As I know was the case for many Breaking Bad fans, my only (but sizeable) complaint about the groundbreaking show’s series finale was the lack of both general screen time and overall closure for Jesse Pinkman. I still remember how angry I was when the episode finished, and for a while, it tainted my feelings about the finale in general. My only response when people would ask me what I thought of “Felina” was simply, “not enough Jesse.”
It didn’t take long before I managed to separate my feelings of disappointment over Jesse from the fact that, overall, I did really love the rest of the story’s ending. Eventually, I even managed to get over the disappointment, telling myself that Jesse was at least living a better life than he had been while held captive by Uncle Jack and crew. Maybe he’d even made it to Alaska and was living a life he never dreamt possible.
Still, it’s always been something that felt like unfinished business, and so I was excited (an understatement) when I first heard the rumblings and rumours about a possible Breaking Bad film. When news broke that it was going to be a Jesse-centric story, I lost my mind (perhaps a slight overstatement.) Honestly, I felt totally #blessed, as I’m sure several hundred thousand other fans of the show did.
Throughout the month of September and into the beginning of October, while waiting for the film’s debut, I vacillated often between sheer excitement and all-consuming nervousness. I just had no clue what to expect. I knew I had faith in Vince Gilligan and his team, and in Aaron Paul, but I worried – as one often does with sequels or other properties like them – that this continuation wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, live up to what came before it. That it would prove superfluous and possibly even blemish the franchise as a whole. (You know we all worried, even just briefly, that Better Call Saul might do just that.)
I am both relieved and delighted to say that El Camino met and surpassed my expectations. It was everything I wanted, and more that I didn’t even know I wanted until I saw it and thought, oh my god how did I not realize how much I wanted this?! At about 5 minutes into the film, I just blurted out, “this is so exciting!” I’m not being the slightest bit funny when I say that watching this story made me feel as though I was spinning around in circles with my arms stretched out; I was in a state of pure bliss.
Not that the story itself was all sunshine and roses – no, it was dark as hell – but it was just such a treat to be back in the Breaking Bad universe. To be once again immersed in the stunning direction and cinematography that truly helped change the game in what’s possible on TV. I had forgotten how much I love a good time-lapse, a beautifully choreographed montage, or a Gilligan signature style shot like the one through Todd’s apartment’s peephole.
I’d underestimated how much I’d enjoy spending time with characters like Skinny Pete, Badger, Mike, and Jane. It even reaffirmed my opinion that Jesse Plemmons – who has been referred to in the past as “Meth Damon” for his resemblance to Matt Damon and the Breaking Bad meth of it all – is, in fact, the better actor of the two. Todd is one scary, seriously fucked up dude, and Plemmons always gives the character so many interesting layers to unpack.
Of course, Aaron Paul is the real standout here. He infused Jesse with so much pain it hurt to watch, yet so much underlying hope you couldn’t look away. I’m in awe of how deeply-rooted and raw he allowed the anger and grief that runs through Jesse’s veins to be. His internal and consistently-tested struggle between trying to do right by himself and everyone else, to set himself free, without having to do wrong by anyone along the way – which, obviously, didn’t always work out. Jesse always deserved a better ending, and there’s no question that Paul was profoundly invested in showing us what that was.
As always, the writing was brilliant. For the first time in a long time, I couldn’t see 5 steps ahead, nor did I want to. I was so engrossed with the way the story was unfolding in front of me, I didn’t have time to consider what might be coming next – which I think is just a habit many avid TV watchers eventually develop. There were things that legitimately surprised me, which was such a deeply refreshing change of pace. It was just nice to get lost in the narrative, and I’m a little in awe of how well it was all constructed.
Overall, El Camino has a fairly simple structure: a man on the run who’s looking for cash so he can get the hell out of dodge. But it was elevated to something so much grander and emotionally moving than that. The way Gilligan so thoughtfully and methodically weaves these plot threads together feels like a bit of magic. I wish I could get a look at, what I like to believe is a Charlie Kelly style conspiracy theory board but are probably just very intricate notes, so I could see the manner in which he makes it all connect so seamlessly. And all while managing to keep the pace so propulsive, even amidst more calm, contemplative scenes.
There were moments of fan service – though I hesitate to even call them that since they weren’t of the indulgent, nostalgia-driven variety that so many returning franchises rely on when it’s clear they just have no more story to tell. No, these moments functioned as more of a callback or even a knowing nod to fans, and were peppered throughout the film in ways that ultimately served the overall narrative. Like when we got to hear Jesse say “bitch” again, it took place during a flashback where that made sense given the context.
The same can be said for the brief appearances of Mike, Walt, and Jane. Was it fun to see them again? Duh. But it was more than just a bonus; each character took part in conversations with Jesse that supported or added nuance to the themes of his story. Among other things, these sequences gave Jesse a direction and something to strive for (Mike,) heightened the brutal bittersweet-ness of it all (Walt,) and inspired hope for his future (Jane.)
We didn’t get to see a lot of that future, which was the one thing I found slightly disappointing. It would have been cool to see Jesse driving through his new hometown, taking in the scenery. Or to get some kind of hint that he’s making new connections, so he won’t have to be so utterly alone in the world. It’s not enough to negatively impact the film, though, and El Camino still managed to pack 2 hours of runtime with a hell of a lot of great story.
I’ve seen criticisms that too much time was spent “dwelling” on the past, but I’d argue these sequences were necessary to remind us of that devastatingly dark time in Jesse’s past. To ground us firmly once again in his POV. Two scenes in particular – when Jesse was unable to pull the trigger and kill Todd with his own gun despite his painfully close proximity to freedom, and when he was forced to “test the equipment” Kandy Welding made for Uncle Jack’s meth lab – made sure we were both well aware of just how horrible life has been for him. Just how beat-down he’d become. Which only makes his journey, and especially its outcome, so thoroughly cathartic.
Before seeing El Camino, I’d made the joke that it was probably going to be my favourite 2-hour episode of TV this year. I do still feel a little torn between whether this should be called a film, or more of an extended epilogue. The story itself lies somewhere in the middle since it manages to feel like a standalone narrative, while undeniably rooted in the series that birthed it. (I will say that without having seen Breaking Bad, a lot of the underlying tension and emotional payoffs would be almost entirely absent.) Ultimately, I don’t really give a damn whether this is filed under film or television. In the end, it was a reunion that finally put a well-earned spotlight on Jesse’s story, and provided the kind of closure his character had been long-overdue to receive.