[The following is minimally spoilery for El Camino, though it discusses plot points from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I think the comments should be considered a spoiler zone for all three works.]
I came a little late to Breaking Bad. I think the first half of the show’s fifth and final season was already airing by the time I caught up with it. At that point, Breaking Bad was the hottest, most exciting thing on TV, so it was impossible to avoid knowledge of certain plot twists, such as the disastrous effects of Walt’s actions at the end of season 2, or Hank’s parking lot fight with the Mexican brothers in season 3. I suspect that approaching the show this way gave me a slightly different perspective than that of fans who had been watching it week-to-week since 2008. I never, for example, saw Walt as a good person driven to extremes by extreme circumstances, and then corrupted by them, as a lot of fans still insist he was. Rather, knowing a bit about where he would end up made it easier to see him as a frustrated megalomaniac whose cancer diagnosis gave him permission to indulge impulses that had always been there, and whose transformation over the course of the series is less a downward spiral as the discovery of the full scope of his capacity for evil.
But for the most part, the evolution of my feelings towards Breaking Bad happened after I finished imbibing it and over the six years since it ended. Since then we’ve gotten Better Call Saul, which to me feels richer and more interesting than Breaking Bad ever was, doing a better job at depicting a genuine transformation in its lead character, from a two-time hustler with a good heart, to someone genuinely striving to change and be good, to a soulless villain. (BCS is also better than BB ever was at depicting female characters; Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler is a rare and remarkable creation, a woman driven by professional ambitions and a powerful work ethic, who is torn between her strong moral core and her wild impulses.) That period has also given me time to process Breaking Bad‘s fifth season and admit to myself that it was a bit of a mess. A lot of ink was spilled at the time over what a satisfying, earned ending to Breaking Bad and its hero would look like, but I think that in hindsight one has to admit that there simply wasn’t one. Whether Walt died, or went to jail, or escaped, there would always be something unsatisfying about any ending the show gave him, because the real conclusion of his story was the moment he admitted to himself that he was and always had been a villain. Past that point, the show bled all narrative momentum. We knew Walt had to fall, and the exact way in which it happened wasn’t ultimately that important.
These days, I tend to think of Breaking Bad as well-made pulp. That’s higher praise than it perhaps sounds. Breaking Bad had some of the best and most satisfying plotting on TV, rooting its storytelling in concrete, fair-minded problem-solving. No other show on TV (except, obviously, Better Call Saul, and occasionally, Noah Hawley’s Fargo) does such a good job of showing us its characters working their way through problems with the materials at hand, coming up with ingenious solutions, and then complicating the implementation of those solutions in unexpected ways. The show’s extreme object permanence—things stay where characters left them unless there’s a concrete plot reason for them to have moved, and details like what car a character drives or how many cellphones they have play an outsized role in its plotting—gives its worldbuilding and storytelling a heft that makes almost all other TV narratives feel flimsy in comparison. Add to that great direction, gorgeous cinematography, nail-biting action scenes, and fantastic acting, and it’s clear why Breaking Bad is so often heralded as one of the great TV shows of our era.
Thematically, however, the show just got emptier and emptier as it went along, and I think it’s for that reason that its ending rings hollow. At its best, Breaking Bad was an examination of how a certain masculine ideal, of competence and control, could turn poisonous, especially when crossed with capitalism’s valorization of expansion and domination. But the further the show progressed along Walt’s rise and fall, the less it had to say about this idea.
The closest Breaking Bad comes to a genuinely subversive or interesting statement about masculinity is in the ending it gives the character of Mike, the stoic, emotionally-detached Competent-Man-With-a-Code character whom fans embraced as an unlikely hero. Mike’s unflappable demeanor, unwavering loyalty, fundamental decency, and ability to see through the self-deception of people like Walt, made him irresistible to fans, and it’s perhaps for this reason that most of them seem to miss the obvious fact that none of these qualities were enough to keep Mike from failing at everything he set out to achieve. He fails to save Gus, to whom he had sworn loyalty. He fails to save Jesse, for whom he had conceived protective, perhaps even fatherly feelings. He fails multiple times to leave his granddaughter his ill-gotten fortune (which, Better Call Saul suggests, is anyway an impulse rooted more in his failure to protect his son than in any actual need of hers). And he ends up dying an unremarkable death at the hands of a man he never respected. I think it tells you everything you needed to know about Breaking Bad‘s difficulty at conveying ambivalence towards masculine ideals that almost no one seems to realize this about Mike, and that when he reappeared on Better Call Saul, it was to fans’ general delight that, once again, we would get a glimpse of his unalloyed badassery.
I think the character who best embodies both Breaking Bad‘s difficulties with conveying ambivalence towards masculinity, and my own reevaluation of the show from the distance of six years, is Jesse Pinkman. Like a lot of fans, I spent most of Breaking Bad feeling sorry for Jesse, and waiting for him to realize that his relationship with Walter, though in some respects nurturing, was also deeply manipulative and exploitative. The farther I get from Breaking Bad, however, the easier it is for me to see that Jesse was less an innocent or a victim as he was weak-willed, and that the reason he seemed redeemable to the audience was not so much any trait of his own as the fact that he was standing next to people who were so much worse (at one point, actual Nazis). Even when Jesse finally realizes how much Walt has hurt him and tries to strike back, he is so ineffective (and so self-absorbed) that all he achieves is to get Hank and his partner killed, and Jesse captured and tortured by the aforementioned Nazis. And, unlike Mike’s ignominious end, Jesse’s failure to achieve anything substantial feels more like the show forgetting about him, then scrambling to give him something resembling a decisive ending, than a meaningful statement about his character.
(Another reason for my disillusionment with Jesse is that I feel like Better Call Saul has done his character type a lot better with Michael Mando’s Ignacio “Nacho” Varga. Like Jesse, Nacho is pulled along by stronger personalities who prod him towards increasingly immoral behavior that clearly weighs on his conscience. But Better Call Saul is clearer on the fact that Nacho is not a victim, that he has brought himself to this point through his own bad choices, and it also gives him more space to take decisive action. Plus, Nacho is a rare instance in the Breaking Bad universe of a Latino character who is allowed to be psychologically complex and to have an interior life, as opposed to a cartoonish, nigh-unstoppable villain.)
To its credit, El Camino, the Netflix-produced movie that picks up Jesse’s story immediately after he drives off in the titular car at the end of Breaking Bad, doesn’t pretend that he can walk back all his failures. In a flashback to a conversation with Mike (one of several look-ins by Breaking Bad stalwarts that dot the movie), Jesse fantasizes about “making things right”, only to be sadly but forcefully informed that this is impossible, that he can only hope to make a fresh start. This is his goal throughout El Camino, as he scrambles to avoid both the cops and the leftover associates of Jack’s white supremacist gang, and to gather up enough money to get out of town.
If it’s unfair to call El Camino fanservice, this is only because that’s a term that implies laziness, whereas every frame of the movie drips with effort and care. The highlights of Breaking Bad—gorgeous scenery, engaging cinematography (the show’s signature floor-cam makes its expected, but welcome, appearance), and creative problem-solving—are here to remind us that whatever its other flaws, this was never a show that coasted on its coolness or our affection for its characters. But nevertheless, it is that affection that makes the movie worth watching. Flipping back and forth between outtakes from Breaking Bad, flashbacks that fill in Jesse’s mistreatment at the hands of Jack’s gang (including further confirmation, as if any were needed, that Jesse Plemons’s Todd was a messed-up, evil motherfucker), and more information that anyone strictly needed about how Jesse plans to get out of Albuquerque, the film feels like little more than an epilogue. Nice to have, certainly, and a reminder of why Jesse was such a winning character despite being objectively a waste of space (hint: Aaron Paul’s soulful performance plays a big part, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t gotten a role as meaty as Jesse to play since Breaking Bad ended). But also the very definition of inessential.
Which would be fine, except that giving Jesse’s story another chapter that doesn’t change the trajectory of his story also reminds us how frustrating that story’s ending was. When I watched Jesse laughing hysterically while gunning the El Camino into the darkness at the end of Breaking Bad, I was happy for his escape while also feeling pretty convinced that within six months, he’d be back on drugs, or in jail, or in some other mess of his own making. At the end of El Camino, I feel exactly the same way. Yes, Jesse has secured himself a fresh start, but he’s still the same person—a weak-willed, easily-led drug addict who has never managed to do the right thing or be good for anyone in his life (and now, with the added trauma of months of torture and abuse at the hands of Jack and Todd). Even having escaped from all the people who hurt him (and all the people he’s hurt) it’s hard to believe that he won’t end up using again, and eventually going back to the one thing he was ever any good at. Much like the end of Breaking Bad, it’s left to us to imagine a better ending for him, which he probably doesn’t deserve, and still doesn’t know how to achieve.