El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie Review

“Everything I think I know is just static on the radio…”

Could I have gone on happily with my life without ever having seen El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie? Considering how tightly wrapped up Breaking Bad was as a series, of course that’s true.  I’m always grateful for what’s already been given. But does a film focusing on Jesse Pinkman’s quest for freedom following Breaking Bad’s finale a necessary venture regardless?  Most people would tell you no, yet they liked or loved the movie anyway (as did I), but I’m going to go out on a limb and argue a solid “kind of, maybe, yeah” in regard to its necessity.

A little under a year ago when the film was first announced, I went into great depth listing my concerns for what I feel would help it succeed from a critical standpoint.  Avoiding these pitfalls doesn’t guarantee a brilliant movie, but it’s a template I thought would help nonetheless.  Long story, short, the bullet points were as follows:

  • No Walter White (Unless the story dictates).
  • The events of Breaking Bad do not need to be explained.
  • Preserve the Breaking Bad finale’s small shred of open-endedness.
  • The film needs to prove its worth.
  • Remember, Jesse’s in the driver’s seat now.  Not shotgun.

Going forward with this film, conceptually, was a monumental task.  The opening frame, being a signature wide and closed shot of Jesse staring across a lake at a mountain, isn’t just symbolic to the giant hurdle Jesse would have to overcome in achieving the fresh start he desires (or the chance to put things right, which Mike firmly tells him is the one thing he can never do).  It’s also a self-aware, metaphorical nod to the difficult task ahead for Vince Gilligan to land Jesse’s proper conclusion without it stepping on the toes of the former series or proving to be a pointless endeavor.  And when I say proper conclusion, I don’t mean a love letter to the fans for what they might giddily hope to see, but something of value that Vince sincerely felt he should tell.  In the series finale, Jesse’s story ended on an ambiguously conclusive note which was fitting, but it was just a note.  Not a conclusion for a character who earned the role of co-lead (regardless if the show was intended primarily for Walt) and who proved to be just as essential in light of the pawn/plot device he becomes towards the end of the show’s run in larger service to Walt’s story.  Jesse Pinkman has always been a special appendage to Breaking Bad’s journey and El Camino sets out to remind you that.

There’s no question Jesse will carry physical and psychic wounds brought on by Walt’s destructive actions for the better part of his life, so whether or not Walt made an appearance here, his spiritual presence would have inevitably hung over El Camino in a dark, ominous manner.  That said, I’m glad we got little snippets of context through news reports of who this Walter White guy is without taking any focus away from Jesse Pinkman’s present trauma and conflict.  This is what helped give Walter White’s unceremonious turn down the hotel hallway so much dramatic weight.  Here, in a flashback scene taking place directly after being stranded in the desert from season 2’s “4 Days Out”, Walter couldn’t appear any more harmless or vulnerable.  It’s a moment in the series when both characters were sort of at peace that this might be their final cook together, pending confirmation that Walt’s lung cancer hasn’t grown significantly worse.  For standalone movie-goers, this is the same Mr. White who’s been dubbed a drug kingpin and has apparently claimed the lives of many people, stirring up a nationwide manhunt.  The same guy being one who gives such poignant, albeit hopeful advice that Jesse is lucky to have so much time to do something special with his life.

This is shortly followed after a scene where Walt puts Jesse’s intelligence on the spot, trying to measure what he’s capable of and what the future may hold for him.  Walt, being as self-involved as he is, completely forgets Jesse achieved his high school diploma (“Yo you were standing right on the stage when they handed it to me”).  Jesse shows a hint of interest towards maybe pursuing a field in sports medicine if he were to attend college and Walt entertains that idea for about a nanosecond before suggesting a business degree.  For all of Walter White’s intellectual superiority and experience, you have to wonder what the hell does he even really know after all the terrible choices he made towards the end? Who is he to tell Jesse what to do with his life?

It’s at this point where I need to direct your attention to the film’s ending song (“Static on the Radio” by Jim White, featuring Aimee Mann) because I feel it’s immensely important to understanding the film’s underlying themes and use of flashbacks throughout.  It’s dreary, wondrous, and simply beautiful. Listen carefully:

Please also read this superbly written and concise analysis of “Static on the Radio’s” meaning I came across from music blog series The Delete Bin (credit to Rob Jones, thedeletebin.com) as it definitely gave me a deeper appreciation for the song’s use in the film.  Keep in mind, this was written long before the movie. 

Let’s consider the lyrics:

And I know (it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead)
And I know (it’s a crime to weave your wishes into what they said)
And I know (only fools venture where them spirits tread)
‘Cause I know (every word, every sound bouncing ’round my head)

You might have noticed that in every flashback scene, Jesse is recalling some nugget of advice a now deceased character (or spirit) has relayed to him:

  • Mike says, “Only you can decide what’s best for you. Not him (Walter), not me,” while also finishing the scene stating, based from his experience, that ‘putting things right’ is the one thing you can never do.
  • Todd says, “You know Uncle Jack says…life’s what you make it.”
  • Walt says, “You’re really lucky, you know that?.  You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
  • Jane says “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life.  It’s better to make those decisions yourself.”

And I know (the blind will sometimes lead the blind)
And I know (through shadowlands and troubled times)
And I know (forsaking love, we see it’s a sign)
And I know (of truths forever hid behind)

Regardless of who’s behind the phrase and whether or not any person in question has affected Jesse’s life in a positive or negative way, it’s all generally good, if not vague words of wisdom that can be spun in any direction he sees fit.  It all sounds nice and it may be exactly what Jesse needs to hear but is life not more complex?  Some of the people sharing their well-intended existential philosophy may be hypocritical, deluded, complicit, morally ambiguous (more good or evil), or complacent when you stop to think what road their motto of philosophy may or may not have lead them.  It goes to show that people in our lives can be just as lost as Jesse, you, or I when it comes to finding the right way to live.  Words to live by can be interpreted in a number of ways so it’s up to you for how to make it work.

‘Cause I know (dreams are for those who are asleep in bed)
And I know (it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead)
‘Cause I know (for all my ruminations I can’t change a thing)
Still I hope (there’s others out there who are listening)

In the beginning of El Camino, Mike plants the idea for Jesse to take up a life in Alaska which is what he ends up striving towards.  He also tells Jesse he won’t be able to correct the unfortunate events of the past and yet, by the end of the film, Jesse still feels the need to make an effort for young Brock, an innocent victim of Jesse’s circumstance, by sending a letter most likely explaining and apologizing for why Brock’s mother was senselessly murdered by Jesse’s captors.  By doing this, Jesse can at least hope to bring some peace to Brock if the boy is willing to hear it.  It doesn’t correct what’s already happened but it’s the best Jesse can possibly hope to do for him.

For me, what I got out of this film is you are who you are and you’ve done what you’ve done.  If you can accept and take responsibility for that, you can begin to move forward, be better, and be content with the life you’ve paved for yourself since the beginning and until the end.  Anyone who crosses your path telling you how life could be spent otherwise is something you need to pick and choose for yourself as you grow.  Because life is not as certain or simple as any fortune cookie slice of philosophy could suggest.  In the end, everyone’s figuring it out as they get older and everything you think you know may very well slip away.  It’s all static on the radio.  You pick up and apply what you know in incremental drips and drabs and the best you can hope for is what good may come from truly acknowledging life’s complexities as you live the life you call your own.

I actually liked that El Camino (spanish for ‘the road’ or ‘the way’) was more meditative, not just in a spiritual sense but mechanically because that’s exactly what made Breaking Bad so special to begin with (something the series finale did away with by having Walt randomly appear in places and magically get things done). The in-between minutiae of conflict that you rarely witness in crime stories is what this show, for the better part of its run, absolutely excelled at. It’s that compelling ‘one foot forward and two steps back’ form of storytelling that drew me to the show in the first place. By the end of Breaking Bad, Walt became such a despicable character and was so far gone from any shred of sympathy, that the show conceptually stripped that narrative structure away from the viewer. Long are the days of taking three episodes to dispose of bodies, an entire episode trying to get the RV’s battery to start, or spending an entire season figuring out how to get rid of Gus.  A Breaking Bad film about the more empathetic Jesse makes sense to bring that methodical pace back, especially considering he’s a character who (while proven to hold his own and has grown to be sharper as an individual) doesn’t possess the same magic, intelligence and bravado that Walt had.

Any other film about a fugitive on the run would have gone all in for the non-stop, action-packed thrill of the lead character racing against the odds to outrun the cops, much like El Camino seemed to be hinting at before Skinny Pete and Badger’s video game fakeout. This film offers that tension but it’s more cleverly derived from its smaller, character-driven moments. Figuring out a plan and saying goodbye to Skinny Pete and Badger instead of bolting out of there is more real and believable to me than the film serving as some vicarious ‘what would I really be doing in this situation’ type of story.  Like sure, not shaving would be an ideal way to come off unrecognizable to law enforcement, but Jesse is his own person with his own exclusive experiences and trauma.

The same goes for Jesse deciding to give Todd back his gun for the chance to have some pepperoni pizza and beer rather than a possible escape. It’s especially a more psychological, helpless moment like that which makes Jesse Pinkman a uniquely interesting and deserving character to follow. Spending a significant chunk of the film with Jesse poking around in Todd’s apartment (the last space he wants to occupy) and further exploring the hell that Jesse had to go through rather than glossing over it with mere implications of his torture and imprisonment helps make the road to renewing his sense of self and humanity all the more richer. I like that there are so many unexpected, trivial hang-ups that prevent Jesse from moving on as simply as getting in a car and driving away.  Instead he has to work backwards, wrack his brain over where Todd may have hid his money, and stew in the memories of his enslavement like a bad nightmare while simultaneously proceeding onward like a dream where it takes forever to get to where you want to go (if reached at all before waking).

*By the way, Jesse Plemons’ performance as Todd was a striking reminder of how twisted and unconventional he was at playing the sociopathic villain in those final two years.  He’s definitely one of the more redeeming additions to the series so late into its life cycle and I’m happy Vince seized the opportunity to give him a significant role for him to shine with here.

Another familiar touchstone of Breaking Bad is celebrated thusly with the script’s daring ability to write itself into corners and then write itself out in the most earned, uncompromised manner.  Old Joe wiping the El Camino off the face of the planet (free of charge) would have been just as convenient (ala deus ex machina) as the coincidence of the LoJack’s tracking system being initiated the moment Joe was scanning the car.  The feds are homing in fast but Skinny Pete saves the day with an inspired, improvised plan B by having Badger drive Skinny’s car to the Mexico border while keeping the El Camino right where it is.  It’s the perfect diversion while Jesse drives North in Badger’s car.  Much better than the lazier direction of a typical hollywood car chase.

The creme de la creme though is later when Jesse is literally backed into a corner as two “police officers” search Todd’s apartment with Jesse inside and he’s forced to crawl his way out, guns drawn.  He actually disarms the first man before getting into a stand-off with the other who was wise enough to know his partner was in trouble.  Every beat of this is a master class in tension-building because before you know it, Jesse’s laying flat on his stomach, presumably in custody, but (twist) the two men are actually associates of Uncle Jack who are just looking to score some loot from the recently deceased Todd.  Even with Jesse utterly defenseless, the story finds a natural way to proceed without resorting to any cop-outs.  Seriously, so much good comes from Vince Gilligan deciding to devote Todd’s apartment as the film’s centerpiece. It’s something I initially felt uneasy about but from the moment it was creepily established in flashbacks to its urgent destruction through staple Breaking Bad-esque montage, and then the pay-off with Neil and Casey serving as antagonists, it accomplishes so much with unwavering execution.

The inclusion of new characters like Neil Kandy, the welder who fixed the meth lab’s dog chain with full complicity to Jesse’s imprisonment and torture, and his spoiled partner Casey, is an audacious, yet beneficial decision on Vince’s part because 1) Jesse needed to overcome some baddies (Walt can’t be the complete “hero” to Jesse’s story) and 2) the catharsis he achieved in the series finale to withdraw from the drama brought on by his own demons (revenge, ridding the world of every evil) needed to be challenged.  The scene of Jesse being forced to run back and forth so Kenny and Neil can bet on whether the chain will break is one of the most unthinkably upsetting moments in the film.  It sets the viewer up to be furious and wanting to see these characters ripped limb from limb.  They don’t just serve as additional antagonists, but they stand in for Uncle Jack’s crew (Jesse strolling in their place of business mirroring Walt’s final act of violence at the neo-nazi clubhouse) and it helps that they remain a colorful, distinguished duo in their own right.

All of that said, Jesse’s approach to the situation is different.  He respectfully asks for a measly $1,800 and to never be seen again, being a modest request from someone who allowed Neil to take the majority of Todd’s money. Neil, if circumstances played out differently, seems prepared to shruggingly grant this plea.  However, he’s been drinking, just snorted cocaine, and feels on top of the world after partying with hookers.  Add to the fact that Casey is buzzing in his ear incessantly about how emasculating it is that Neil even gave Pinkman a cut to begin with.  I believe to the fullest extent that if given the money, Jesse would have been the bigger man to walk out of there and close the door on those goons forever.  Neil, on the other hand, represents the Jesse Pinkman of the past in some ways by giving in to the manipulations of his partner, the needless urge to initiate a shootout (“Half Measures” ending), and the naivety in what it means to feel on top.

I don’t think Neil wants a gunfight but is too weak not to upset his buddies.  Jesse doesn’t need to prove something so petty and childish, but if he’s going to get money from anywhere, it’s not going to be from his parents or some random robbery, it’s going to be from those he knows will deserve what they get, worse comes to worse.  Vince Gilligan intelligently places the audience’s (and most definitely Jesse’s) itching desire to do away with Neil as a last resort insurance plan, but it’s not something Jesse feels needs to happen.  This is who Jesse Pinkman is.  Not willing to kill, but capable when he has to.

As an audience who has followed this character for an entire series, we may have a bias in terms of the strong empathy we hold for Jesse.  He’s committed terrible acts but we understand on an emotional level, beat by beat, what drove him to those acts, and we especially know how much punishment he’s faced for it, if not by the world, then by himself.  In El Camino, the universe is indifferent to his torment as it always was.  When Ed, the disappearer turns Jesse away for coming up short with his payment, Jesse tries to win him over with sympathy of his life story (most specifically, events of recent), in which Ed responds by saying he should try his ability to pull on heartstrings with the police if he’s so certain it will work on him.  Ed says, “From where I sit, you made your own luck. As did your former partner.  As did your lawyer.”

This is what I was hoping the film would address because it goes back to what everyone in the flashbacks were more or less expressing.  Life is what you make it.  You need to face the life you’ve made for yourself and stop running from it.  It’s why Jesse endearingly tells his parents they aren’t to blame and they did the best they could with him because this isn’t so much a getaway movie as it is a story of self-realization as one catches and owns up to their current state of being.  Whereas Walt’s motto was twisted in that of New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”, Jesse is in pursuit for Alaska’s “The Last Frontier”, his last chance to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made.

I found El Camino to be a more profound and effective stopping place for Breaking Bad’s story than that of “Felina” as it has left me reflecting on it just as intensely but with its more methodical return to form.  After “Ozymandias”, I didn’t go into El Camino expecting it to be anything more climactic than simply giving Jesse a proper conclusion as his story dwindles down and yet, it was an enjoyable movie on its own which I welcome into the series canon with open arms.  It checked off everything I hoped it would avoid and accomplish.  It used Walter White appropriately, it didn’t feel pre-occupied with explaining anything (Walter White’s death confirmation is more to sting the fan theorists and to witness Jesse’s reaction), and it used Jesse’s catharsis of valuing freedom and peace of mind as a sly source of tension.  It also leaves the appropriate questions from “Felina” still up in the air.  Following up on where Skyler, Marie, or Junior are at with incoming “donated” money or court proceedings would have been too much information that would have defeated the point that Walt left his family in ruins regardless of what he thinks he might have made up for.  Plus, that’s not a part of Jesse’s world to begin with.

The most important question though is still preserved.  Is Jesse (or Mr. Driscoll) really okay now that he’s driving towards an isolated future?  He’s definitely better off than the manic, screaming state we saw him at the end of the series and beginning of this film, but the juxtaposed, quiet drive into Haines, Alaska makes you wonder.  Will he continue to appreciate his slice of secluded freedom or will he increasingly crack under the pressure of solitude like Gene seems to with every Better Call Saul opener?  I like to think he’ll be better at it, but like the mountain in the opening shot or the entire range surrounded him when burying Todd’s housekeeper, is life not full of conflicting and problematic hurdles to overcome?  The final image of mountains is a gorgeous wide shot showing them snow-capped just beyond the trees, suggesting that external conflict and inner-struggle will exist as long as you live.  Life’s complexities can either overwhelm or stand as a majesty to marvel at and cherish.  You can take it for what you will.