By Peg Aloi
Like Breaking Bad, El Camino subtly suggests that justice is a relative concept.
Without question, AMC’s Breaking Bad is among the best series ever made for television. It premiered not long after AMC, previously the network known for American Movie Classics, debuted the critically acclaimed and also widely loved Mad Men. Show creator Matthew Weiner, who had written for The Sopranos, had approached HBO with the Mad Men pilot but they turned him down. Not long after Mad Men debuted to accolades, AMC decided to debut Breaking Bad in the time slot immediately following their first foray into series television, on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. I was one of only a million and a half people who tuned in to the first episode. I was instantly hooked, just as I had been instantly hooked by Mad Men’s debut.
The audiences for these two shows, in terms of genre, aesthetic, and tone, could not have been more different. Mad Men was a stylish, often slow-burning, character-driven drama that was a spinning, shifting time capsule of the decade of the ’60s. Breaking Bad was a dense, contemporary thriller, full of sex, drugs, and violence. Well, okay, not as much sex as Mad Men, but it was certainly more graphic. Sunday night became a bonfire of excellent television, igniting a sort of post-HBO frenzy of what television could become. Despite Mad Men and Breaking Bad having wildly contrasting styles, viewers in droves became addicted to both shows because of their excellent writing, acting, direction, and production.
Both series also continued an emergent narrative trope generated by HBO’s The Sopranos: the character of the antihero. A character whose actions would otherwise make them unsympathetic comes across as fascinating and compelling because of the moral ambiguity/complexity of their actions. Such characters may be charismatic in traditional ways, like Don Draper’s handsome, mercurial, philandering advertising executive. But how much more intriguing it is when the antihero who inspires and/or intimidates is ordinary looking, such as Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) or Breaking Bad’s protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston)?
Walt’s partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) was, as we later learned, not supposed to be in the entire series. He was originally slated to be killed off or removed fairly early on. Show-runner Vince Gilligan was so impressed by the dynamic and nuanced performance of Paul that he decided to keep Pinkman’s character around, becoming as central a figure as Walt. As we watched the latter transform into a sadistic, greedy, hardhearted sociopath — the antithesis of his initially beleaguered high school chemistry teacher — we also witnessed a concomitant personality shift in Jesse. (An aside: are the colors in their names a nod to Quentin Tarantino’s frenetic, iconic film Reservoir Dogs? I’ve always wondered about this.)
Jesse at first seems to be flaky, hapless, irresponsible, and not terribly bright. His association with Walter encourages him to exploit his business smarts, which gets their crystal meth enterprise off the ground. We also see that, despite Jesse’s participation in some of the pair’s darkest crimes, Walt’s meteoric rise to dangerous and cold-blooded drug kingpin becomes more than the pragmatic Jesse can stomach. After he decides to leave the drug-dealing life, Jesse is kidnapped and then forced to do the most significant thing Walt taught him: to manufacture high quality crystal meth using a proprietary formula developed by the gifted chemist.
That is the very least that you need to know going into Netflix’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie if you have never watched the series. I highly recommend watching Breaking Bad from beginning to end before seeing this film because its opening scene picks up almost immediately from where the series ended, with Jesse’s thrilling escape. Despite emerging filthy, starving, and traumatized from his confinement, on some level Jessie’s troubles are just beginning. He is now the target of a major manhunt. No spoilers here, but here’s one brilliant moment. When Jesse procures an escape vehicle that is far less recognizable and ostentatious than the titular El Camino he’d been driving, he sees flashing blue and red lights in his rear-view mirror. He pulls over to the curbside, and sits calmly but trembling and watchful. At least two dozen police vehicles of various shapes and sizes speed by him, sirens screaming, lights blazing. His attempt to flee incarceration is fraught with a palpable sense of danger that follows him at a perilously close distance throughout the narrative, echoing Walt’s iconic speech to his wife, “I am not in danger, I am the danger.”
The story does not move forward on a simple trajectory. There’s a fair number of flashbacks, some of them are expository, while some seem, at first glance, inconsequential and irrelevant (this was never a show that wasted a moment of dialogue or action). One scene shows Walt and Jesse eating in a diner fairly early on in their collaboration, with Jesse babbling about healthy food while Walt, undergoing chemo and focused on procuring money to leave his family, is morose and sarcastic. The scene reminds viewers Walt felt superior to Jesse from the beginning — and manages to manipulate him almost until the end of their relationship. There are also other returning characters, most notably Skinny Pete and Badger (Charles Baker and Matt Jones), Jesse’s friends and fellow dealers who have (apparently) forgiven and forgotten his previous dismissal of them. They coolly and competently supply him with the tools necessary to disappear. Skinny Pete’s face, ravaged by years of drug abuse, is ironically beatific when he tells Jesse that his crimes have made him a “hero.” Then there’s Ed Galbraith (played by Robert Forster, who died this week at the age of 78), the man who helped Walt relocate into a sort of black market witness protection program. Breaking Bad‘s final season found Walt living, isolated and lonely, in rural New Hampshire. The icy and bleak landscape was possibly a reference to the icy blue product that made Walt a millionaire and destroyed his life. Walt’s demise is only briefly touched on in El Camino, but looms like a specter nevertheless.
There wouldn’t be much point in making this film if Jesse did not somehow prevail in the end. He does. And what a pleasure to revisit these characters and their world, which jostled between hyperreality and fairy-tale-level morality. Watching it was rousing and intoxicating, like taking a shot of adrenaline and a snifter of absinthe simultaneously. El Camino doesn’t take a strong position on whether Jesse deserves to escape justice. Like the series, the sequel subtly suggests that justice is a relative concept. But many viewers may be haunted by a more earthbound question: will Jesse ever escape the demons of his own making?
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.