El Camino reminded me why I love Breaking Bad


Breaking Bad aired its final episode on September 29, 2013. Walter White’s ascension (or was it a descent?) from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to ruthless criminal has cemented itself as a staple of contemporary pop culture, a teachable point of reference for cinematic and writing technique, and flat-out one of the greatest television dramas of all-time.

So what about that Pinkman kid?

Before release, El Camino was anticipated with a torrent of hopeful expectation. While the reception has been warm (Anthony Marzano was a fan in his review), the feature-length finale -yes, for real this time- can be said to be unnecessary. I’ve heard it and felt it. Initially.

Fair warning, full spoilers for El Camino and all of Breaking Bad ahead. I’ll do my best to avoid Better Call Saul, which is the best thing on television and I’d argue superior to its Walter White-centric cousin. That’s a topic for another day, though.

By the end of El Camino, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) isn’t too far from where we leave him in Breaking Bad. Our final glimpse of Jesse (first in El Camino) had him wildly driving off into the desert, fleeing the Scarface-like scene of Walt’s last stand against the brutal gangsters that imprisoned the assistant meth cook. A lot went down in Breaking Bad‘s intense finale, but we as the audience understood Jesse to be free from torment and on to better things.

But what exactly were those things?

El Camino embodies a lot of what makes Vince Gilligan and his team’s work on ‘Bad and ‘Saul so brilliant: It’s all in the details. El Camino might not feature the bombast of some of Breaking Bad‘s series highs, but the spirit of the work is as fine-tuned as ever and played to a more subtle, somber tone.

So, “details” is an incredibly vague way of professing my love for the franchise (does it feel odd to call Breaking Bad a franchise now?) but I think it’s a start. The heart of the original series is about smart people performing tricky, unconventional balancing acts over a pit of fire while juggling chainsaws. The insane stakes present in Breaking Bad were accented wonderfully by the show’s terrific production values, cinematography, and direction from episode to episode.

What really provided the show’s white-knuckle intensity were the ways in which Walt and co. would get themselves out of (or sometimes, into) trouble. The great lengths to which the gang goes to destroy an incriminating laptop early in season five, for example. Or Walt’s rigging of Hector Salamanca’s wheelchair with an explosive to get the last word on Gus Fring. Even earlier in the series, when Walt was feigning episodes of memory loss to cover for his minor absence from family life… due to an altercation with the volatile Tuco.

Watching characters be presented with a seemingly impossible task, only for it to be overcome in unforeseen and plausible ways, was the great joy of Breaking Bad for me. El Camino, in a quieter way, gives us the same situation. Fresh out of Jack and his gang’s imprisonment, Jesse has nothing but a gun and some gas in the tank. He’s got to get out of Dodge, pronto. Sadly, the practicalities and necessities of the real world weigh down. Beyond the shelter and ramen noodles he gorges on (courtesy of tight friends Badger and Skinny Pete), Jesse needs money.

The need for money in El Camino touches upon the other aspect of Breaking Bad‘s brilliance: its attention to materialism. Not the idea of greed or defining oneself by the objects they own, but instead the attention to the objects around us; how items can be used, the way we interact with our physical surroundings. More on that later, because now it’s about Jesse’s dough.

The singular drive of El Camino becomes Jesse’s need for money relatively early on. The extensive flashback to Jesse aiding psychopathic Todd (Jesse Plemons) in cleaning up a murder is all to give the audience a plausible chunk of change for Jesse to set his sights on. This is in service of Breaking Bad‘s sense of logic: performing A to get to B, to C, so we eventually end up at E.

Better Call Saul does this brilliantly, too. An early season one scene sees seasoned operator Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) on the task of tracking down some missing money in a bizarre kidnapping scenario. An extended sequence reveals Mike carefully staking the victims’ residence out, putting two and two together, and acting on it. The way process becomes a microcosm to form an engaging scene, all of El Camino is, in a way, a single scene like this. 

In providing us with a clear goal (get outta town!), El Camino becomes free to tell its story by making the film about the process. This is what made Breaking Bad so brilliant. There might be some discouraged viewers who expected some radical developments in the world of New Mexican cartel crime and extralegal shenanigans, but Gilligan knows he can’t start a massive story with a two-hour movie -itself meant as an endcap to a five (six, really!) season television series-. By staying small in scope, El Camino reminds us that some of the best moments of Breaking Bad, particularly early on, were about the hustle. Walt and Jesse plotting their way out of high-risk situations where one step forward meant two more steps to take. Sometimes they’d step on a landmine.

The aforementioned materialism of the franchise is perhaps my greatest fixation with Breaking Bad and its spin-offs. The ways in which we’re told to look at everyday objects and see them under circumstances we’re not used to. Think of the wheelchair being used to plot against Gus, or early in Breaking Bad, the scramble to dispose of corpses with retail-bought chemicals and cleaners. There’s a DIY spirit in much of Breaking Bad‘s crime. We get a great show of this in a Better Call Saul scene with Mike taking out a cartel truck in an increasingly-escalating feud with the Mexican gangsters.

The close up on the spike being hammered; Mike’s grip on the wire. Even the glimpses we get of the truck as it barrels down the road–its side door, a bobblehead planted on the dash–the scene feeds us objects of little consequence that become catalysts and reactants in the action we’re about to see. The scene is also exemplary of Gilligan and the team’s intense obsession with showing process. Mike’s labor is drawn out such that we’re given a moment to question the scene’s purpose before things become intensely apparent. 

El Camino, for its part, has at least one incredibly “object-focused” segment. The extensive Todd flashback is, as I mentioned, all about giving Jesse a logical place to go to get his money. Once he’s at Todd’s apartment–taped off in some of El Camino‘s excellent, casual references to the greater action that took place in Breaking Bad–he’s gotta find the loot. Jesse tears the place apart, peeling wallpaper, popping floorboards, and looking just about every spot one would think a psycho-killer might hide a million bucks. In a trademark act of inventive editing and cinematography, we get a god’s eye, overhead time-lapse shot of Jesse scrambling about the apartment, searching feverishly. It’s the sort of flair the series has in spades. 

Eventually, Jesse comes across the refrigerator. Pulling the rubber lining out, Todd’s fridge is packed with stacks of cash. Gilligan probably loves The French Connection since this scene echoes one from the iconic hardboiled detective story. During that film, a suspected Lincoln Continental is stripped to its bones to find some-hundred pounds of stashed heroin. Everyone steals, so you might as well steal from the best! The intense fixation on dissecting objects, dedicating a huge chunk of the film’s runtime to the apartment search, is at the heart of El Camino.

Hell, the film’s title is in itself giving importance to an otherwise-insignificant object! The car in which Jesse flees the desert shootout is important for only as long as it serves him early on in the film. While largely a cool stylistic choice of title, this is again something we’ve seen in Breaking Bad. FlyBox Cutter. Shotgun. All titles of episodes where the titular object becomes a central component of a crucial scene. “El Camino” is, in a way a red herring: with the classic car quickly ditched early on, viewers are left naked in the assumption of its importance.

It took some thinking on my part to come around to El Camino. I was a little put-off while watching it (I was lucky enough to catch it in a theater on opening night; a proper sendoff). I mistook its intense flashback sequences as being nostalgic. Showing Mike and Jesse musing on freedom in the beginning, or even the final scene we get between Walt and Jesse, the latter enjoying a mound of pineapple in a diner. It struck me initially as a victory lap in the sense that AMC and the writers had already made a critically-acclaimed series with an equally-praised (though still undersung!) spin-off series. Was El Camino milking a known quantity? The fact is, absolutely not.

Gilligan cares deeply about his characters. Given the opportunity to direct a feature capstone, he smartly uses his resources the way his characters do. The flashbacks that bothered me (which seemed like padding) are, in fact, entirely in the service of the current goal. Jesse’s money, sure, but also a sense of catharsis. Talking to Mike plants the seed of Alaska as an escape for Pinkman; the conversation with Walter, whether it registers with the naive former chemistry student or not, instills hope for Jesse’s future. Planting seeds to be watered, in a way, by Jesse’s success at the end of El Camino. He makes it to Alaska and earns a clean slate.

Really, for as somber as it might register and compared to automated machine guns and industrial magnets, El Camino doesn’t waste a second of its time. Everything is just as breakneck as the series from which it was born.