"El Camino" Forces Jesse Pinkman into His Own Cowboy Fantasy
Jesse Pinkman's story begins again in this coda to "Breaking Bad."
At the end of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman was so deep in a pit of trauma and pain that it was difficult to imagine how he could go on.
In the series' final episodes, as Walter White spiraled through the final fallout from his megalomanic rise, Jesse found himself tortured, trapped, forced to watch a girl he loved get shot in front of her child, among other unendurable traumas.
So to re-enter Jesse's world, as we now do in El Camino, is to re-enter a space of fragmentation, a world made literally intolerable by memory. For better or for worse, El Camino never really dives into Jesse's inner thoughts in an explicit manner, and we never see him really break down. Instead, we're given a multitude of flashbacks, and we're left to surmise how Jesse is feeling on the inside, to read it from his weary eyes and from the way he processes things and others.
Like Walter in Breaking Bad, El Camino follows its protagonist on a quest that essentially has one end goal: to amass as much money as possible. In this film, Jesse is seeking out the funds to pay a man to invent him a new life—and without too many spoilers, many calamities and many deaths ensue as he tries to secure the cash.
Aaron Paul does a formidable job with this fractured version of Jesse, a subdued character in comparison to the one he played on the series. In Breaking Bad's early days he was charismatic and full of life (if usually high), his boyish callousness a sharp contrast to Walter's teacherly seriousness, which of course later morphed into the icy ruthlessness of Heisenberg. Here, Jesse is mostly silent, burdened by the weight of his past and the heavy legacy of the destructive empire he helped build.
Like its parent series, El Camino is a movie about what capitalism and greed can do to people. It's about the lengths a person will go to secure money, in a world wherein money is equated with masculinity and masculinity is equal to power. On the subject of gender, the women in El Camino are footnotes at best, corpses at worst. Whereas Breaking Bad had Skyler and Marie as powerful leading characters, El Camino's only women are a horde of strippers and a cleaning lady, whom a neo-Nazi named Todd strangled and then forced Jesse to dispose of (as we discover in a flashback). Sitting in the desert, Jesse and Todd look down over the grave. Todd asks if Jesse wants to say a few final words; when Jesse declines, he says, "Nice, nice lady. Excellent housekeeper."
Maybe the scene wasn't meant to be political, but it is indicative of the ways that male violence—led by the drug trade or not—so frequently puts women's bodies on the line, relegating them to positions as strippers and housekeepers, invisible laborers who exist only in the background. Countless women flee brutal violence every day in countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and many of them wind up languishing in American border camps, often sent back to the abusive homes from which they came. If they're lucky enough to wind up in America, maybe they can get a housekeeper job, and even then they may wind up underground.
That's the runoff from this kind of violence, which so often stems from within America. It's the fallout from power-hungry kingpins like Walter White who feel the need to compensate for their own unfulfilled entitlement by lashing out at the world around them, becoming the cowboys, kingpins, or brutal Jokers or ruthless leaders they feel they have the right to be.
But this is not Walter White's story anymore. Unlike Walter, Jesse has always had a semblance of ethics, a desire for redemption. In the film, he's given a few moments in between the chases and gunfights to rise up from dark bathwater, or to gently balance a beetle on his fingertip. Jesse has always been drawn to small creatures, to invisible and innocent things. In this film, his main objective is to become one of them.
Still, Vince Gilligan can't seem to resist writing Jesse his own cowboy narrative. At the start of El Camino, Jesse was unable to actually fire a kill shot—but near the end, he ruthlessly kills two men, an action that is painted as something like a triumph. The mythology of the American cowboy never quite leaves him or the core of the Breaking Bad franchise, though it's always been clear that these narratives only end in violence, and there is no cleaning off the blood.
El Camino will probably only appeal to hardcore fans of Breaking Bad, as it's is too laced with reverberations from the series to stand alone and too much of a slow-burn to make for a self-sufficient thriller. Still, it has enough gorgeous images of the desolate American Southwest to please fans of the show's famed cinematography, and it's packed with the same kind of complex moral questions that always made Breaking Bad so difficult to look away from. Though it may provide few answers, it's a look into the questions that burn holes into the foundations of the American Dream.
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