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“Guess I got what I deserved…”
Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” belts out over the final images of Breaking Bad as police swarm the crystal meth compound belonging to Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his Nazi crew, at least up until their recent deaths by trunk-mounted machine gunfire. Sprawled out in the middle of the lab: Walter White (Bryan Cranston), finally deceased, not due to his resurgent cancer but his own explosive schemes. Far away from the action: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), roaring off into the unknown behind the wheel of a vehicle — an El Camino, to be precise — his exact fate and future left up to the viewer to decide.
Until El Camino, at least.
Creator Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie acts as a coda to the Breaking Bad saga, a new ending for Paul’s Pinkman, the beating and often bleeding heart of the franchise. The project was shot and shrouded in secrecy for much of its existence, only officially acknowledged a handful of weeks before its Oct. 11 release on Netflix; even then, the barest details were revealed, with only Paul, Charles Baker (Skinny Pete) and Matt Jones (Badger) confirmed to reprise their roles. Of course, it was assumed Cranston would wield the Heisenberg mantle in some way, shape or form once again, with other cameos and reprisals along the way, but the specifics of how they would all weave into the fabric of the film were as ambiguous as Jesse’s final ride itself — though there’s little ambiguity to the ride now, even if there isn’t much that’s ultimately changed.
For Pinkman, the rides through the Breaking Bad endgame and the El Camino runtime are bump-and-bruise-y in their own respectively traumatic ways, but their final destination is more or less the same: escape. El Camino follows through on one of the most popular fan theories out there: Jesse makes his way to Alaska, “the last frontier,” fulfilling a desire he first said aloud back in season five’s “Confessions.” Jesse’s hopeful Alaskan life was the stuff of happy musings among imaginative Breaking Bad fans for years, even if there was no way to get quite as precise as a new name like Mr. Driscoll, born June 10, 1984, Social Security number 114-18-6941.
Are all those details necessary? A version of that question keeps making the rounds among those who dove headlong into El Camino during its opening weekend. THR TV critic Dan Fienberg writes in his review of the movie: “El Camino is a high-quality piece of suspense and action filmmaking carried by Paul’s still-tremendous performance as Jesse Pinkman. It looks great, sounds great and if you’re a fan, it’s full of cameos and references that are sure to amuse. It’s also — and this is not an insignificant problem — largely unnecessary as it pertains to the larger Breaking Bad narrative. At least it’s unnecessary in an innocuous and entertaining way. It doesn’t do any harm. It just gives answers I’m not sure I cared about to questions I’m not sure I asked.”
If “unnecessary in an innocuous and entertaining way” becomes the greatest recurring argument against El Camino, it may still boast a stronger legacy than “Felina,” the Breaking Bad finale that left some audience members feeling colder than Jesse in his new homeland. (Nice sweater, by the way!) After he created so much destruction, bringing his family to financial and existential ruin in the violent pursuit of bolstering both those things, “Felina” allows Walt to return from exile and right the wrongs of his Heisenberg history, at least in part. It flies in the face of what weary hitman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) says at the start of El Camino, when Jesse expresses his desire to “put things right.”
“Sorry, kid,” says Mike. “That’s the one thing you can never do.”
As the primary architect behind both Breaking Bad and El Camino, Gilligan does not allow Jesse to “put things right,” certainly not as successfully as Walt’s “Felina” finale. Indeed, his vision tasks Jesse with killing two men, adding more red to the ledger of the man who tearfully assassinated Gale Boetticher (David Costabile). In order to get out of town, Jesse has to make ends meet through violent means, in what’s essentially a condensed version of the Walter White arc: killing and earning blood money on a self-centered quest — for survival, in Jesse’s case, if not quite the pursuit of a twisted form of greatness, as it was for Walter.
For the black-hatted Heisenberg, a couple additional bodies would barely register as footnotes in his long list of atrocities. For Jesse, however, killing the Kandy welders Neil and Casey isn’t insignificant. These are the fourth and fifth men on Jesse’s kill list, brought down by a small-scale version of Walt’s final trick: a hidden gun. In the end, in order to escape the ghost of Walter White, Jesse has to put on his own version of a black hat. He even threatens the witnesses who survive the Neil-Casey killings with a fake gambit that calls to mind Walt’s final encounter with Elliot and Gretchen in “Felina.” No need to call upon Badger and Skinny Pete to play the role of faux hitmen, but Jesse’s threat to Neil and Casey’s friends is an empty one all the same.
The El Camino version of a happy ending for Jesse requires him to actively take some pages from his late mentor’s playbook, adding more blood to his conscience. The Breaking Bad version of a happy ending for Jesse requires the viewer to put some faith in the liberated meth cook, to believe in his ability to find somewhere better, however improbable. Which ending do you prefer? Much like adding in a dash of chili powder to the proceedings, as was Jesse’s old wont, it’s subject to taste. If El Camino commits the crime of adding relatively unneeded and painful details to the story of Jesse’s escape, is it tempered by the fact that it brings us one final brilliant performance of Paul as Pinkman, Cranston as White, Jesse Plemons as Todd, and the sadly late Robert Forster as Ed Galbraith? Much like Jesse’s own cosmic balance, the jury’s still out — but it’s easy to see why Gilligan and Breaking Bad enthusiasts alike would be tempted to go back to that special love they have for a certain Baby Blue.
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