When AMC’s prized show “Breaking Bad” sang its swan song, the characters who many viewers followed for so long were more or less packaged with tight endings. Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) met his demise in the line of duty. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) ran squealing to a hidden life with a new name. And the antihero of our dreams, Walter White (Bryan Cranston)? Well, he finally met death square in the face in the place he loved the most — his meth lab.
The only character who was left without a home at the end of the series was Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). So naturally, finding him a resolution worthy of the years put into his development made for the perfect series epilogue.
The new Netflix film “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” starts off exactly where the acclaimed series ended: Jesse Pinkman fleeing in a stolen Chevrolet El Camino from the meth lab where he had been held hostage. From here, the film spends the majority of its time watching Jesse in similar situations, hiding from authorities or quickly fleeing the scene of a crime. But its most exceptional moments are when it explores what he is unable to escape — his memories of being held captive.
There is no doubt that Jesse is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder throughout the duration of the feature-length epilogue. He goes to sleep staring at a beige popcorn ceiling and wakes up thrashing maniacally, thinking he is back in the cage he was kept in. He treks to a mechanic only to be reminded of a time in which he was forced to try and escape his chains while his captors laughed at him and placed bets on whether he could break free. These moments give way to some of Paul’s most vulnerable performances, the kinds that make us forget that there is a reason the police are after this man.
From the beginning of “Breaking Bad,” Jesse has been the kind of character audiences love to sympathize with. Initially presented with a cold, dismissive exterior, peeling back his layers throughout the show revealed that he was a sensitive boy desperate for validation. He had no mind for crime and no heart for violence — as opposed to his counterpart, the formidable White, aka Heisenberg.
When Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) gives Jesse his notorious beanie so that he can hide his face from the police, the gesture is palpably brimming with warmth and brotherly love. Jesse calls his parents to tell him that everything that is happening around him is not their fault, and the scene that follows is nothing short of heartbreaking. With his sensitive looks and twitching expressions, Paul reinvigorates this side of Jesse and once again gives the viewer permission to love this character who has done and caused unspeakable tragedies.
But that is the calculated power of “Breaking Bad,” and “El Camino” by extension. A series that was built on the delicate spindling of deplorable characteristics and slow crawls to the dark side, its viewers were left to realize all at once that, despite their best judgment, they were rooting for despicable characters. “El Camino” maintains that sentiment, with those who are begging for Jesse’s redemption unable to pinpoint when in the 122-minute film did they themselves break bad.
Ultimately, show creator and “El Camino” writer and director Vince Gilligan knew exactly what he needed to do for both Jesse and longtime “Breaking Bad” fans. He does not dismiss Jesse’s crimes, instead offering viewers enough backstory and looks into his tortured life in captivity for us to reason why we still want him to be redeemed. And Gilligan doesn’t try to write around the hard truth of Jesse’s circumstances. He allows his reproachable past to be a living and breathing thing that follows him just as much as the authorities do. Trying to see Jesse find solace in the face of his past is far more vibrant than what would result from pretending none of it ever happened.
Each nostalgia-inducing scene, each shot draped in that familiar yellow tint, each desperate glance of Jesse’s breaks down the dualism between good and bad that we all think we understand so clearly. While viewers may think they have a strong moral compass, all it really takes to get us back on Jesse’s side is Skinny Pete’s beanie, an apology to his parents and an old-fashioned Mexican standoff.