Vince Gilligan didn’t want to change the ending of “Breaking Bad.” No one did. Not really. Even those who wanted to see more stories with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman had to respect how their stories wrapped up in the award-winning crime saga. Walter dies, as was his destiny. Jesse lives, as he deserved. Rare is it to find such a fitting yet fulfilling ending to a long-running, highly respected drama series, and rarer still for just about everyone to agree that the show nailed its series finale. Both factors make the prospect of adding to it daunting, to say the least.
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So Gilligan didn’t. Yes, in his sequel film “El Camino,” the writer-director chooses to share more of what happens after those iconic final shots of “Breaking Bad,” but it’s purely Jesse’s journey and that journey is largely internal. Like much of the series before it, the movie deals with consequences: What ending does Jesse deserve? By exploring that question, Gilligan expands on the surviving character’s self-identity without betraying the implications of his original conclusion. It makes “El Camino” a minor miracle in itself — a worthy epilogue to “Breaking Bad.”
Nothing really changes between the ending of “Breaking Bad” and the ending of “El Camino” — nothing that couldn’t have been assumed from the final shot of the series and the first (present-day) shot of the movie, anyway. Jesse (now an older, bulkier Aaron Paul) screams into the steering wheel as he speeds away from the Nazis who kidnapped him, held him hostage in an underground prison cell, and forced him to cook meth for their own profit. When viewers first saw that exultation in 2013, they were just happy he was alive. But you could also assume from Gilligan’s goodbye that Jesse being alive also meant Jesse would be OK — not OK in the sense that everything would be easy, or that he’d fully recovered from his traumatic ordeal, but that he’d survive, find a different life somewhere along that desert road, and wouldn’t befall the same fate as his one-time mentor.
“El Camino” gives definition to those assumptions, as Jesse is forced to fight his way out of Albuquerque. He has to avoid the cops, who want him for questioning; he has to find money, to fund his life on the lamb; and he’s got to get out of New Mexico, leaving behind his old life in order to embrace a new one. Along the way, through self-reflection and telling flashbacks (that just so happen to feature everyone’s favorite former “Breaking Bad” stars), he comes to terms with who he is now. Like Mike (Jonathan Banks) says in the opening flashback: You can build another life, sure, but you can’t make up for your past. That’s not how it works.
That flashback and the one with Walter (Bryan Cranston) provide clear guideposts along the way. The first tells Jesse how to move forward, while the last suggests where he could go. Walt’s message at that diner (which, of course, Jesse didn’t grasp at the time) was to recognize your attributes and build a life from them. That’s enough to be happy — Walter, then, couldn’t possibly know how much he needed to hear that same advice — but the flashbacks also serve a formal, more figurative purpose. It’s easy to compare “El Camino” to a modern western, what with the sweeping landscapes, lone survivor, and final stand-off, but it’s really more of a ghost story.
Jesse, embodied by an aptly aged Aaron Paul, doesn’t belong in this world anymore. You can tell he doesn’t quite fit, and the people he encounters are remnants of his past or obstacles to his future. Some ghosts are helpful, like the weirdly angelic Badger (Matthew Lee Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), but they’re all ghosts — more representative of internal struggles Jesse’s processing than real, flesh-and-blood people. That’s why the flashbacks with Mike and Walter work beyond framing Jesse’s thoughts. Even though Paul doesn’t quite look like his scrawny, edgy past self, he doesn’t have to; you can better recognize it’s the older Jesse remembering these moments rather than the younger Jesse reliving them.
You can see Jesse’s growth in his choices throughout “El Camino,” most clearly when he confronts the non-cops for the last $1,800 he needs to buy a new identity and a trip out of town. He doesn’t need more, so he doesn’t ask for more. A younger Jesse would’ve come in guns blazing, aiming to walk out with all the money — but he’s not greedy. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone or rob anyone. He wants what he calls “a favor.” When the other party denies him said favor, that’s when he accepts what he’s capable of and does what he has to win. Jesse isn’t a pure soul. He isn’t untainted by his past. He’s just trying to be a better man than he was, while recognizing the situation he’s put himself in.
“El Camino” illustrates as much with grace and command. There’s no big twists or jarring brutality. This isn’t the shocking action story that made “Breaking Bad” into addictive television. It’s an epilogue, providing added context to a conclusion that’s already been established. Gilligan made a promise with his original ending: that Jesse would survive. He fulfills that promise here. Moreover, he implied that things would improve for Jesse. Again, that’s what we see in “El Camino.” The same feelings we had when he drove away screaming before are very close to the feelings when he drives away silently here.
There’s a reason this Netflix television event is titled “El Camino” instead of “Blue SUV” or “Pontiac Fiero” — the El Camino is Jesse’s beginning and ending. His original and new conclusions are one in the same. And that’s OK. It’s better than OK, really. It’s a deepened appreciation of who Jesse becomes, outside the shadow of Walter. Just don’t call it a new ending. It’s an epilogue, as it should be.
“El Camino” is streaming now on Netflix.
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