The television series gives its put-upon co-lead an epilogue as he contemplates the next step of his life.
Directed by Vince Gilligan
Starring Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, and Robert Forster
Review by Jon Kissel
It’s been six years since the finale aired, and El Camino serves as an epilogue for Paul’s Jesse, last seen roaring away from his dead Nazi captors in the titular vehicle. With the taste that the finale left in my mouth, I was most interested in whether or not Jesse would be treated as a sinner who needed to face justice, or if Gilligan viewed Jesse’s time with the Nazi’s as justice enough. I’m reminded of the Pain Monster from Futurama, a spiny creature who the citizens of earth can spend an afternoon with instead of paying a year’s worth of taxes. Was Jesse’s punishment for everything he did and all the people he ensnared over the course of the series satisfied by concentrated penance at the bottom of a pit? How important is the criminal justice process for truth-telling and a clear accounting of wrongdoing, especially when that wrongdoing takes on the mythic quality it does here?
Thanks to Gilligan’s writerly nuance and his recreation of Breaking Bad’s attention to detail, El Camino cares about these questions even if it doesn’t exactly end how I’d hoped. This was a hugely meticulous show when it was on, and this is a meticulous continuation. Actions that seem like actorly busy work are paid off, and not clumsily or aggressively so. Much can be read into pauses or asides. Auteur-driven TV begs to be scrutinized, with the viewer searching for patterns and instilling them with meaning. Early on, things are knocked over by characters trying to harmlessly park a car. Once it’s funny or a nod to how harried the driver is, but twice, it could be a visual nod to collateral damage and unforeseen consequences, both of which played heavily in Breaking Bad. I used to rewatch the series in advance of a new season but I haven’t since gone back at all since the finale. El Camino and its immediate jolt back to what watching Breaking Bad felt like moves a potential rewatch of the series up the queue.
The central question of El Camino is whether or not Jesse will be caught or turn himself in. That he succeeds in escaping to Alaska and starting over is an ending I’m lukewarm on. It seems for awhile that he’s resigned to being caught, like in how he shaves his head to match his known ID and in how he voluntarily pulls out of a Mexican standoff with the not-cops. Over the course of the film, he goes from barely verbal to typical Jesse in his back and forth with Robert Forster’s eraser, and the only thing that changes for him is that he realizes the financial possibility of starting over. Escape is what seems to invigorate him, and so we return to whether or not that escape is an earned thing for the character or not. We’re reminded in El Camino that Jesse is a child of privilege who made repeated choices to get deeper and deeper into meth distribution, that he’s reasonably intelligent and didn’t have to do any of this. His presence led to two girlfriends being killed and he killed people himself, to say nothing of the vast amount of meth he made and sold. Concentrated punishment in secret versus elongated punishment in public is a philosophical question, but I’m inclined towards the former being mildly relevant and not enough to blank out the latter. This is important because it confirms that Gilligan can’t pull the trigger when it comes to his two greatest creations, just like he couldn’t in the finale.
If El Camino doesn’t redeem what I consider to be a bad ending to its series, it does succeed as a strong example of the many things Breaking Bad did so well. It finds the distinctions between criminals who want to be businessmen and criminals who make that impossible, an idea earlier explored by the Wire and made viscerally real in both Breaking Bad and El Camino. It fixates on small things, where 45 minutes is given over to Jesse finding a measly $1800. It contains great performances from Paul, Forster, Scott McArthur’s venal welder, Jesse Plemons as nice-guy Nazi psychopath Todd, and in a beautiful cameo, Bryan Cranston himself, exhibiting all the simultaneously endearing and infuriating characteristics that made the character iconic. It lands somewhere in the lower half of Breaking Bad, nowhere near the best thing it ever did, but better than its finale and a chunk of other episodes. I just can’t get on board a wholly redemptive arc for Jesse. The final scene is given over to his long-dead lover Jane (Krysten Ritter), wherein she tells him not to let the universe just buffet him along, but to take control of his own life. The book on Breaking Bad is closed with Jesse doing that, free in Alaska. I can’t help but wish his version of taking control was surrendering himself to the cops, and perhaps not serving as a folk hero to people like Skinny Pete. B