Much like the criminal escapades of Walter White himself, a lot of the dramatic urgency and narrative surprises found in Breaking Bad stemmed from its creative team’s knack for improvisation. As creator Vince Gilligan has revealed in many interviews, his writers frequently backed characters into inescapable corners, with no exit plan in place. A lot of what made the series so great was that sense of desperation from the writers room bleeding into the story, the tension of impending doom morphing into the thrill of finding an ingeniously unexpected solution. Many of Breaking Bad’s best elements came out of deviations from the original plot.
Case in point – Jesse Pinkman. The slacker junkie and low-level drug dealer was initially introduced as Walt’s gateway into the criminal underworld. The character was planned to be killed off at the end of season one, after serving his purpose. This was, after all, supposed to be a story focused on Walt’s descent. But there was something about Aaron Paul’s performance that was too magnetic to discard. Paul’s charming portrayal of Jesse’s exuberant innocence and comical idiocy hinted at unplumbed depths, and boy, was Gilligan determined to plumb those depths. By season two, Breaking Bad became a 50/50 show, with Jesse as the second lead.
So it is not without some irony that Jesse has outlived Walt to star in his own feature, set after the events of Breaking Bad’s finale. Now, in a world where Better Call Saul didn’t exist (a riveting prequel series starring Bob Odenkirk, chronicling the past of criminal lawyer Saul Goodman), many fans would’ve assumed this was a bad idea. Why mess with a perfect ending? But after four incredible seasons of Better Call Saul, fans have come to realize that everything Vince Gilligan does is perfection. He doesn’t give fans what they want, he gives them what they need. And much like Saul’s (and Mike Ehrmantraut’s) backstory, closure for Jesse was needed.
El Camino picks up seconds after the final episode “Felina”, as Jesse drives the titular muscle car through a chain-link fence, sobbing and laughing in a moment of primal catharsis. His symbolic shackles may have been broken, but he still wears the figurative and literal scars on his dishevelled face and wrecked body. The trauma of being kept in a cage and tortured by neo-Nazis for months, and the cumulative erosion of his soul (thanks to years of emotional manipulation by his high school chemistry teacher turned narcissistic drug kingpin mentor) isn’t as easy to escape. Nor are the army of law enforcement agents still hunting him down.
This film is partly a survivalist Western about an outlaw on the run, and partly a psychological drama unpacking the enormous mental damage that Jesse can’t outrun. And through it all, the adroit storytelling and impeccable craft of Gilligan and the Breaking Bad team is showcased once again. From the bravura camerawork, assured pacing, and meticulous focus on logistics (details other crime shows would skip have become one of the franchise’s key montage pleasures); to nail-bitingly tense sequences and a contemplative deconstruction of a character’s psyche – El Camino bears all the stylistic and thematic hallmarks of its parent show’s genius.
Jesse’s scramble to freedom also brings in many important players from the Heisenberg-verse, but none of them feel shoehorned in. Each returning character serves to underline a specific emotional beat, or elegantly remind viewers of pivotal relationships. An early visit to Jesse’s long-time friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) doesn’t just offer our protagonist temporary shelter, it contrasts the gulf between his current agony with more innocent times. The spectre of Todd (Jesse Plemons) also features heavily in flashbacks, filling in the blanks on what Jesse endured as a prisoner of this creepy, child-like sociopath.
Of course there are many more cameos abound, but we won’t spoil the surprises. Jesse is the singular star here, so let’s focus on him. Aaron Paul is predictably phenomenal, returning to his most recognizable role like the six-year gap between the finale and El Camino never happened. For a character that wears his heart on his sleeve, nobody is better than Paul in terms of viscerally expressing anguish, regret and resolve. While Breaking Bad’s climax is universally regarded as perfect, Vince Gilligan has said that if does have one flaw, it’s that it benched Jesse to resume being Walt’s story. This film belatedly makes it up to Jesse, and to Aaron Paul.
Here, Jesse isn’t a pawn or a victim. Not beholden to anybody any longer, Jesse’s affecting coda offers him agency. And it also offers Paul a chance to show that he’s a leading man in his own right. Much like other films that continue from TV series (this year alone offered Deadwood, Steven Universe and Downton Abbey), the resonance and weight of El Camino might not land for new viewers unaware of the character’s history. But despite it not being designed as a standalone, it’s so engrossing and well-executed that it will entice confused neophytes to watch the series. For long-time fans though, this closure for Jesse Pinkman is immensely satisfying.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story is now streaming on Netflix.