Friday, October 11, 2019

REVIEW: 'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie' Explores Jesse Pinkman's Attempt at Escaping to a New Life

Netflix's El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

Fugitive Jesse Pinkman attempts to outrun his past.

"El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" was written by Vince Gilligan and directed by Vince Gilligan

Breaking Bad concluded its series run back in 2013 with a trio of episodes that could essentially provide a choose-your-own-ending adventure for each individual viewer. "Ozymandias" saw Walter White at his crushing defeat needing to disappear with Ed while Jesse was imprisoned by Nazis and Hank was killed. "Granite State" highlighted the new life Walt could reasonably have in New Hampshire under a new identity and limited contact with the outside world before accepting that he didn't want this and still had unfinished business in New Mexico. And the actual series finale "Felina" featured a probably too neat ending in which Walt seemingly got everything he wanted by eliminating the Nazis, freeing Jesse and dying without ever getting caught. It was an arc that brought everything to a satisfying conclusion for the main characters. It was a complicated ending. But one in which the audience understood the fates for each of the characters no matter how dark and depressing some of them turned out to be. Jesse concluded the series screaming his head off while fleeing the Nazi compound that held him captive and tortured him for a year. It was a fist-pumping moment that it made it clear that he may have had the happiest ending. It was suggested that he was running away to a better life. Of course, the audience had to be fairly cynical about that conclusion as well. Again, "Granite State" showed how a new life was destructive for Walt. Moreover, Better Call Saul features vignettes about what Saul Goodman's life is like as Cinnabon Gene. These criminals may escape their legal problems in Albuquerque. But the lives they fled to are incredibly isolated and repressive. They can no longer embody the things that make them truly themselves in this world. For Walt, he could no longer be a family man who enjoyed cooking meth and running a drug empire. For Saul, he could no longer be the showman lawyer enjoying the spoils of his criminal clients. In Walt's case, he had to return because he simply couldn't stay away. Better Call Saul is still ongoing. So, the audience doesn't quite know the true extent of Saul's fate as Gene just yet. But it was all told with the staggering clarity that life on the run may not be good for Jesse either. He may have gotten pulled over immediately and forced to face the punishment of his own crimes. He may have presented as the moral center of Breaking Bad. However, he still committed some heinous actions that then reverberated throughout his entire life.

This is a rather roundabout way of saying that El Camino goes through all of the technical details to explain how Jesse was able to escape from Albuquerque and arrest. Vince Gilligan has always done a wonderful job in detailing the ways in which various processes actually happen. It's an attention to detail that shows just how committed a person has to be in order to live their life in this way. Jesse isn't so high on adrenaline that he is incapable of ducking for cover when he sees police lights on the horizon. He is clearly traumatized from the abuse he suffered at the hands of Todd and his Uncle Jack. However, the energy exudes from this two-hour movie that Jesse is determined and desperate for his freedom. He pushes back against those willing to confine him once more. However, it's an ongoing struggle for him. One where he once again has to destroy people's lives in the hopes of obtaining something better. Sure, there are elements here that do come across solely as fan service. The Breaking Bad cameos basically inform the audience of the journey Jesse is going on throughout El Camino. The movie starts with a conversation he had with Mike about where he should start over. Alaska is set as the destination early on. As such, the rest of the piece moves with such conviction towards that location. Meanwhile, the concluding beats feature past conversations that Jesse had with Walt and Jane. Those two were huge influences on his life. With Walt, he admires Jesse for doing something remarkable and important from a young age. It shows how manipulative and condescending he always was to his partner though. He lifted up the ideal of college only for it to be seen as nothing more than a toxic relationship that ruined both of their lives. It's still important to remember the many different versions of Jesse there have been throughout this universe as well. He was Walt's entry point into the drug business. He was enthusiastic about science. But he was also forced to kill and mourn the deaths of two girlfriends. He aspires to do right after all of this is done. He has to be in charge of his own fate. That's the advice he remembers the most from Jane in retrospect. And yes, he does find a new home in Alaska. The movie just chooses to end on that reassuring note that he too is relaxing into a new life. It doesn't go into detail over what it is and if he can make it work better than Walt and Saul could. However, he is vastly different from them as well.

All of this essentially means that El Camino doesn't change any of the firm facts apparent at the conclusion of Breaking Bad. It doesn't rewrite the story by saying that the police actually got to Walt in time to save his life. A news report says that the infamous Heisenberg was killed at the site of this massacre. Meanwhile his final victim, Lydia, is in critical condition at the hospital unlikely to survive. The movie essentially has to tell that to the audience upfront in order to affirm that the conclusion of Breaking Bad was the end of Walter White's story. Some people may continue to idolize him and see him as the hero instead of the anti-hero of the piece. Again, that may be the wrong reaction to have given everything that Walt was responsible for over the course of the series. But El Camino is fundamentally Jesse's story. It's about him evading capture while collecting all of the money to hire Ed to disappear him as well. It's a long and exhausting journey. One where it's clear that Jesse still has friends in this world. He can still go to Badger and Skinny Pete for support. They help him even when the police have pinpointed the titular car to where they are. But the show doesn't easily move past the hardships Jesse endured either. The movie reveals more of the tortured he was subjected to while imprisoned by the Nazis. It's mostly just Todd who wants to believe he is a friend but is just as cruel and vile as the rest of these criminals. He kills his maid simply because she found his money and was curious about it. She wasn't stealing from him. But Todd still has to have Jesse help him dispose of the body. That once again allows the show to embrace the beauty of the New Mexico desert even while featuring a true heinous and despicable act. Jesse is a broken man because he can't even shoot Todd when given the opportunity. That hesitation is no longer viable for him on the run. As such, he may be more callous after he has been freed. It's all a matter of survival to him. He has to fend off the intruders who also break into Todd's apartment looking for the money he must have hidden somewhere. Jesse is the one with the engineering spirit to figure it out. Neil and Casey simply get to enjoy the spoils for a night. It's not long until Jesse comes back looking to collect all the money. A three-way split isn't good enough. He is $1,800 short in paying for Ed's services. It is so brutal and desperate. Jesse once again has to kill in order to survive. He has to manipulate his parents in order to gain the upper hand later on in his deceit. He takes sole responsibility for the actions he is taking. He understands that this is the best life awaiting him because of the choices he's made. That can all seem depressing and dire. But it's still an uplifting ending full of hope. Of course, it also highlights the many regrets that may still linger over this world which has been destroyed several times over even though some characters continue to survive and make things more complicated. But that too is a fitting message for what this story has always been.