YOU’RE EITHER A WALTER WHITE GUY OR A JESSE PINKMAN GUY, IF YOU WANT TO BE AN absolutist about it. Of course you can be both–just like you can adore Mick and Keith, or Paul and John. But what fun is that?!? Such buffoonish proprietary is post and parcel of fandom, which of course is subjective streaked with the irrational.
I discovered Breaking Bad at the midway point of its third season run. ( The same pattern also held true for the other titans of 21st Century television: Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Mad Men.) Like millions of others I became absorbed and formulated opinions about the characters, about plot developments, about the way it would end.
Well, I was never a “Jesse guy.” He never captivated me the way Walt White did, who seemed a truly original character, whose arc truly merited the term “literary.” But, Jesse? In my mind he was just a pissant sidekick, no different than some of the shitheads I grew up with. Granted none of them cooked meth–because no one was cooking meth in the 1980s. Had I ever read or seen a character like Walt? Probably not. The Jesse Pinkmans of the world seemed a generic dime or dozen.
Or so I thought.
As much as I grew to love the show my antipathy towards Jesse remained until the cumulative suffering heaped upon him season after season reached an unforeseen plot development by the last season. By then Jesse emerged as a Job figure. I had softened but still wasn’t that interested in any further episodes related to his outcome. I wasn’t looking forward to any Breaking Bad movies about Jesse until the brilliant–and mysterious– El Camino teasers trailers begin to roll out:
and finally the official longform:
I was hooked. Like a large mouth bass.
7 TAKEAWAYS FROM EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE
1.EL CAMINO IS A WORTHY SEQUEL TO THE SERIES
El Camino isn’t hermetically sealed enough to be a complete stand-alone from the Breaking Bad franchise, but some familiarity with the father series would be of help for the neophyte. There is however enough exposition to guide the newcomer through this universe.
For the longstanding Breaking Bad fan El Camino exists first and foremost as a sequel. Focusing on a beloved character from the epic—also one of the few surviving ones—Vince Gilligan extends his last scene in the final episode into a satisfying epilogue.
Sequels are judged by both dependence and independence. In one case there has to be a thematic linkage from A(the original film) to B(the sequel), a continuation of characters, motifs and situations from the former to it successor. But there also has to be a sense of exploration which takes the viewer to a new plateau, or presents a new panorama or understanding of the basic material so that the viewer’s conception of the story is truly expanded. Simply put, a great sequel must be both be that, yet also transcend that possible limitation and exist as its own movie.
Think The Godfather II—long considered the greatest sequel in movie history—or The Empire Strikes Back. Both of these sequels have come to be preferred to the movies which spawned them. The Godfather II is so richly nuanced, so accomplished in every facet of movie making that it’s become the gold standard of the format.
El Camino does not rise to such lofty achievements—then again whatever has? But it is a convincing, occasionally surprising, inventive and well-executed finale.
2.WAS TARANTINO ALWAYS AN INFLUENCE?
Quentin Tarantino is so influential an auteur, his footprints are so stamped upon certain overlapping genres of film and television that anyone who follows him will be transversing acres of land mines no matter how talented they are.
I had never perceived any influence overt or otherwise as Breaking Bad unspooled from season to season. I wasn’t expecting it. I’m not a big crime fiction fan. I may know that Elmore Leonard was a titan of the form, but hardly expect any other writer I encounter to mimic him. Raymond Chandler was the Elmore Leonard of his time, but as their reader I have never detected any affinity between them.
“That’s Tarantino-esque!” I thought more than a few times while watching El Camino. VG is so accomplished a storyteller he merits the benefit of the doubt. I’m not calling him a copycat. 25 years since Pulp Fiction the “talky” crime caper has become established as an almost inescapable cliche, or at least a trope of the genre.
However a scene like this one confuses the argument
because Tarantino’s first feature, Reservoir Dogs, birthed the template into existence:
Also the surnames of Walt White and Jesse Pinkman have an uncomfortable resonance to the pseudonymns the characters were given at the start of Reservoir Dogs. Has anyone commented on this before?
The unsung highlight of El Camino is Todd. Think about that. Conceived by Gilligan, portrayed by Jesse Plemons their Todd ranks as one of the greatest characters ever on television because of their dual steadfast resolve not to make this study of a psychopath conventional. Again and again Todd’s amorality, his stone-cold rationality unencumbered by any shards of emotion or conscience, stuns us. This shouldn’t work. It isn’t new. The unfeeling killer has been a staple of film noir since the 50’s and injected with steroids since the 1990s, with the elevation of the hit-man or serial killer as an anti-hero(eg, Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer).
Some combination of Plemons’s ginger hair and child-like face and physical gestures plus the series writing and direction have coalesced into a mesmerizing character. While acknowledging Todd’s actions and remorseless attitudes can be a moral turnoff for some viewers, as an objective case study his scenes never disappoint. He’s a riveting monster. Easily more scary than the Neo-Nazis who follow his uncle Jack.
Because of this the “Todd” scenes at the center of the film become climatic. Gilligan deftly pivots between the present and the past to enforce this view, to demand we pay attention.
It’s also the juxtaposition between Todd and Jesse which again blatantly sums up the moral divide between the two. Jesse has many flaws, carried from Breaking Bad to El Camino,yet unlike Todd he’s a redeemable character. At heart—hell, he has heart—a highly moral and compassionate man, but those are qualities that anyone within the drug trade can not afford to have. Thus Jesse is doomed from the moment he decided to cook meth, a recurring motif since episode one.
For anyone familiar with the series this Todd flashback is so fucking Todd you will be left speechless, laughing, fascinated, repulsed, outraged and maybe in tears.
4.THE “OTHER” BREAKING BAD CAMEOS
Yes, Walter White does show up(like Todd, in flashbacks, of course). However the effect is strangely anticlimatic. I don’t think it has anything to do with the brevity of the scenes. Maybe the interplay between the two characters of White and PINKMAN is by now thread-bare. A viewer could bring too much anticipation about the possibilities for an interaction that what is here fails to register as anything special or even needed for plot development or character illumination.
Though never taken by Jesse’s circle of friends, the further (mis)adventures of Badger and Skinny Pete were amusing diversions central to the plot, unlike the Mr. White cameo.
But the most poignant of all them–sadly enriched by his very recent passing–are surely the last scenes Robert Forster(1941-2019) ever seen. Returning as Ed; the low-key vacuum dealer who has a secret career invaluable to men on the lam like White and PINKMAN, the veteran character actor is spellbindingly great. It’s a master class in understated-yet-effective acting, of Everyman believability.
Short of 200 credits on IMDb, only Tarantino(Jackie Brown), David Lynch and Gilligan seemed to know what to do with him, with what he brought to a production. Even when playing a “heavy,” Forster balanced it with a remarkable sweetness and gentility that other directors should have noted. Sigh. May he rest in peace.
Deserved attention has been paid to Gilligan as a writing talent—and not enough as a director. He hasn’t used the same cinematographer for every episode he’s personally directed, but the visual storyboarding has been continuous, which has to be the mark of an auteur. His visual details remain stunning, well choreographed and memorable. The pacing for El Camino hits like an acceptable dose of amphetamines, but not an overdose. Clearly he’s learned from Scorsese among others, but he’s his own man. A future in the movies awaits him, if he ever tires of storytelling on television.
I have always underestimated his performance. No more. Unfortunately I may have allowed a subjective bias against the character to distract from the obvious. This is Paul’s aria—and it’s a bravura one. He’s in nearly every scene, and shines throughout. Maybe free of Bryan Cranston I had no choice but to focus upon him, and as a soloist. Sans his old duet partner, Paul shines in this spotlight. Paul was unleashed. For the first time I explicitly felt Paul’s charisma and witnessed him thinking in character. Jesse emerged not just as a matured, but Paul revealed the depths of his dimensions as the movie unfolded. It’s more than Jesse once just seemed “dumb” now he’s “smart.” It’s more than the narrative rush provided by Gilligan. Paul deserves a lion’s share of the credit.
7.THE BITTERSWEET ELEGY
Ultimately El Camino might leave you wanting more and more. For some people the “official” prequel Better Call Saul satiates their Breaking Bad addiction. Truthfully I am not one of them. I tried to watch the first season, but quickly retreated. Earlier I admitted never being dazzled by the Jesse PINKMAN character, the same was true for “Saul Goodman”(aka Jimmy McGill). Although far more amused by Goodman than PINKMAN(these surnames!), a corrupt lawyer struck me as a standard, even lazy trope of the genre. Nothing about him could entice me further. I understand why a series developing his trajectory into the “dark side” could be very interesting, but I was unable to be persuaded.
The only hesistantcy I have about avoiding Saul is that I am punishing myself because it features one of my very favorite characters from Bad, Mike; the corrupt ex-cop and private detective turned underworld fixer, cleaner and hitman
Brilliantly essayed by Jonathan Banks, Mike rises above crime fiction cliches into something more tangible and authentic. His appearances on the original series always left me hungry for more. Perhaps Saul offers that. I know I’m only hurting myself by not finding out.
Finally I know I’m in an absolute minority about this, but I ache for a sequel to Breaking Bad focusing on the next chapter of “Skylar White“‘s life. No more polarizing character in the BB universe exists than Walter White’s long-suffering better half. Hated far more than “Carmela” by The Sopranos fandom, a similar female archetype, one didn’t have to be politically correct to recoil at the social media invective hurled toward both the character and the actress Anna Gunn who portrayed her. Even if I wasn’t a contrarian by nature, I would have surely loved both. Though not at all Lady Macbeth, there is something Shakespearean about Skylar, a tragic angle the largely sexist/misogynistic hectors were blind to. This character analysis is the best rebuttal I have encountered to their dark and vile sentiments:
A Skylar White(and Walt Jr.) sequel wouldn’t be the sexy, action-adventure suspenseful turn El Camino always promised(and delivered). But the idea of a movie devoted to this muted, complex, “irritating” woman would be just rewards, a bookend to Better Call Saul and El Camino.
The Hermit of Mink Hollow