El Camino began as a simple short film that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wanted to make for the series’ 10th anniversary. Plans changed, and over time that simple concept expanded into a feature-length film designed for viewers who wondered what happened to Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) after he escaped the Nazi compound driving Todd’s titular vehicle.
The question I had before watching El Camino was if any closure was needed, and whether El Camino would have anything to add to one of the greatest shows ever made. The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. El Camino might not be essential viewing for the phenomenally popular AMC show, but it does provide a proper ending for arguably the fans’ favourite character. And thanks to Aaron Paul’s raw and committed performance, as well as Vince Gilligan’s talent behind the camera, the Netflix original film is one of the best things the streaming giant has produced thus far.
Breaking Bad‘s final episode is regarded as one of the greatest series finales of all time, and so many fans were naturally worried that El Camino could in some way damage the finale’s conclusion. The last time we saw Jesse Pinkman, he had escaped an underground prison where he was held prisoner and forced to cook industrial-grade crystal meth. His final moments at the end of Breaking Bad were powerful indeed, as we watched him speed into the distance, seemingly leaving all of his problems behind. It was just ambiguous enough to imagine a happy ending for Jesse, but it also didn’t seem like the ending the character deserved. Even as he escapes the worst experience of his life, it was hard not to think that Jesse’s problems were far from over. And knowing how things unfold in Breaking Bad, chances are that any plans Jesse may have would soon be derailed by a series of unfortunate events.
El Camino Has No Major Plot Twists
Picking up immediately where the hit drama left off, Netflix’s follow-up film tells the story of what happens to Jesse after he is freed with the help of his mentor–turned–nemesis, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Taking place over the course of a few days, Jessie now attempts to evade the police manhunt and escape New Mexico with the help of some old friends. Complicating matters are Neil (Scott MacArthur) and Casey (Scott Shepherd), two small-time criminals who are after the same missing cash that Jesse is tracking. Apart from that, there are no major twists or new story developments, and there’s really no need to give a full plot synopsis (since I assume anyone reading this has already seen El Camino). Nevertheless, it is worth commenting on the structure of the film, since it pretty much plays like an extended episode of Breaking Bad, and in no way reflects badly on the series as a whole. El Camino exhibits a respectable level of restraint; there are no story beats that undo any of the revelations from the series, there are no scenes that try to shoehorn some ridiculous plot twist, and there are no characters coming back from the dead. Instead, El Camino is a mostly quiet character study, and a strong companion piece to one of the most beloved shows ever made.
El Camino’s Flashbacks and Cameos
There was much speculation on which characters from the original series would return, and thankfully the answer is several — including a few who died (they appear in a number of flashbacks that put a clever spin on the proceedings). In the present timeline, we get a touching sequence with Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones), who provide some much-needed levity. Later, there is also a wonderfully written scene featuring Robert Forster as Ed, the proprietor of a vacuum-repair shop, and his sweet customer played by Marla Gibbs. Todd (Jesse Plemons) also returns as Pinkman’s affable white-supremacist imprisoner, and fans are treated to a poignant scene between Jesse and Mike (Jonathan Banks), which unfolds roughly around “Buyout” (season five’s sixth episode), where Mike and Jesse decide to break away from Walt’s business, and Mike recommends Jesse relocate to Alaska. Fans will remember that Jesse originally said that he wanted to move to Alaska in season five, episode 11’s “Confessions,” and now we know why. Putting aside those clever connections to previous episodes, it is scenes like this that remind us that the show’s biggest strength is in the quality performances of every player, no matter how big or small their role — and more importantly, they demonstrate why Jesse became the fan favourite.
Jesse is the Beating Heart of Breaking Bad
It’s worth remembering that Aaron Paul was initially cast to play a small part, with the initial plan to kill his character at the end of season one. Instead, Paul proved so utterly compelling in the role that Jesse not only survived, but in time was seen as Walt’s narrative equal. If Walter White is the brains of the show, Jesse is the beating heart, and his relationships with everyone he meets not only strengthens his character, but also the performances of those who surround him. Late in the third act, El Camino flashes back to a time before Walter White was known by his clandestine alias, Heisenberg. The scene takes place within the space of season two’s “4 Days Out,” in which both men formed a close bond. It was a simpler time when Walt was trying to make some fast cash to leave for his family before cancer got the best of him. And it was a time when Jesse was a simple naïve high school graduate trying to figure out what to do with his life. Through the beauty of the flashback, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston share one final scene, and thanks to their onscreen chemistry, we are reminded that the best moments in Breaking Bad revolved around the interplay between Walter and Jesse — and despite everything that has happened to Jesse, he’s still the same guy, deep down inside. It is with this scene that El Camino successfully makes the case for its existence, and reminds us of why we all fell in love with Jesse, to begin with.
When creator Vince Gilligan first pitched Breaking Bad, he described it as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” The show began as a story about Walter White — a chemistry teacher–turned–drug kingpin who, after discovering he has terminal lung cancer, decides to cook meth to provide money for his family after he’s gone. Even though Walt had the brains, he didn’t know squat about the drug business, and so he recruited former student Jesse Pinkman to help him sell his first batch. From that moment on, Jesse became a victim of Walt’s bad decisions, and when Walter let Jesse’s drugged and unconscious girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), die from choking on her vomit, the series narrative truly shifted to have Jesse serve as the series’ moral center and comic relief. Walter White may have been the driving force for the biggest scenes, but it’s Jesse who keeps viewers caring. Walter White gets his conclusion, but Jesse is left with the short end of the stick.
Vince Gilligan’s Direction
As a director, Vince Gilligan does some of his best work here. In fact, his work here is so good that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the man only directed a handful of Breaking Bad‘s episodes (not to mention this is his first feature film). Working alongside series editor Skip Macdonald and cinematographer Marshall Adams, Gilligan composes some truly unforgettable images, such as a stunning bird’s eye view of Jesse tearing apart a
home crime scene in time-lapse photography. Much like the show, El Camino evokes the iconic imagery seen in classic Westerns, and even features a good old’ fashioned Western standoff as Jesse arms himself with his granddad’s antique semi-automatic pistol — a .22 caliber. Every shot in El Camino is meticulously crafted, whether it’s an ordinary setup, a long tracking shot, or a devastating phone conversation, Vince Gilligan ensures that Jesse is as front and center as he should be, since this is his story and he appears in every scene.
The Ending of El Camino
As good as the cinematography, score, art direction, and supporting cast are, what makes El Camino great is Jesse Pinkman/Aaron Paul. Paul hasn’t missed a beat in his portrayal of Jesse, and here he carries every scene (nearly every frame) of the movie on the weight of his shoulders. His work in El Camino is impressive considering that he has to play so many variations of his character, as Jesse goes through a roller coaster of emotions. That means the good, the bad, and everything in between.
El Camino (Spanish for “road”) gives Jesse his road to recovery. In the end, Jesse takes Jane’s advice and chooses Alaska as the “last frontier” — the place he would escape to. Before he leaves, Jesse provides Ed with a letter for Brock (Ian Posada), the contents of which are kept hidden from the viewer, but which we can only assume informs Brock that Jesse has left a large pile of money behind for the young boy. The film’s final image is clearly similar to Jesse’s final Breaking Bad appearance, only this time he’s driving away peacefully. We can always wonder what happens next to Jesse, but chances are that he’ll be okay, and Jesse finally gets the closure he deserves.
Six years and one spin-off prequel later, the obvious question was if it was worth continuing a story that already had a satisfying ending? Not only does the El Camino’s 125-minute runtime pay tribute to the show that helped give it birth, but it also finds a reason to exist beyond making the studio a boatload of money. If the Breaking Bad finale was about Walter White getting what he wanted, El Camino is about Jesse reconciling with his past and searching for humanity he’d lost. It succeeds by giving Jesse a fresh start; he’s finally able to move on and decide what he wants to do with his life without anyone else interfering with his plans. Now that he truly is free, the question is whether or not he can create a happy ending for himself.
- Ricky D