A discussion about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, in six parts.
PART I: Things don’t have to be necessary to be good. Think about a buffalo chicken pizza. No one needed that. Pizza was already the best. Crust, sauce, cheese, simple and diabolically perfect. Even bad pizza is still pretty great. But then a light bulb went off over the head of some maniac and that maniac said “Hmm… but what if…?” and, blammo, suddenly there was hot sauce and bleu cheese on that pie and it was also delicious. Pizza is good. It would have remained good forever. Someone took it and added to it and that was good, too. This is what I thought about while watching El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Buffalo chicken pizza.
PART II: Let’s abandon the metaphor for a second, though. El Camino was great. It was tense and frightening and exciting. It gave Aaron Paul a chance to slip back into a character he wears like a snug, comfortable beanie. And it gave Vince Gilligan another crack at sliding into the universe, too. In doing so, he gave Jesse what I feel comfortable calling a more satisfying ending. There was vengeance (the Kandy welding crew) and backstory (everything with Todd, that creepy monster) and freedom (it ended with him literally driving off into the horizon). It felt… good? Is good the right word? I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Jesse as a character. Was he a dumbass murderer whose criminal ambitions led him down a dark path? Or was he a messed-up kid who was manipulated by a goateed sociopath? Or was he both and it’s on us to reconcile our feelings about that? I’ve always had a soft spot for Jesse, so I was happy to see him settle his business and bust toward freedom. It seems like Gilligan had a soft spot for him, too. Why else would he double back and give him a happier ending over six years later? Whatever his reasons, I’m glad he did it, if only because I wanted to play in that Breaking Bad sandbox again for a while, too.
PART III: But… was any of this necessary, really? I guess this answer depends on your feelings about endings, generally, and ambiguity, specifically. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse speeding away from his Nazi hell and screaming a scream of… I don’t know. Relief? Excitement? Freedom? It was on us to piece together where he went from there. I liked that. I like the mystery of it all. I have spent a not-inconsequential amount of time since then thinking about Jesse and where he ended up and how he is doing. I always hoped he ended up in some tiny beach town in Argentina or something. I never figured out how he got there, but that’s not really the point. It wasn’t my job to knock out the whys and hows. I could just let the ol’ imagination run wild.
Here’s the other thing about it maybe not being super necessary: Vince Gilligan told us the plot of this movie over six years ago in an interview with GQ. Here, look:
My personal feeling is that he got away. But the most likely thing, as negative as this sounds, is that they’re going to find this kid’s fingerprints all over this lab and they’re going to find him within a day or a week or a month. And he’s still going to be on the hook for the murder of two federal agents. But yeah, even though that’s the most likely outcome, the way I see it is that he got away and got to Alaska, changed his name, and had a new life. You want that for the kid. He deserves it.
Vince Gilligan knew what he wanted for Jesse. He left it open-ended, but he knew. And then he came back half a decade later and spelled it out. And again, it was fine. It was better than fine. Let Vince Gilligan make Breaking Bad-adjacent television programs and movies for the rest of his life if he wants. He’s very, very good at it, as we’ve seen from this movie to the original series to Better Call Saul, which might end up being the best of the three by the time it ends. I will watch them all, even if they’re not, in the strictest sense of the word, necessary from a storytelling perspective.
PART IV: Ayyyyy the band was all back together. Mike opened up the proceedings with a little foreshadowing about Alaska. Jane popped up in the car at the end in ghost form. And yes, there was a Walter White sighting, with Bryan Cranston popping on a bald cap and shimmying into the role that won him an RV-full of trophies. Was it a little fan service-y? I mean, sure, but who cares? If you’re going to do this, if you’re going to bring back Jesse and do some flashbacks, there’s really no reason not to. I let out a quiet little “yesssss” when I saw what was happening there. It was like going to a family reunion, but more fun, and also everyone in your family is an unhinged murderer and/or Nazi. Hmm. This is an even worse analogy that the buffalo chicken pizza one. Let’s start a new paragraph.
The weird thing about the cameos and re-appearances is that none of the ones I listed was the one that made me most excited. That honor goes to Robert Forster showing up as the vacuum salesman and extraction expert. I love Robert Forster. I watched this movie Friday after noon and tweeted about how much I love Robert Forster. Go watch Jackie Brown again if you need reminding. So it was a real bummer when news broke Friday evening that he had passed away. You could do a lot worse than closing your career with this role, but I also would have watched an entire movie about his character that used Irishman-style de-aging CGI to track his journey. Rest In Peace.
PART V: Shoutout to the real MVPs of El Camino, Skinny Pete and Badger, without whom none of this would have been possible. Talk about some good friends, man. Damn. They took Jesse in with the world hunting him down, let him crash and shower, emptied their wallets for him, and then cooked-up a quick-thinking getaway ruse that involved Skinny Pete definitely getting picked up and hauled in for some very intense questioning (some of which we saw in the teaser a few weeks ago) and Badger having to hitchhike home from the Mexican border. Not a second of hesitation about it, either. They probably had plans for that day, you know? This wasn’t on their radar. But then Jesse showed up looking and smelling like a stray dog and they sprung right into action.
And again, none of this happens without their actions. Without their bravery. If they were like 10 percent more cowardly, this would have been a 20-minute movie about Jesse getting arrested during a shower. We should all be lucky enough to have friends like Skinny Pete and Badger.
PART VI: There is one thing about the new ending that worries me, though, and it has to do with Better Call Saul. The flash-forwards on that series show Jimmy/Saul in his new post-crime life as a Cinnabon manager named Gene who works in a mall in Nebraska. He is, at the risk of understating things, miserable. He’s stressed out and paranoid and nostalgic for his fun life as a flashy big shot. It’s a very solitary, isolated life, and it has to be for it to work.
Before we knew that Jesse escaped to Alaska, with the same source and style of new background information, we had the opportunity to dream-up any future we wanted for him. He could have gone to Argentina, like I wanted. He could have gotten caught and broken out of prison with the help of Skinny Pete and Badger. He could have purchased a boat and lived the life of a pirate on the open sea. But now that we have this hard information, we know, and knowing brings with it some problems. Will Jesse always be looking over his shoulder like Saul? Will he ever be able to relax? Will he be, like, okay?
Their situations are different, to be sure. Saul was giving up a life he seemed to love and now has lost everything that defined him. (Attention, flashy clothes, a life of grifting.) Jesse is escaping a life he hated. He running toward freedom as opposed to running away from trouble. So maybe his adjustment will be smoother. It provides a whole new set of circumstances to ponder. I don’t know if it’s better than the circumstances we were left to ponder the first time. I don’t know if any of it was something we needed to understand Jesse as a character. I’ll tell you what I do know, though. Two things, actually.
One, it was all still a lot of fun and I’m glad we had the chance to see it. I missed Jesse. I would even watch another movie six years from now about what he’s been up to in Alaska. I hope it opens with him chopping wood and a government helicopter landing nearby and a high-ranking official offering him immunity to come back to New Mexico to help bring down a new drug dealer that only Jesse can stop because, dammit, he’s the best there ever was, that’s why.
Two, and I cannot possibly stress this enough, I really want a buffalo chicken pizza now.