FYI: This is a spoiler-free review.
Jesse Pinkman was never inherently a bad person. You could say the same about Walter White, but I think you’d have a harder time arguing that. After all, Walt resorted to cooking meth out of sheer ego. Newly cancer-ridden, drowning in debt, and with another baby on the way, he could have accepted financial help from former colleagues Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz — but selfishness has always been the primary driver of his actions, empire or not. He ended up becoming a meth kingpin solely to feed his own sense of pride, and some misguided idea of what it means to be a man and provide for your family. (Spoiler: None of it means anything if you end up doing more harm than good.)
Jesse, by comparison, had the opposite trajectory. Adolescent him cooked low-grade meth for shits and giggles, and took absolutely nothing seriously. Remember how the two of them crossed paths?
Hell, the day Mr. White looked him in the eye and proposed cooking together, it was probably the comedic highlight of his year — at least he’d get free entertainment out of the situation. Ironically, Jesse would end up cooking as his only means of survival, if you could call his time at the Neo-Nazi compound “surviving.”
That’s the great tragedy of Jesse’s story: Every single move he made to quit cooking and get his life together fell to pieces — foiled by Walt directly, or indirectly. Dead lovers, murdered children, drained self-esteem, rehab, physical and emotional beatings, blackmail, slavery, and too many betrayals to count.
Not a single thing was laughable about Jesse’s life as we last left it — except maybe the fact that the man who freed him from the compound was the same narcissistic bastard who ultimately got him there to begin with.
So when El Camino was announced, my excitement rallied around the one singular question I’ve had since we all saw Jesse speed into the night laugh-sobbing in disbelief: What kind of life does he build out of the wreckage of his previous one?
El Camino is an efficient movie. It can’t afford to waste its time, because Jesse can’t afford to waste his. Its plot is simple — and as many Breaking Bad fans assumed, it’s two-sided. The A Story is Jesse’s escape immediately after fleeing the Neo-Nazi compound. The B story is a series of well-placed flashbacks, filling in the blanks and fueling the present narrative.
For those who are wondering what direction Jesse might take after his escape — he could have picked one of several loose ends to approach— I’d advise you to remember that not only is Jesse wanted by the law, but that he’s learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons about choices and circumstances. Look closely at his decisions, then and now.
During the original series, Aaron Paul learned right in front of us all how to gauge Jesse’s instability and levels of brokenness. This movie proved to be the opposite challenge: How to Glue Yourself Back Together and Get a Move On 101. He’s a wonderful lead here, and I’m a firm believer that his secret weapon is playing to Jesse’s belief of doing the right thing — even if the kid’s execution isn’t perfect. It’s getting a hell of a lot sharper, and Paul shows us that. Some of Jesse’s choices here are direct reflections of his horrible experiences and unspeakable growth.
This movie moves quickly. The number of locations and situations we end up with alongside Jesse is frankly impressive. Remember me describing El Camino as efficient? It’s sort of surprising when you consider the fact that Vince Gilligan and company had a massive budget for this project. We can tell that they used it wisely by the fact that most of the time, you don’t notice it on screen.
This movie isn’t showy for the sake of spectacle, much like the original series. What it shows us instead is a visual obstacle course: places out in the open, under huge stretches of sky, in between shadows, down alleys, in abandoned structures, and revisited haunts. Albuquerque looks and feels as gorgeous and arid as ever, though it’s safe to say Jesse’s reached the end of his time there.
For all it’s practicalities, El Camino is not without a huge heart. Like Jesse, it doesn’t let go of past events, good or bad, very easily. The bad ones… are bleak. I think I can speak for most Breaking Bad fans when I say that when the Neo-Nazi captivity storyline emerged at the end of the series, we were floored at exactly how bleak Jesse’s life had gotten. The gaunt puppet he’d become was a far cry from “Gatorade me, bitch!” Pinkman. There are some blanks to be filled in there, so prepare yourselves.
The good ones, though, are our reward. Even though this movie doesn’t exist as a sheer fan servicing, there are subtle moments in El Camino that are clear, simple thank you’s and reassurances to fans who’ve followed Jesse’s story and showed up to see the end.
My favorite thing about this universe is the amalgam of random details that appear. El Camino offers us the following:
- A house that used to be Jesse’s home
- The phrase, “You’re gonna John Henry this bitch”
- A heart-to-heart about college
- Some insulation that you might call “green”
- A road-trip with a bonafide sociopath
- We learn who Skinny Pete’s hero is
- The name Driscoll
- A 6'5" guy with a face tattoo of “a large insect”
On its own, El Camino stands as a compelling escape story — but you do need the context of Breaking Bad to fully see its stakes. I like that about it. Mostly, I love that it’s a rare pop cultural occurrence all it’s own: a spin-off of an existing success story that isn’t useless or extra or a money-grab. Some of us didn’t realize until the second half of Breaking Bad that Jesse Pinkman’s story would turn out to be every bit as important as Walter White’s. El Camino is the denouement we didn’t even have to ask for, and the one that Jesse deserves.