‘El Camino,’ a Flashback-Filled Epilogue for Jesse Pinkman of ‘Breaking Bad’
Whatever happened to ambiguous endings? We live in a time where even the most prestigious TV writers must justify every ending and plot hole. Breaking Bad never inspired as much discussion about its ending as, say, The Sopranos. But at the end of that tale of meth cooking gone awry, a lot of people still wanted to know: What happened to Jesse Pinkman?
EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Vince Gilligan
Written by: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Robert Forster, Bryan Cranston, Scott MacArthur
Running time: 122 min
When we last saw Jesse (Aaron Paul), he sped an El Camino away from a shootout that left his white supremacist captors and his former mentor/enemy Walter White dead after Walt saved him from gunfire. He was screaming hysterically and crying tears of joy at his newfound freedom.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (streaming on Netflix now, in select theaters Oct. 11-13) picks up right where that moment in the Breaking Bad finale left off. In its attempt to explain everything that happened, the film bogs itself down with added backstory instead of moving forward.
Jesse is on the run from the police and looking for a place to lay low until he can start his new life. He shows up at the house of his old friends Badger and Skinny Pete disheveled, starved and beaten, a man free from his physical prison but still dealing with the trauma of having been forced by racists to live in a cage and work as a meth cook slave.
Writer and director Vince Gilligan frames this scene with an eye for potential triggers. A smoke detector light comes on and Jesse starts trying to flee the house and shoot his friends until they calm him down. He carries his gun with him into the shower, holstering it still wet into his pants when he’s done.
Paul plays Jesse in an almost catatonic state for much of the film’s running time, and performs hardly any of the slapstick that audiences loved. There’s no “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!” here. “El Camino” is the type of car Jesse was driving when he got free, but it’s also Spanish for The Way. It’s clear that the way to Jesse’s new life involves him reckoning with the trauma from his imprisonment.
Slowly, Jesse forms a plan, which involves no small number of regular Breaking Bad players. He finds out where his white supremacist nemesis Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) hid a bunch of money. He then tries to buy his new life from Ed the Vacuum Man (Robert Forster), who runs a side gig “disappearing” criminals. Only problem is, Jesse’s $1,800 short, so he needs to find a way to get that money to buy his freedom. The rest of the film fills in how he knows where to get said money, and it all involves flashbacks to fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Todd, Walt (Bryan Cranston), his ex Jane (Krysten Ritter) and a group of newly-introduced thugs who work at a welding company that did business with Jesse’s captors.
I won’t spoil how Jesse earns his freedom, but I do want to talk about those flashbacks. Half of El Camino exists in flashback to events that happened to Jesse while Jack’s White Supremacist Gang enslaved him. The show implied the severity of his imprisonment, but El Camino fills in the gaps with anecdotes that exist solely to show why Jesse is doing what he’s doing.
He knows where to find Todd’s money because of a dastardly errand Todd forced him to do in the past that Breaking Bad never mentioned. He’s angry at the welding company (which didn’t exist in the show) because they helped build his cage. It’s all prequel gap-filling, except it comes at the end. And it’s not like the audience would need more reasons to root for Jesse. He already had two ex-girlfriends die because of his connection to Walter White; Walt also poisoned the son of one of those exes; Jesse got his revenge and killed Todd in the series finale; he is estranged from his family; White both ruined and saved his life. Do we really need to see more bad things that happened to him to get to a happy ending?
I understand the thematic resonance of having Jesse come to terms with his past before he can move on with his future. But introducing all of those past events now seems like there was nothing more to add to Jesse’s character to move him forward.
Without the flashbacks, nothing happens in this movie, and certainly not two hours worth of events. If this were two episodes of TV, it would be more riveting. Most of Breaking Bad’s genius came from the way it plotted itself according to a network TV structure. Here, a lot of the material seems to be biding its time.
That’s disappointing, because so much of this material is beautiful. Paul, it bears repeating, wholly embodies Jesse Pinkman and understatedly carries the entire film. While the Jesse of El Camino doesn’t joke as much as the Jesse of Breaking Bad, the scene where he tries to call Ed’s bluff on calling the cops is Peak Pinkman Slapstick. And as Ed, Forster steals the show with the 10 or so minutes of screentime he gets.
This film made me miss Vince Gilligan as a director and writer. The New Mexico vistas and open skies here look just as alive as they always did under his eye. This film is in many ways a Western, right down to an unrealistic gunfight at the end. Gilligan films it like an old-school, “man against the world” horse opera, framing the hero with a painter’s eye in split diopter lenses. And the scene where Jesse remembers where Todd hid his money and the ensuing struggle with forensic police when he goes to collect it is one of the most suspenseful scenes Gilligan has ever written, up there with Breaking Bad’s best set pieces.
Gilligan could have done an epilogue where Jesse gets a shot at another life without so many flashbacks. As the credits rolled on Jesse’s story, I couldn’t help but think I know nothing more about him than I did when I last saw him gleefully escaping the meth lab in the series finale. As Jesse himself once said, “you got me riding shotgun to every dark recess of this state. It’d be nice if you clued me in a little.”