Movies & TV

El Camino Gives Jesse Pinkman the Ending He Deserved

Vince Gilligan's 'Breaking Bad' movie asks us how bad we should really feel for Aaron Paul's character.
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Spoilers for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie below.

In the final stretch of Breaking Bad, it felt like Jesse Pinkman existed only to suffer. Once an endearingly naive and lively character (yeah, bitch) Jesse had been hollowed out over the course of five seasons by the corrosive influence of his mentor and meth-cooking partner Walter White. He was subjected to a litany of horrors that began with waking up next to his girlfriend's corpse in Season Two, and ended with being taken captive and psychologically tortured by a gang of white supremacist thugs in Season Five.

The finale did give Jesse a happy ending of sorts when Walt, finally showing something like remorse for what he’d done to his former student, set him free. But our final image of Jesse was behind the wheel, screaming, gunning it down backroads to make his escape. It’s an ending, but it’s hardly closure. In El Camino, the Breaking Bad sequel that once seemed implausible, Jesse gets an ending befitting a character who was, though far from innocent, the heart of the show.

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The movie, written and directed by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, picks up just minutes after the finale ended, with Jesse instantly becoming the most wanted man in New Mexico after the bloodbath at the Neo-Nazi compound hits national news. After a brief, touching visit to his reliable pals Badger and Skinny Pete, a metaphorically and literally scarred Jesse gets to work trying to make himself disappear. There’s a classic quest structure to El Camino, in that Jesse overcomes a series of challenges in order to gather enough cash to buy himself a new identity (courtesy of Ed the vacuum repair man, one of many familiar minor characters to make a reappearance).

Having been through hell and back, Jesse is more steely and resourceful than ever before, which makes for a couple of the most compelling action sequences in Breaking Bad history. But Gilligan is restrained, tempering every implausible escape with a swift fall back to earth, and making sure that Jesse’s few victories feel hard-earned.

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Intercut with the present-day storyline are flashbacks to Jesse’s past, and most prominently to the horrors of his captivity at the hands of Jesse Plemmons’ clean-cut monster Todd. Sadistic as this may sound, El Camino is smart to focus more on emotional and psychological degradation than anything approaching torture porn. As in the original show, Plemmons’s performance is mesmerizing in its matter-of-factness—when Todd forces Jesse to help him dispose of a housekeeper he just murdered, he could just as well be asking for help putting up drywall.

Todd, unexpectedly, also becomes a way for El Camino to work through some unresolved aspects of the Walt/Jesse dynamic. In keeping Jesse as his pet, forcing him to do terrible things, and rewarding him with praise for obeying—Todd mirrors the darkest part of what Walt became to Jesse, and his casual disregard for human life echoes the moral rot that took hold of Walt.

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There are undeniably missed opportunities here—Jesse’s PTSD is introduced early on before being glossed over entirely, and most of the emotionally significant exchanges take place in flashbacks. The most significant of all, of course, is the reintroduction of Walt in a Season Two-era diner conversation with Jesse, a touching and light scene that serves as a reminder of the affectionate relationship that once existed. Seeing Bryan Cranston in this role one last time, particularly the meek, mustachioed pre-empire Walt, is the most thrilling kind of fan service, and it’s on that level that the entire movie works best.

Jesse, for all of his sins, was the moral compass in Breaking Bad.

Gilligan has never gone easy on his characters, and takes time in his script to ask the question of just how bad we should feel for Jesse, given that he’s a longtime drug dealer and onetime killer who arguably brought all of this on himself. “From where I’m sitting, you made your own luck,” Robert Forster’s Ed tells him. “As did your partner. As did your lawyer.” But Jesse, for all of his sins, was the moral compass in Breaking Bad because he felt things deeply, he cared for people unselfishly, and he had an unyielding sense of right and wrong that stood in stark contrast to Walt’s endlessly flexible ethics. After entire seasons of suffering, El Camino gives him the new start he deserves. He also gets a little bit of resolution—leaving behind a letter to Brock, the child of his girlfriend Andrea, who was murdered by Todd. In a universe where Saul Goodman gets to lead a bleak new life as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha, it’s only fitting that Jesse gets his own shot at a fresh start in Alaska.

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El Camino, just like Breaking Bad, leaves Jesse behind the wheel of a car, driving towards an uncertain future. But the two final shots are mirror opposites: it’s daylight now. He’s driving at a leisurely pace, no longer running from anything. He’s wearing a great turtleneck sweater, which feels significant because it’s such a deviation from the Pinkman wardrobe. And for the first time since maybe mid-season two, he looks utterly peaceful.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.comMinor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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