It was six years ago that Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) drove off into the darkness of the desert, thoughts of gaining police sirens and his dying partner lost behind his hysterical laughter and screams at the thought of finally having freedom. “Felina”, the cathartic ending to cultural phenomenon Breaking Bad, was quickly cemented as one of the best endings seen on television.
In the midst of all the rubble left in the white supremacists’ wake, “Felina” only left audiences with one question: what became of Jesse Pinkman?
It was ultimately left up to the imagination: some said the police caught up to him quickly, forcing him to pay dues he’d already seen enough of in Breaking Bad; others liked to imagine Jesse living blissfully in Alaska, having taken up carpentry to combat his years of trauma.
A softhearted meth peddler, Jesse Pinkman is one of the most tragic figures in recent television history. Jesse’s a victim of circumstance — and, for five seasons and well before that, he’d only seemed capable of falling into the worst ones. Love or hate Jesse, he deserved more in life than was given to him. While he may have been freed of both the literal and metaphorical shackles he spent Breaking Bad’s final season in, the only certainty in Jesse’s future was that he would be forever plagued by memories of the horrors Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had dragged him through.
That is, until rumours began to float of a Breaking Bad movie in secret production. It only felt real when it finally premiered on Netflix — and, then, it just felt like being six years back (save for Paul looking the full six years older), watching the episode of Breaking Bad that could’ve premiered the week after “Felina” did.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie picks up right where “Felina” left off: with Jesse barrelling through the gates of his past life and into freedom previously unknown to him. The rest of the film is made up of Jesse’s journey to ensure this freedom by collecting the cash he needs to pay Breaking Bad’s infamous vacuum salesman Ed Galbraith (Robert Forster in his final role) to help him “disappear”.
The story is interspersed with flashbacks, but only where they see fit; the nightmare of Jesse’s life with Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons), the emotionless captor who fed Jesse crumbs of humanity to keep him obedient to the demands of helping hide corpses of innocents who got in his way.
Alternatively, we see Jesse in moments with other beloved (and hated) characters, softer moments that must have felt like a safe haven for Jesse, where he got to step away from the tragedy that was his life. Cranston even makes an appearance as Walt, giving a wham line that caps off Walt’s story in a way his quiet death couldn’t: “you’re lucky,” he tells Jesse after a day-long meth cook, “you didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
As Breaking Bad and prequel Better Call Saul have proven, creator Vince Gilligan and the rest of the team behind the Breaking Bad universe craft characters like no others. That’s why, six years later, El Camino still works. It doesn’t come off as a quick cash-grab meant to reel back in old viewers who missed these characters. It’s a study of the consequences that one person’s (Walter White’s) actions had on another person, an in-depth look at what would become of the broken, beaten down man who was dragged along for the ride.
Jesse is not as compelling a character as Walt or Saul, two men whose villainy counters their humanity in a way that makes viewers sit back and question themselves over the fact they’re willing to root for such evil. While the character of Jesse Pinkman reaches the same emotional depths and has seen a wealth of development over the years, he’s our tragic hero. He’s the one character of the franchise who completely won over the audience.
But this means that Jesse’s “hardened soft boy” act cannot carry a film alone. It’s another career landmark performance from Aaron Paul, as well as the ensemble of actors he plays off of and nuanced writing and direction from Vince Gilligan that sell El Camino. The world of El Camino stretches far beyond Jesse and feels immersive to the viewer.
Subtleties like microexpressions the whole cast (but especially Paul) pulls, lines in the script that feel as though they were scribbled in the margins later on (Heisenberg hitman Skinny Pete showed up for a bit and left me transfixed by uttering the words “Tommy Hilfinger” in complete seriousness); all of it adds up to a sense of realism that’s thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measures.
The characters in this universe remain commendable even throughout El Camino -—they are beloved even by those writing them and perhaps that’s why they’re never done any favours. Jesse’s life plays out exactly as one would expect with the knowledge of the darkhole he willingly threw himself into.
El Camino is purposeless in the sense that Breaking Bad already had a flawless ending that neatly capped off every aspect of the story. El Camino does not even provide the viewer with deeper development and added background knowledge a la Better Call Saul; instead, it watches like extra footage cut from the final season of Breaking Bad consisting of blanks the audience was meant to fill in.
But, while unnecessary to the bigger picture, El Camino finds its purpose in feeling like home to a Breaking Bad fan. Maybe it’s because we’ve gotten to know Jesse, because he feels like a close friend we’ve lost track of but hadn’t stopped thinking about for years to come. “Felina” was satisfying but, while not the superior watch of the two, El Camino offers a unique sense of closure. A feeling of relief, a weight off your shoulders. Your old friend’s taken you back on a ride through your old haunts and while they’re riddled with heartache now, like Jesse, you can drive off into freedom feeling as though it’s all going to be alright from here. That’s how deeply Gilligan forces you to go into this world, and while it hurts sometimes, after yet another incredible conclusion, it’s harder to think it’s officially over.
For willingness to push the boundaries in what storytelling on television could look like, Breaking Bad is a landmark for prestige television. I’m firmly of the opinion that there’s no way another television show could top Breaking Bad, let alone come close to being as masterful. El Camino only further cements its position as one of the best, as unlike other shows before it, Breaking Bad now has two perfect endings.