This is a full spoiler discussion of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. If you haven’t watched, turn back now!
Like many (though not all) TV shows that are able to plan their series finales, Breaking Bad’s “Felina” was pitch-perfect. It was the end of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), as it needed to be, but it allowed us to have some hope in a future for Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as he sped off into the unknown. It had been awhile since I revisited Breaking Bad (which was our pick for the best TV show of the decade), but after reading through the timeline of events our writer Allison Shoemaker put together, one of the things that really stood out was just how much Jesse was truly abused and manipulated by everyone around him throughout the series. He’s not blameless, of course, but Jesse somehow remained a figure that we could root for, especially once Walt broke bad (which was pretty much within a month of his diagnosis).
As such, viewers have hoped for and imagined a happy ending for Jesse since “Felina,” that he might actually make it to Alaska and find a life for himself that was his own. And that, essentially, is what El Camino gives us. It starts the moment that Jesse drives away from that compound, but for the rest of its runtime it goes back and forth through time, as Jesse works on getting Ed the Extractor (Robert Forster) to find him a way out of the chaos that Walt created around them. In some ways, the plot is like an RPG quest line, wherein Jesse must do a variety of tasks before he is allowed to go to the next stage. And in true Breaking Bad fashion, it’s also full of anxiety-inducing moments where Jesse seems cornered and done for.
But Jesse’s humiliation tour of Albuquerque, which includes cameos from Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) in the present, and flashbacks to Walt, Mike (Jonathan Banks), friggin’ Todd (Jesse Plemmons), and finally Jane (Krysten Ritter), shows how far he has come. For better or worse, he learned a lot from his time with Walt and later Mike, and that new, hardened wisdom is juxtaposed with him at his lowest point, when Todd (friggin’ Todd, seriously) kept him in a cage and took him around like an abused dog over a strange weekend. Jesse would, of course, go on the kill Todd, and in the present day he also kills the two men from Kandy Welders who interrupted his taking of Todd’s money. But he never relished these slayings nor was able to easily brush it off; there are still flashes of the old Jesse there, especially when he yells at Ed (erroneously) about the 9-1-1 call.
As fun as El Camino is, particularly in the humor that plays throughout it (something Breaking Bad was always very adept at doing, and what many self-styled “serious” dramas forget), there’s still a question of whether it needed to happen at all. It confirms, in canon, that Jesse heads towards a new life in positive ways, but it also has to create a host of contrivances (most especially with the Kandy Welders duo) to fill out more of the plot. And yet, in doing so, it shows us a Jesse who—now that he is no longer under the control of Walt or Gus or Mike—is able to both stand on his own and begin to heal. Maybe we also needed that.
It feels completely different, too, than Better Call Saul, which is strangely at its best when it doesn’t overlap with the world of Breaking Bad. In that series, the connections explain things from the main series that don’t really need to be addressed explicitly. El Camino does some of that as it goes along, but the scenes and scenarios are all new. It’s an odyssey for Jesse’s psyche, working through his past trauma and present danger to come out somewhere better. And like Walt, he’s operating with a new, grim acceptance that he has nothing left to live for if he can’t escape. That gives him a dead-eyed confidence he never had before.
Science also doesn’t help Jesse out this time, as the only small connection that we have is him essentially lighting a match to gasoline to blow up Kandy Welding and hide his transgressions there. But his calm, considered actions are a world away from both the shell of a human he is when he hands Todd back his gun, or even when he loads up on pineapple at the buffet and tells Walt he wants to study sports medicine. That scene with Walt was also a perfect microcosm of their relationship throughout the series: Walt making arrogant assumptions, then walking it back with some quasi-fatherly advice before giving up and making it all about himself. “You’re really lucky, you know that? You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special,” Walt says to Jesse. Lucky? Something special? Right, Walt. Sure.
The best thing Jesse ever does for himself is get the hell out of Dodge, as the only person he cares about at this point is Brock (who he writes to in the end). That final scene is an emotional one, because for the first time Jesse actually looks healthy, confident and free. Aaron Paul was always overshadowed by Cranston in terms of acting accolades for Breaking Bad, but it was the two of them together that made the series so special. Paul consistently grounded Jesse with pathos and a soul, a foil for Walt’s loss of one. Breaking Bad started in 2008, both in its own time and in ours, and took place over the course of two years in terms of Walt’s infamy. But it’s believable that Jesse would age ten years in that span of time given all that he experienced, from “Felina” to El Camino. Yet when he’s in Alaska, something has fundamentally changed. As he realized in his conversation with Mike, he has a chance to start fresh, even though he can never make things right. Too much has happened; too many people have died. “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life. It’s better to make those decisions for yourself,” Jane tells Jesse in the past. It’s time for Jesse to start living for himself. He’s ready, bitch! And I’m glad we got to see it.
[This review originally posted in October of 2019]
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste . For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV