Continuing a long-running tradition of Breaking Bad analysis, Across The Margin celebrates the latest offering from Netflix and director Vince Gilligan, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie…
by: Michael Shields with L.P. Hanners
Amid the tremendous height of Breaking Bad’s 2008 – 2013 television run, one of the greatest stories ever told was covered by Across The Margin with zest. From episode deconstructions, to think pieces about the fascinating connection between Walter White and the poet Walt Whitman, to explorations into a potential alternative ending, to episode rankings, Across The Margin’s Breaking Bad coverage was consummate. Thus, when it was announced that Breaking Bad’s showrunner Vince Gilligan was poised to revive the sun-scorched, blue meth-addled world of Breaking Bad in the form of a two hour Netflix film, our excitement was palpable, our mouths left watering.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, was filmed in secret under the pseudonym Greenbrier on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s home turf of Albuquerque, New Mexico for three months last winter. The shoot was preceded by seven months of intense screenwriting by Vince Gilligan and his team, focusing the first full-length Breaking Bad film on the character of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who was last seen maddened and broken driving away from the scene of his partner’s, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), last stand and demise. Jesse’s future, potentially, was all in front of him, a war zone and and years of intense pain and suffering all but in his rear view. But what exactly was in store for Jesse? El Camino sets forth to answer that question by boldly bringing Jesse Pinkman’s story to completion and providing one of Breaking Bad’s most beloved and embattled characters the spotlight, closure, and the hard-earned ride into the sunset he deserved.
The cold opens of the Breaking Bad television series were legendary, providing hints of backstory, weaving a thread of narrative through five incredible seasons, and offering suggestions of what was to come. In a nod to that convention, El Camino opens with a flashback to a meeting between Jesse and former Philadelphia police officer / private investigator / hitman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) along a quaint riverbed (A riverbed familiar to fans as it is the location of Mike’s final moments spent alive in season five’s “Say My Name.”). In this scene Jesse speaks of yearning to put things right, potentially alluding to the aim of the film in aggregate, a journey towards redemption for Jesse. Mike, plain speaking and enlightened as always, closes the door on that idea posthaste, advising his then protege, “sorry kid, that’s the one thing you can never do.” But Mike did provide a guiding light and let on, when asked by Jesse, about the one place he wished he could escape to if circumstances were different: Alaska. A seed planted, the endgame identified, Jesse’s journey towards “the final frontier” was off and running.
Jesse, finally free from his subterranean cage and on the run from the full force of the Albuquerque PD, voyages into his past via visits to his friends (Badger and a deeply benevolent Skinny Pete), former cohorts (notably Old Joe, the cunning owner of Rocker Salvage who reminisces with Jesse about his famed “yeah bitch, magnets,” moment), and his parents (via a manipulative phone call, of course). These rounds that Jesse makes through a past which seems light years away from his current state provide El Camino with a road trip feel, where familiar characters appear systematically throughout the film (saving the most monumental for last, fittingly). Although Jesse’s trip down memory lane is enticingly nostalgic, the film cuts the deepest via flashbacks employed to remind the viewer of the fallout surrounding Walter White’s “Empire Business.” Throughout El Camino we are reminded of the utter hell Jessie endured at the hands of his captors because of Walt. Viewers are brought back into Jesse’s cage, made to watch as Jesse is forced to test the welded system that allows him to cook meth while restrained (the welder, Neil, plays a critical role in the film, played by Scott MacArthur of The Righteous Gemstones), and cringe as Jesse is forced to help the demonic, unfathomably creepy Todd (Jesse Plemmons) bury his recently murdered housekeeper1. Walt’s sins are front in center throughout El Camino, most noticeably in the form of Jesse’s crippling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a final bit of torment that Walt left for his former student, friend, partner, and confidant.
While the consequences of Walt’s arrogance lay scattered about El Camino like the numerous easter eggs of past Breaking Bad episodes lying in plain sight, it isn’t until fifteen minutes before the end of El Camino when Heisenberg himself makes an appearance (at about the same time we are gifted with the “yeah, Bitch” we’ve all been waiting for at the Owl Cafe Buffett!). Walt speaks to Jesse, as the newly-minted partners dine2, from a place of parental concern amid the duo’s better days. Concerned for Jesse’s future, Walt urges Jesse towards higher education and a life beyond the meth, a fascinating and telling moment in light of the hell that he eventually entrapped Jesse in. Fatherly advice, earnest at the time, is revelatory to the momentous and wholly believable journey towards the dark side for Walt that defined Breaking Bad. As time went by, Walt let Jesse’s love Jane die, he poisoned Brock (now left as the one person alive Jesse cares about…as evidenced by a letter left for him), he forced Jesse’s first murder upon him, he wouldn’t let him free of a life of crime when Jesse so desperately wanted out, and ultimately he turned him over to criminals whose torment we came to know all too well throughout the final season of Breaking Bad and in El Camino. Revisiting Walt and Jesse’s calm before the storm manifested itself a blatant memorandum of just how unexpected, jarring, and intense the colossal storm to come was.
Ultimately providing the path to freedom for Jesse, as he did with Walt and Saul previously, was Ed, “The Disappearer” (the tremendously gifted Robert Foster — may he Rest In Peace), who you most certainly do not short on a payment. But before Jesse was free to enjoy the silence and calm that Breaking Bad’s Biblical Job so desperately wanted and earned, there was one more person we had to connect with. El Camino ended where, and with who, it had to. In a scene that was as affecting as it was brief, we find Jesse and Jane together again. Jesse, regardless of all his flaws and criminal pursuits, swells with heart, and that heart never beat so briskly for anyone as it did Jane. Her loss, at the hands of Walt (essentially and importantly) turned the tide in Jesse’s life, and any viewer could imagine that life for Jesse could actually have been happy if not for her passing. And thus his life veered in a way that led to boundless pain as he attached his wagon to a horse (Walt) that led him astray. In El Camino’s final scene we come upon Jesse and Jane talking about going where the universe takes them, yet Jane snaps back and insists that that is a terrible philosophy. “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life,” she says, “it’s better to make those decisions yourself.” Here, in Jesse’s farewell moment, we are given the time to contemplate that going any direction but his own has led Jesse to unfathomable misery and the idea of him taking his life into his own hands for once, may actually, and unbelievably, lead to a Breaking Bad happy ending.