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'El Camino' Gives Jesse Pinkman Life Beyond 'Breaking Bad'

Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman in <em>El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie</em>.
Ben Rothstein
Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

Note: This piece discusses the events of El Camino, as well as the events of Breaking Bad. If you're looking for a simple recommendation or not, here it is: El Camino is absolutely a satisfying and enjoyable addition to Breaking Bad, and Aaron Paul is very good, as always. Come back after you've watched it.

It's really Walt's fault, what happened to Jesse. It's Jesse's fault, too, to some degree, but let's be honest: Jesse Pinkman probably was never going to be anything more than a small-timer until he connected with his high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. Jesse was probably never going to kill anybody. He was probably never going to get a woman he cared about killed, let alone two of them.

Without Walt, he would not have wound up spending months imprisoned by a violent gang of white supremacists who locked him in a cage and beat and tortured him, killing his girlfriend while he watched in order to discipline him and threatening to kill her son if he tried to escape again. And as much as El Camino is a movie about Jesse on the run from the police after the shootout that killed everybody else who was there (including Walt), it's also a movie about Jesse's profound trauma.

The early scenes of the film find Jesse, still brilliantly played by Aaron Paul, almost catatonic, stumbling up to Skinny Pete's and interrupting Skinny and Badger's game night. He's come for help, and his friends give it to him; Charles Baker and Matt Jones are very good as Jesse's dumb but basically loving friends, who feed him and get him into the shower — into which he brings his gun. The images of Jesse putting the pistol up in the shower window, and later stuffing it in his waistband while it drips water, are hugely effective in explaining how terrified he is.

Writer-director Vince Gilligan uses flashbacks of Jesse's imprisonment but is wisely sparing with them. Instead, he includes an illustrative anecdote in which we learn that while Jesse was locked up, Todd (Jesse Plemons) took him out of his cell and forced him to go on an errand: disposing of the body of Todd's cleaning lady, who had the misfortune to find Todd's hidden money. The flat affect that Jesse Plemons has always given Todd is what makes Todd so hateful; just as Todd figured killing a young boy who showed up at the wrong moment was just sort of obvious and no big deal, he figures Jesse will understand that when his cleaning lady found his money, he obviously had no choice but to kill her. He even says a few kind words about her as Jesse helps him bury her body in the desert, so certain is he that having murdered her has nothing to do with how he feels about her. I'm not sure those who watched Breaking Bad needed more reasons to understand why Jesse Pinkman eventually killed Todd Alquist, but if you did, El Camino gives one to you.

Wisely, El Camino also returned Jesse to the person most likely to be able to help him in his moment of panic: Ed, the vacuum cleaner repairman who has a side business taking criminals in hot water off to new lives. He did it for Walt, and he did it for Saul, and now Jesse wants Ed to do the same for him. Played by the great Robert Forster, Ed has a price that Jesse has to meet, and Jesse can't quite meet it. The scene between Paul and Forster seesaws between tension and comedy, with Jesse's certainty that Ed was faking his call to the police serving as the film's best callback to the more slapstick side of Jesse — a character who first tumbled out of an upstairs window without pants on in the series pilot.

But one of the most compelling things about Breaking Bad is that it's always tried to be a very moral show, and this is in many ways a very moral movie. If I had a quibble with the series finale — and I did — it's that Walt really got to run the show after everything he did. He got to trick his family into taking his money, he got to free Jesse and feel like a hero (despite it being his fault Jesse was there in the first place), he got to die on his own terms, he got to kill all his enemies and he never really had to surrender the power he had assumed.

What El Camino does, perhaps even without meaning to, is refocus the ending of the story on the damage that Walt did. If you continue the story of Breaking Bad past Walt's death, past the binary question of whether Jesse would live or die, you get a fuller sense of Walt's monstrous acts. When you see Jesse's scars, the ones on his face and back, and when you see how he was forced to test the limits of his own chains while his captors laughed at him, you realize that all of this happened only because Walt gave Jesse to people that Walt believed would kill him, and they happened not to. Jesse, who had killed Gale to protect Walt — the event that probably changed Jesse the most, prior to his captivity — was handed over to these people because Walt was mad at him.

One of the big questions people had about El Camino was whether you'd see Walt (Bryan Cranston) — presumably in a flashback, since he appeared to be dead (and we now know he actually was). We do see Walt after all, in a flashback to a scene that would have fallen during the beloved episode "4 Days Out." While Walt and Jesse sit in a restaurant, they show concern for each other: Jesse, who has just learned that Walt has cancer, tells him about hydrating and taking care of himself; Walt lectures Jesse about how he can make something of himself if he goes to business school. You can see how Jesse felt, perhaps against his better judgment, a bond with this person. You can see how he was persuaded that Walt actually cared about him — and therefore why it's so traumatizing for Jesse that 1) Walt let Jane die, 2) Walt poisoned Brock and 3) Walt gave him to the people who physically and mentally tortured him.

Can you see this scene as a genuine moment of warmth between them? You can, sure. But because it's a film so specifically about the extent of Jesse's mental and physical injuries, it places Walt's apparent concern in that context.

That it's a story about trauma doesn't stop it from containing some of Gilligan's signature moves — classic Breaking Bad in the good way, not the head-shaking way. The sequence in which Jesse tries to find the money in Todd's apartment, ripping things apart with increasing fury until he hears the clunk of a packet of cash he's bumped out of place, is classic Gilligan, shot and edited with a dreamlike fragmentation.

The later shootout at the welding company, which even Jesse mocks as Wild West-style, does seem a little tacked on, as if it's not a Breaking Bad production without a bunch of people getting shot. But the fact that Jesse only needs $1,800, and that he chooses to try to get it back from fellow thieves instead of doing any of the many other things he could do with a gun to get $1,800, speaks to where Jesse's head is. He does steal from his parents — but only guns. And in the meantime, he uses his time on the phone getting them out of the house as an opportunity to tell them, in effect, not to feel bad about anything that's about to happen. By which he knows, and they don't, he means the fact that they will never see him again.

Particularly if you're not a Better Call Saul viewer, it's lovely just to see Gilligan direct in this world again — to see the way he shoots deserts and canyons and open skies. We get drop-ins from characters like Joe (Larry Hankin) and Mike (Jonathan Banks), along with Skinny and Badger and Jesse's parents. Those visits — plus, admittedly, a chance to see Evil Evil Todd, knowing the end he will meet — have a certain satisfying and familiar quality.

And as ever, Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman is one of the most tragic, moving, emotional performances on television. Paul's capacity to bring Jesse from a young dumb punk who yelled "Yeah, science!" to the husk who shows up at Skinny's door is a feat of performance that deserves all the respect it's gotten. (Would I watch a new series about Jesse in Alaska? I would. I don't think they'll make it, but I sure would.)

Was the ending of Breaking Bad, as it pertained to Jesse, a decent ending? Yes, it was. But this one is good, too, and it's good for the balance of the show's story. Certainly, it's not a complete inventory of Walt's sins: There's no visit with Skyler or Marie, or with Drew Sharp's parents. But to take two hours and really pay attention — not just to Jesse as an outlaw who has made some horrible choices, but also to Jesse as a victim of trauma — does a lot to flesh out the picture of how these two men interacted. To paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda's version of Aaron Burr, Walt may have been the first one to die, but Jesse's the one who paid for it. He survived, but he paid for it. "Felina," the show's last episode, spent a lot of time on Walt's effort to negotiate the consequences of his actions. El Camino is about the consequences he didn't have to see.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.