Television

El Camino Is a Totally Entertaining, Somewhat Needless Coda to Breaking Bad

The movie spinoff ties up loose ends but doesn’t answer the lingering question: Who are we rooting for?

Aaron Paul wears a leather jacket in a still from El Camino.
Aaron Paul in El Camino.
AMC Networks, Netflix

When we last saw Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), he was fleeing a gangland crime scene where he had been tortured and caged for months, filthy, matted, and screaming in agonized relief. Behind him were the dead: his former partner Walter White and the slaughtered crew of skinhead criminals who had made Jesse their meth-making slave. Before him was nothing more distinct than his future. Depending on how you prefer your closure—just well-sealed or air-tight, staple-gunned, tied off with titanium floss—the final shot of Jesse, screaming behind the wheel as he made his escape, was either a loose end or explanation enough. Anyone who chose to imagine Jesse Pinkman coming to some bad end after he howled into the night, tearfully speeding toward freedom, was most definitely a “see a half-full glass as completely empty” kind of person.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which arrived on Netflix on Friday, explicates in detail the events that immediately followed the finale, while hewing to the already-relayed gist. The movie picks up where Breaking Bad left off, with Jesse hurtling down a dark road in a stolen El Camino, traumatized and wanted by the police, and ties up the not-exactly-loose ends. Punctuated with flashbacks, the movie follows Jesse as he contends with a number of hurdles, challenges, and familiar faces while desperately trying to get out of the Albuquerque environs. El Camino is a sumptuously shot, totally entertaining, somewhat needless, but sure-why-not elaboration of what has come before.

At the beginning of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman was a goofy punk, a small-time dealer whose pant legs widened to platter size and who yappily appended “bitch!” to shiny nouns. He was relieved of his blithe, selfish innocence by a long series of crimes and traumas, other- and self-inflicted, that revealed him to be a man with a conscience. Jesse, unlike Walt, felt guilt, grief, sadness. His dopey, puppyish smartass became a taciturn, depressed man burdened by all the terrible things he had done or been party to. He wanted to be better, he wanted to change, he wanted to get out, but he was too weak, further weighted down by a conscience that kept him from the ruthlessness escape might have required. We could forgive Jesse because he seemed so incapable of forgiving himself. In the moral calculus of Breaking Bad, Jesse’s remorse and regret made him nearly a good man, someone to root for.

It seems worth pointing out here, though, that this is a complicated moral calculus. I mean, it’s 101 compared with the formulas needed to solve for Walt, but Jesse was a key participant in, as El Camino puts it, the world’s largest meth ring; an often passive but sometimes active participant in the death and collateral damage involved in that trade; and a man who shot another, unarmed, man directly in the face. As he is told in El Camino by wise, grizzled codgers, he made his situation and he can never put things right. Yet I’ve rarely felt anything but sick for poor, trapped Jesse, who, when he finally stopped being annoying, became extremely moving: stuck with knowing better, way too late.

And that was before all that befell him in the final episodes of the series, revisited in flashbacks in El Camino, when he was pelted with the water from a firehose, held in a literal cage, beaten, scarred, played with, and taken by the banally evil Todd (Jesse Plemons) on a corpse disposal “errand.” As El Camino begins, Jesse is shattered, as desperately in need of mental health services as he is a new identity. I briefly hoped getting counseling would be one of the high-risk hoops he had to jump through on his way out of town—but, fine, instead, he’s got to get enough money to talk the vacuum repair salesman he’s 96 percent certain supplies people with new identities to supply him with one.

In El Camino, as on Breaking Bad, it’s clear that Vince Gilligan, who created the show and wrote and directed the movie, loves Jesse too. El Camino goes out of its way to keep things ethically simple for this former snot-nosed punk. As the plot gets going, it doesn’t have him forswear violence exactly, but it does show him backing down from a killing twice, at great cost—a confrontation with Todd that would result in the death of a little boy, a confrontation with two guys he thinks are cops—and only killing those same guys after they have been shown to be scuzzy douchebags, one of whom participated in Jesse’s torture.

What all of this means, though, is that El Camino is an addendum to Breaking Bad without one of the key elements of Breaking Bad: a kind of roiling moral confusion. Breaking Bad was aware it was telling the story of the moral degradation of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned megalomaniacal drug lord, a regular Joe harboring a malignant ego he was just waiting to unfurl. Yet, there was so much about Breaking Bad’s propulsive plotting, its energy, Bryan Cranston’s persuasive, hypnotizing performance as Walt, to say nothing of his death in a blaze of gunfire, that muddied the waters. Walt was sympathetic to many viewers long after he’d become a terrifying and proper sociopath—and for some viewers, he still is.

This—what to make of Walt and the “bad fans” who love him, and the ascendance of the bad fan in all aspects of American life—is the real loose end of Breaking Bad. (Just this week, fans were theorizing about how Walt’s not really dead.) But this is not part of El Camino, which, instead, unites the audience and the show’s makers in the same desire: for Jesse to get out. Despite the show having much of the problem solving, plot complexity, and the desperate emotion of the series; a really moving performance from Paul; and even an eerie flashback when Cranston slips back into character like a snake tugging on an old skin, this all makes El Camino awfully simple compared with an episode of Breaking Bad: Go, hero, go, get ye to America’s furthest Western point! It’s entertaining, but it’s somehow emptier. And so El Camino is for all viewers of the Breaking Bad universe what Breaking Bad was for a creepy few: the chance to root for our guy to make it out.