As one might expect from the sequel film to Breaking Bad, the shadow of Walter White hangs over very minute of El Camino.
Physically, Bryan Cranston doesn’t have a large role in El Camino. Like many of the characters from Breaking Bad, he appears only in a flashback. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) spends a good deal of this movie dwelling on the past, perhaps because the only way that he can have a future is by mentally forgiving himself for all the stuff that went on while he was cooking meth with Walter White and, later, for the Nazi bikers who kept him chained up in a cage like an animal. So, it makes sense that we would see a lot of flashbacks, the majority featuring characters who are no longer alive. Cranston’s Walter White only appears towards the end of the film, when Jesse remembers the conversation they had at a diner about what Jesse was going to do with the money that they were making. It’s a bit jarring to see them, largely because Walter still looks like an earnest and frail science teacher while Jesse is still young, loud, and more than a little obnoxious. It’s quite a contrast to what we know will eventually happen to both characters.
For obvious reasons, Walter White isn’t in much of El Camino but his ghost seems to following Jesse through the entire movie. For that matter, so does the ghost of Tod Alquist (Jesse Plemons). It’s not just that a good deal of the movie deals with Jesse trying to figure out where Tod hid all of his money. (Jesse is planning on using the money to hopefully escape New Mexico and start a new life in Alaska.) It’s also that Jesse has been scarred, both physically and mentally, by the Hellish time that he spent as Tod’s …. well, Tod’s pet. Tod treated Jesse like a dog, keeping him on a leash, punishing him for being “bad,” and then offering Jesse pizza as a reward whenever Jesse did something right. To be honest, the flashbacks with Tod take some getting used to, largely because Plemons has obviously aged quite a bit between the finale of Breaking Bad and the shooting of El Camino. But, still, Plemons is absolutely terrifying as the unfailingly polite but definitely sociopathic Tod. At one point, Tod casually brings Jesse over to his apartment so that Jesse can help dispose of the body of his cleaning lady. Tod murdered her because she came across some money that he was hiding in a hollowed-out book. Tod shrugs as he tells the story of her murder, as if his actions are as commonplace as waking up and going to bed.
Throughout Breaking Bad, Jesse spent most of the series being manipulated by evil men. What was ironic, of course, was that Jesse was the only one of those men who must people automatically considered to be a criminal. Everyone thought that Walter was a tragic family man. Tod was largely anonymous and those who did notice him usually assumed he was just an eccentric weirdo. Jesse, on the other hand, was the guy who was continually getting hauled in by the police and harassed by the DEA. He was the one who was viewed as being a danger to society even though he eventually proved himself to be one of the few characters with anything resembling a conscience. In El Camino, Jesse finally gets a chance to determine his own fate. Will he embrace the lucrative but soul-destroying greed of Walter and Tod? Or will he escape and try to make a new life for himself?
El Camino is a visually stunning tour-de-force, anchored by Aaron Paul’s empathetic performance as Jesse. Jesse is no longer as loud as he may have been in Breaking Bad. He’s a man haunted by the past and, watching the film, you know, regardless of whether he makes it to Alaska, the scars will never fully heal. He has the haunted eyes of a man who is never going to be fully okay, regardless of where he ends up. In fact, if we’re going to be realistic, he probably doesn’t have much of a future ahead of him. Those ghosts are always going to follow him and, as Robert Forster’s Ed sagely explains it, much of what has happened is due to Jesse’s own poor decisions.
Still, whatever mistakes he’s made in the past, you can’t help but wish the best for Jesse Pinkman.
He’s earned it.