.

What mostly follows feels like an extended version of one of the original series’s low-key episodes. And as it’s predominately epilogue, it’s perhaps a little less surprising than Better Call Saul so often has been. Jesse’s goal from the start is fairly obvious: he needs to try to get back in touch with Robert Forster’s fixer character, Ed, and enlist his services in getting to Alaska (while also paying back the debt he owes for ditching Ed in the first place). It shouldn’t be a major spoiler to say that he gets there in the end. Not even Vince Gilligan is cruel enough to deny Jesse that. The plot is fairly simple, and is interspersed with more than its fair share of cameos during different moments in the worst year of Jesse’s life. First we get Mike (Jonathan Banks), then an extended, grueling adventure with Todd (Jesse Plemons). In the last ten minutes, we return to the two most important ghosts in Jesse’s life: a flashback with Walt in a diner, and then a final moment with Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter).

The Walt scene, which as far as I can tell is set around the time of “4 Days Out”, still my personal favorite episode of the show, is just the pair decompressing a bit after that ordeal. It feels, to its credit, very much a part of that show, and one of the all-time great Walter White lines ends it. The Jane moment is a little more ethereal. As Jesse drives into the Alaskan wilderness, he remembers (or imagines) a conversation he and Jane had on that idyllic trip they took to look at those Georgia O’Keeffe paintings.

“I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life,” she tells him. “It’s better to make those decisions for yourself.” Which I suppose underlines the core theme here: what happened to Jesse is not entirely his fault, but what he does from here on out is. He’s not the same man he was back then. I think the use of two different Season 2 flashbacks really underscores how much of a flashpoint that was for Walt and Jesse — the last time they were even close to human. And while the makeup department does an admirable job of making him look a decade younger, neither is Aaron Paul. We’ll have to see what he does from here. As for Jesse, his story is told — with more closure than I expected or really wanted. But I’m glad I got it.

Stray Observations

  • What I think I like most about the flashback cameos is that for a few seconds they almost feel like actual ghosts, or at least hallucinations. I wasn’t entirely sure at first if Mike or Jane weren’t figments of Jesse’s imagination come to comfort him in his darkest hour, which I suppose is the best way to use these kind of narrative devices.
  • Quick shoutout to Scott MacArthur, currently starring as the devilish Scotty on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, in his turn as the most memorable new character: welder and petty criminal Neil Kandy. An associate of Uncle Jack and Todd’s looking to scavenge what’s left of their loot, he’s not necessarily an evil character, more just a vulture who thinks he’s ready to be more.
  • Speaking of, it’s great that somebody finally went and had a real, actual gun duel in this universe. Can’t be a true western without one.
  • Skinny Pete really is the biggest homie you could ever ask for.
  • Also, Jesse Plemons as Todd is an Evil Dale Cooper level sociopath and if I never see him again, it’ll be too soon. Get that man an Emmy.
  • So my initial hope that this would tie back into Better Call Saul turned out to be nothing. This is, like I said, more of an epilogue for Jesse, a finish to his arc. It did make me very excited to see a “previously on Breaking Bad bit,” though. Maybe I just wanted more justification for Saul taking the year off. At least Mike showed up.
  • Seeing Brock’s name on the letter Jesse gives to Robert Forster at the end got me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Forster’s reaction (RIP to one of the greats) while he’s reading it betrays his whole refutation of having heartstrings for Jesse to pull. I think I can imagine what’s in that letter enough to never, ever want to read it.
  • Vince Gilligan really is a terrific director. He should do it more. Perhaps even with some of these characters on some sort of AMC television show.
  • The stylistic differences between Breaking Bad and its younger (and superior) sibling really shine watching this. Different timelapses, trick cameras, all that stuff. This felt more like the original than Saul ever really has, while also showing off the particular framing and more deliberate writing that has made BCS the best show on television for the last half decade.

Speaking of, guess I’ll see y’all in 2020 when it finally comes back. This was a great and wonderful appetizer, and I’m happy to see something nice happen to Jesse, but I need my McGill fix. I need that shit real bad, man. I’m tweaking.

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