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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ Recap: Jesse Pinkman Is Born Again – Rolling Stone

Jesse Pinkman is back in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Netflix released on Friday. I already published my spoiler-free thoughts on the film, and now it’s time to go old-school recapping, like I did for every episode of Breaking Bad, with full spoilers for El Camino coming up just as soon as I’m sized for love…

Step by agonizing step.

Of course.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan went to extreme lengths to keep the very existence of this movie, let alone its contents, a secret from the outside world for as long as possible. But from the moment word leaked out, there was wild speculation as to what it would be about, how much ground it might cover, and who from the original series — alive or dead by the end of it — might make an appearance.

In the end, the story is more or less what we all should have expected, based on how Breaking Bad leaned so heavily on what Gilligan liked to call “the in-between moments” that most crime stories skip over. It opens and closes with cameos by dead figures from Jesse’s past — Mike at the beginning, Walt and then Jane at the end — and frequently jumps back to Jesse’s long period of captivity with Todd in between the Season Five episodes “Granite State” and “Felina.” But the majority of the film is a simple instructional narrative, covering only a few days time, about how to get out of town when you’re the most wanted fugitive in the American Southwest. There are wrinkles in terms of exactly which old friends prove helpful to Jesse, as well as the introduction of a new foe in cruel welder Neil Kandy, but the plot functions more or less the way it should, given the rules of this fictional universe. A story set largely during Jesse’s new life in Alaska as Mr. Driscoll might be interesting — and would offer a very different visual palette from the one Gilligan and company established so well on the original series and Better Call Saul. But it would skip too many of the kinds of small, difficult steps that have defined this tale going all the way back to 2008.

The prologue with Jesse and Mike (set circa Season Five’s “Buyout,” where Jesse is ready to retire in the wake of Todd murdering Drew Sharp) establishes the movie’s key question: In escaping this criminal life, can Jesse find a way to set things right, as he suggests, or is Mike correct that all he can do is to start over? The events of the end of the series — where Walt arranges for his kids to inherit what’s left of his fortune, helps Skyler get out of her legal jam, rescues Jesse, and kills all of his remaining enemies — suggest that it is possible to right at least some of the wrongs you’ve done. Jesse’s adventures on the way to Alaska aren’t as sweepingly effective in this regard as Walt’s return from New Hampshire was, which makes sense, since he was never the intellectual or the showman his late partner was. But in addition to getting out of town with a decent amount of money, Jesse manages to repay a variety of old debts. There’s obviously the literal one to Ed the disappearer, who demands payment for the trip Jesse didn’t take back in “Confessions.” But Jesse also gets to say a proper goodbye to Skinny Pete and Badger, gets an extra bit of revenge-by-proxy in taking out Neil and his partner Casey, and apologizes to his parents one last time. (“Whatever happened with me, it’s on me. Nobody else,” he tells them, in the middle of a phone call otherwise designed to lure them out of the house so he can steal his father’s guns.) And the one person he writes a letter to before departing his old life forever is Brock, who suffered so much because his mother had the misfortune to date Cap’n Cook. Before Jesse Pinkman ceases to exist as he used to be — assuming that guy didn’t die the night he saw Todd murder Andrea — the least he can do is explain to that poor kid why he got so sick that time, and who killed his mom and why(*).

(*) That Jesse doesn’t also write one to his little brother Jake is interesting, but not too surprising. They were already estranged the one and only time we saw him in Breaking Bad (in Season One’s “Cancer Man”). If Jesse hurt him — as he hurt his parents — by making him associated with an infamous criminal, there’s nothing Jake doesn’t already know about the subject that could make things better for him. Whereas for Brock, Jesse gets to solve a mystery that probably would have consumed him for the rest of his life.

And the movie itself feels like it’s trying to make things right by Jesse after the fact. It’s not just that he gets a relatively happy ending — scarred and emotionally broken but free and reasonably well off with the back pay he collected out of Todd’s fridge. It’s that he gets this movie at all after playing second fiddle to Mr. White for so much of Breaking Bad‘s homestretch, and that most of the film’s flashbacks take place during his time as Todd’s meth slave. It’s among the most terrible punishments visited on any character on the series (though Brock, Andrea, Jane, Ted Beneke, and Drew Sharp all have good arguments). But because the bulk of it was depicted in a single episode, it didn’t have the narrative or emotional weight that such an extended period of torture should. El Camino only runs two hours and change, and only a portion of that is devoted to Jesse and Todd’s road trip to dispose of the body of Todd’s cleaning lady. But the way that Gilligan structures the film — including the revelation that Neil built the dog run that Todd and the Nazis used to keep Jesse imprisoned(*) — makes Jesse’s captivity feel even more visceral and monstrous than the glimpses of it we got in “Granite State.” Back in Season Three’s “One Minute,” Jesse famously articulated all the things he’d lost due to his association with Mr. White. But being kept prisoner, tortured, and forced to watch the murder of a woman he cared about deeply is far worse than all the rest of it combined. El Camino — and Aaron Paul’s committed, heartbreaking performance — really brings home the reality of that, amid a gripping, splendidly-executed B-movie (BB movie?) about a fugitive trying to escape by any means necessary.

(*) When the movie first reveals Neil and Jesse’s prior connection, it feels like too much of a coincidence, even for a town with a relatively small and interconnected underworld like Albuquerque. But on further consideration, it makes more sense than if Neil and Casey were just some random thieves who showed up at Todd’s apartment right after Jesse figured out where the money was hidden. With all the media attention about the massacre focused on the late Walter White and the fugitive Jesse Pinkman, who besides an associate of Todd’s would know where he lived, that he was dead, and that he likely left behind a lot of money?

The movie’s present-day scenes pick up exactly where “Felina” left Jesse, screaming in a combination of joy and anguish as he drives away from the compound and the dying Mr. White. The lack of elapsed time is our first big clue that El Camino will follow a structure familiar to anyone who watched the original series: A problem presents itself, and our protagonist has to solve it before he can move on to the next problem, and the next one, and the next one. Slowly but goddamn surely.

Matt Jones and Charles Baker in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

Matt Jones and Charles Baker in ‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.’ Photo by Ben Rothstein / Netflix

So first Jesse literally has to get the El Camino itself (which was Todd’s car) off the road. Where can he go? To Skinny Pete and Badger, of course. Jesse’s old comic-relief sidekicks are used here to sell the enormity of what their friend has been through since they last saw him, but also to simply help him on the next phase of his journey. Old Joe from the junkyard stops by to dispose of the car, but when he discovers it has a tracking device, he bolts. It’s Skinny who gets to rise to the occasion with a plan to give Badger’s car to Jesse, while Badger himself drives Skinny’s car south to mislead the cops. Removing his trademark beanie to a say a proper goodbye to his battered friend, Skinny tells him, “Dude, you’re my hero and shit.” The series provided a few hints that Pete had more depth than he usually showed the world (like his classical piano prowess), and here he gets to prove himself both clever and extremely loyal to a friend who gave him so much, and who lost so much in the process. It’s a lovely scene(*).

(*) The film’s date announcement was accompanied by a scene where Skinny refuses to tell the cops where Jesse is. It’s easy to see where it might fit into the movie’s chronology (while Jesse is waiting until it’s safe to approach Todd’s apartment building), but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was filmed solely for promotional reasons, rather than as something Gilligan planned to put in the movie. 

So that’s the car problem taken care of. Then Jesse needs money beyond the wad of bills that his buddies hand him out of their pockets. Who does he know who has a lot of cash lying around? He knows — as explained at length in the Todd flashbacks — that his old tormentor preferred to keep his funds close at hand, and he conveniently has Todd’s apartment key (which he slips off the El Camino key ring right before leaving Skinny’s house), so why not? This leads to a classic, Mike Ehrmantraut-style dismantling of Todd’s entire apartment, which Gilligan films and Skip Macdonald edits in a way that makes it look like multiple Jesse Pinkmans are ransacking the place at the same time. And because nothing is ever easy in this world, Jesse finds the hiding spot inside the refrigerator door right before two “cops” — who turn out to be Neil and Casey — come in. This is a classic Walter White scenario: outmanned, outgunned, with seemingly no way to escape. Walt would no doubt try to science his way out of this mess, or in another way outthink his latest opponents. After falling for Neil’s bluff and surrendering his gun, Jesse instead solves the problem through sheer stubbornness and tenacity. As a wise man once said, when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. Jesse uses his desperate circumstances to convince Neil that he’s better off letting Jesse walk out with some of the money than shooting him and attracting attention from nosy neighbors like chatterbox Lou. As a result, Jesse goes from almost dead to having close to a quarter of a million dollars — “close” being a very important distinction as the story continues — to fund his journey.

Which brings us to the next problem, and the most useful bit of business the original series established for a story like this: Ed the disappearer, played as always with unflappable charm by the great character actor Robert Forster. (In a sad coincidence, Forster died on the movie’s release day.) Because Ed had been first alluded to by Saul Goodman all the way back in Season Four’s “Bullet Points,” then almost used by Jesse in “Confessions,” it didn’t feel like a cheat when his services were finally called upon by both Walt and Saul in “Granite State.” And because Ed is now as much a part of Breaking Bad lore as Huell or Krazy-8, it doesn’t feel like a narrative shortcut when we see Jesse going through vacuum repair shop ads from the phone book. Who else would he go to for a problem like this?

Ed gently but firmly insists on being paid his full amount — not just for this escape, but the previous one that Jesse bailed on. He is a consummate professional, and professionals have standards. And Jesse doesn’t have quite enough cash to meet those standards. So after a very funny sequence where Jesse thinks he is calling Ed’s bluff about the cops, only to be chased away by the arrival of said cops, our hero is back with the same problem he had when he left Skinny Pete’s: money. He’s only short $1,800, but it might as well be the amount that could fit into one of Walt’s barrels. After a bit of misdirection suggesting Jesse is going to steal from his parents, he only takes two old guns — one an ancient German pistol his grandfather brought back from the war — and goes to reclaim the rest of Todd’s loot from Neil and Casey.

This is, again, a classic Walter White move, like the time he walked into Tuco’s office and demanded more money while Tuco and his heavily-armed goons laughed at him. But where Mr. White pretended his (very explosive) fulminated mercury was another bag of meth, Jesse performs a much simpler trick: He has the antique gun on display in his waistband, while his left hand is on the more functional pistol in his jacket pocket. (It’s almost the inverse of the familiar gag where the outmatched crook sticks his finger in his pocket to pretend he has a gun.) In a show that’s paid plenty of homage to Westerns over the years — including naming Season One’s big bad after Eli Wallach’s character in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly — Jesse and Neil squaring off in his welding shop office with their itchy trigger fingers may be the most blatant homage yet. Jesse was never a brilliant marksman on the series, though he did successfully shoot Gale and a cartel goon. So it feels right that he can easily dispatch swaggering would-be gunslinger Neil when he has time to aim his pocket gun, but also that he and Casey start throwing wild shots at one another in the aftermath until one of Jesse’s connects by sheer luck. He has to puff out his chest a bit after and go all The One Who Memorizes Addresses to scare off Neil and Casey’s buddies. But their hasty retreat gives him the time to do something else he learned so well from Walt: He rigs the welding shop to erupt in a very big and satisfying explosion, the kind of cathartic destruction he didn’t have time to arrange at the Nazi compound.

That we’ve never seen Neil before — really, that Breaking Bad wiped out every other potential boss for Jesse to dispatch here — means the big showdown isn’t as thrilling as it could be with a season or more of build-up. But the movie spends so much time on the Todd flashback, and does a solid enough job weaving Neil into that story, that he’s a decent stand-in for Todd, Uncle Jack, and the rest of the Nazis.

And my goodness, those Todd scenes! Todd isn’t the first murderer Jesse Plemons has played (Killer Landry from Friday Night Lights waves hello), but it’s still startling to see how convincing he can be as this utterly remorseless, dead-eyed goober. What was fascinating about Todd on the original show, and what’s even more unsettling now, is how his fundamental polite blandness doesn’t seem in conflict with his willingness to kill everyone that could cause him the slightest bit of trouble. He’s not someone who gets pleasure out of killing, or talking about killing; it just never occurs to him that there are other ways to solve problems. He speaks fondly of his housekeeper, but refers to her murder as if he had no other choice. He keeps Drew Sharp’s tarantula in a terrarium in his apartment, not like it’s a trophy to celebrate the little boy he casually gunned down, but presumably because he felt like someone should take care of the furry creature. For that matter, he acts like Jesse is his friend, despite all of the horrible things he continues to put him through. When they drive out into the desert — to a region far more alien-looking than anything Gilligan filmed for the series — to bury the body, he sings along enthusiastically to the lite-FM classic “Sharing the Night Together” by Dr. Hook, as if he and his pal Jesse are out for a relaxing Sunday drive. It’s less surprising these days to see Plemons go full sociopath (see also: the Black Mirror parody of Star Trek), but he’s even more chillingly committed to the role now.

One of the challenges of prequels and flashbacks — a challenge Gilligan and Peter Gould know all too well from making Better Call Saul — is that they are bound by what comes after. We know that Todd remains alive, and Jesse remains his prisoner, until Walt comes back to town in “Felina.” So when Jesse takes Todd’s gun out of the glove compartment, we know he won’t shoot the pasty monster and make his escape. Suspense isn’t just dependent on surprise, though, but on context and execution. That scene is unbearably tense not because we think Jesse might pull the trigger, but because we know he won’t, and can’t stand to see how or why. Once, in the original series, Jesse described Gale as a problem dog who had to be put down. Several seasons later, Walt objected to Skyler describing Jesse as a rabid dog who needed the Gale treatment. Here, Jesse isn’t a problem, and he isn’t rabid. He’s just a dog who’s been broken by a cruel, unyielding master who isn’t afraid of that gun, because Todd knows his little pet could never use it against him. Jesse has the ongoing threat against Brock to think about, but beyond that, Todd has just relentlessly ground down his humanity into paste. The part of Jesse Pinkman that would be capable of pulling the trigger, driving back to Albuquerque to warn Brock, and heading for parts unknown has temporarily left the building. The ongoing trauma of enslavement has left him a shell of the outlaw he once tried to be. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking to watch, even as we know that Jesse eventually chokes the life out of this son of a bitch.

And for all the heinous things Mr. White did to him over the years, he also saved Jesse from this private hell, and helped restore his sense of self. Knowing that most of the Nazis had been killed by Walt’s trunk gun gave Jesse the courage to strangle Todd with his own chains, and being away from that nightmare pit eventually allows him to stand up to Neil and his crew. Walt saved him — after putting him into that mess in the first place — but it’s Jesse who then goes on saving himself throughout El Camino.

Thus, it feels right that Walt doesn’t appear until very late in the film, after Neil has been dispatched and Jesse is just waiting for Ed to work out the logistics of his trip to Alaska. Suddenly, we are back in Season Two — specifically, in a gap in “4 Days Out,” between when Walt fixes the RV and when Jesse drops him back off at the airport to maintain the ruse with Skyler — and there is young, relatively innocent Jesse Pinkman, walking side-by-side with Mr. White and that dumb, wispy mustache (which Bryan Cranston has correctly described as “impotent”). And there they are sharing another meal, and being playful and sarcastic with one another. Jesse lets out one final “Yeah, bitch!” After Jesse tips the busboy five bucks to leave the water pitcher at their table, Walt quips, “Wow, it’s like I’m with Sinatra.” When Walt tries to encourage Jesse to find a new career after they sell this huge batch of meth, he suggests his protege first get his GED, prompting a hilariously indignant Jesse to remind him that Walt was literally sitting on the stage when he graduated high school.

Aaron Paul in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

Paul in ‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.’ Photo by Ben Rothstein/Netflix

The scene is everything that was delightful about the Cranston/Paul chemistry then (particularly in an episode like “4 Days Out”), and easily the biggest reward of the whole endeavor. But it’s not just fan service. Like the Mike cameo that begins the movie, and the brief appearance right before the end by Jane (set during her and Jesse’s trip to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum) — where she advises Jesse to decide on his own path, rather than going where the universe takes him — it is a reminder of who Jesse used to be, and all that he lost. All three flashbacks are also about the way that Jesse has been forced by tragic circumstance to grow up and think more about his place in the universe and the impact he has on others. And they’re about setting him on the road where Ed leaves him at the film’s conclusion.

In case you haven’t seen “4 Days Out” lately, Walt is convinced in this moment that his death from cancer is imminent, so he’s more introspective, but also gentler with, and more protective of, Jesse than he is at many other points of their partnership. He wants Jesse to be OK. He’s envious of Jesse for having a long future ahead of him while Walt can calculate his remaining breaths on the back of a diner napkin, but also because, as he puts it, “You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” This is still early in Walt’s criminal career, when Krazy-8, Emilio, and Tuco are dead, but he can still look on the whole thing as some thrilling adventure. He can’t imagine the evil that each of them will do, and have done to them, before death actually comes for him, and he certainly wouldn’t wish this fate on his once and future student.

Whatever life Jesse carves out for himself in Alaska, it’s hard to imagine he’ll look on any part of his criminal career fondly, even the rare moments of unapologetic triumph like the magnet heist (which Old Joe recalls with a smile). Too many things went wronger than either partner could have considered; too many people died, and too many others were irreparably damaged. The future that Jesse Pinkman is driving towards when we see him for what may be the last time ever (give or take if Better Call Saul ever intends to do scenes where Saul interacts with his most infamous clients) is unknown, but it’s not the one Walt hopes for in that diner, nor even the relatively clean getaway Jesse and Mike talk about while they look out at the river. Jesse had to suffer a staggering amount just to stay alive until Walt rescued him, and he had to work exhaustingly hard to stay alive and make it out of town after that. But he did it, somehow. He has a new name, a new home state, and whatever of Todd’s ill-gotten gains were left over after Ed took out his fee(s). He’ll never see his friends again, never make more peace with his parents than that telephoned apology, never do a lot of things. Based on what Better Call Saul has shown us of Cinnabon Gene’s life, Jesse’s time in Alaska may be isolated and paranoid. But it’s still a better ending than Walt and almost every other major Breaking Bad character got.

And it’s what we want for him. Jesse’s far from sinless, but there was a fundamentally innocent quality to him at the start of the series that slipped away slowly but surely through his association with Walt. He did bad things, but most of them were at the behest of his narcissistic, megalomaniacal partner. He deserved so much better than what happened to him over the course of the series, and if El Camino doesn’t provide a perfect ending, it’s as good as he or we could have hoped for when he was down in that cage, believing he would never get out.

Since seeing the movie, I spoke with Vince Gilligan (look for that interview here soon). He explained that it began life as, essentially, a short film he wanted to produce for the show’s 10th anniversary, and admitted, “We probably didn’t need to do this.” The last we see of Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, he is driving to his freedom. The last we see of Jesse Pinkman in El Camino, he is driving to his freedom. The latter drive seems far more sure to stick than the former, and El Camino is really just about filling in some of the blanks as to how he makes that work. But if any franchise has proved just how exciting and plain fun it can be to methodically fill in blanks, it’s this one.

Is El Camino necessary in the strictest sense? Absolutely not. Am I glad we got to see it? Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, SEQUELS!

Some other thoughts:

* Skyler, Marie, and Flynn do not appear, nor is their fate mentioned. This makes sense, given the tight focus and timeline of the story. Even if Skyler is able to trade the location of Hank and Gomez’s bodies for her legal freedom, that’s not an arrangement that would be concluded in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. But Jesse overhears a radio report about a female poisoning victim of Heisenberg’s from Texas who’s not expected to survive, which confirms the fate Walt promised Lydia in “Felina.” (As awful a way to die as it is, at least her daughter will know what happened to her, which was Lydia’s fear when Mike tried disappearing her into the night in Season Five’s “Madrigal.”) The news report also confirms Walt’s death, which “Felina” made incredibly clear, but which some fans of the series have refused to accept in the years since.

* Most of the Heisenberg-verse alums to appear here were both prominent and obvious, from Walt all the way down to guys like Old Joe and Uncle Jack’s sidekick Kenny. But a few of the cameos were deeper cuts. The joint task force press conference about the Nazi compound massacre is led by Todd Terry as SAC Ramey, who worked as Hank’s DEA boss in El Paso, then promoted Hank to succeed George Merkert as head of the Albuquerque field office in Season Five. Standing near him is Julie Pearl as Suzanne Ericsen, an ADA who has sparred with Jimmy McGill a few times on Better Call Saul. And another Saul alum pops up near the climax: David Mattey as Man Mountain (real name: Clarence), who has crossed paths with both Mike and Jimmy (most recently in last season’s “Pinata”) and here works as the driver and would-be bodyguard for the sex workers hired by Neil. I wonder if this will prompt Peter Gould and the Saul team to use Man Mountain again, this time playing off our knowledge that he’ll still be alive after the events of Breaking Bad.

* Notable new faces to the franchise include Scott MacArthur (from The Righteous Gemstones) as Neil and Scott Shepherd (one of the villains in True Detective Season Three) as Casey, plus The Jeffersons alum Marla Gibbs as Ed’s elderly vacuum repair customer.

* Finally, in one of the time-lapse montages of Albuquerque, we see the primary Los Pollos Hermanos location, which has now been rebranded as a Twister’s — what the restaurant has always been called in real life.