El Camino confirms Jesse Pinkman is Aaron Paul’s role of a lifetime

Breaking Bad sequel movie El Camino catches up with Jesse Pinkman (Emmy winner Aaron Paul) after his escape from captivity in the series finale. Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan, the Netflix film is a fitting send-off to a character that gets to enjoy singular focus denied in Breaking Bad, says Steve Newall.

Breaking Bad put Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) through the fucking wringer, with the show’s finale only leaving him a semblance of respite. Subjected to perverse levels of emotional and physical cruelty over the course of Breaking Bad’s five seasons, Pinkman may have been freed from captivity in its final minutes by showrunner Vince Gilligan, but he was last seen in something close to limbo. Behind the wheel of a speeding El Camino, Pinkman laughed and cried in relief from his brutal meth slavery coming to an end. But just as his unkempt bearded face bore the scars of his mistreatment, so his manic demeanour confirmed all was not well mentally, and it shouldn’t have been, given what he’d endured.

That’s where we parted ways, and in the broader context of Breaking Bad, that wasn’t so inappropriate. Pinkman’s mentor/manipulator/father figure Walter White’s story had come to an end, Gilligan’s primary dramatic work done.

It didn’t take long for Gilligan to demonstrate his addiction to telling more stories in the world he’d built, though, with prequel (mostly, so far) spinoff Better Call Saul going to air within a year and half of the Breaking Bad finale. While the four seasons to date focused on Breaking Bad’s dodgy attorney Saul Goodman (a revelatory Bob Odenkirk) have proved superbly compelling, he wasn’t necessarily the character fans wondered the most about.

Better Call Saul has allowed Gilligan to further mine the wry humour, personal betrayals and tense, often absurd, scheming of Breaking Bad. But it hasn’t been able to deliver the white-knuckle thrills and imminent danger that Pinkman and White frequently negotiated.

El Camino rectifies all the above, picking up right where the show left off with Pinkman having to deal with the immediate aftermath of his escape. As the sole survivor of the Breaking Bad finale massacre, and in immense legal jeopardy, Pinkman’s priority is to stay out of the clutches of the cops and get the hell out of town as quickly as he’s able.

There’s a definite hint of nostalgia trip victory lap to the circuitous path taken, with many familiar faces from the show making an appearance. Thankfully, this doesn’t feel overly forced (most of the time), and is frequently justified in flashback fashion. Much of this fleshes out necessary narrative between Pinkman and Todd (Jesse Plemons) to explain Pinkman’s plan to escape Albuquerque. Plemons once again proves conscience-free and often a guileless comic delight to behold, not least of all when he’s singing along to Dr. Hook’s Sharing the Night Together. As for other cameos—you can enjoy discovering them for yourself.

Obviously, this is Aaron Paul’s film, though, placed front and centre in a way that only happened in key moments throughout the series. El Camino confirms, as if there wasn’t any doubt, that Jesse was the role of a lifetime for Paul, whose performance continues to show he’s got incredible acting chops as he brings to life a complex, multi-faceted character. As we get to compare early Breaking Bad-era Jesse to the present version during the film it’s evident how much of a journey the character’s taken, and how Paul’s portrayal has evolved along the way, from troubled protracted adolescent to deeply traumatised adult. I’d almost forgotten exactly how tragic the tale of Pinkman was, so to see some of his old self re-emerge over the course of the film was a delight, as is a meaningful moment of atonement to his poor parents.

Without reinventing the wheel entirely, or diverting this from feeling like an authentic extension of the series, there’s also been a bit of an evolution in Gilligan’s direction. El Camino feels a little more spacious than the very specific look of Breaking Bad (often at its best under the masterful direction of Michelle MacLaren). Whether that’s stepping outside the claustrophobic paranoia the show wound up in, or reflecting Pinkman’s evolution, the results are a fitting send-off to a character that gets to enjoy singular focus. A streaming service seems the perfect home for this, as opposed to a cash-grab cinematic experience, meaning this unexpected chapter plays in homes where it belongs. Thank goodness Gilligan didn’t stuff up what was a bit of a risky move for a beloved show, not least of all in how it doesn’t impact on the series’ ending.

Tragically, future viewings won’t escape the recent passing of Robert Forster, whose screentime in El Camino encapsulates so many of the qualities he was loved for. Shitty timing for shitty news, indeed. RIP.