Spoilers ahead. "Grimly determined, fearing nothing, [Jesse] speeds through the darkness," reads the final episode of Breaking Bad, written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan. "From here on, it’s up to us to say where he’s headed. I like to call it 'something better,' and leave it at that." For years, fans assumed that was all the ending Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) would get.
The new Netflix release, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, catches up with Jesse in the middle of this drive. After being freed from captivity, where he was tortured and tormented by a gang of neo-nazis, the epic journey of Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) former partner leads him to a new conclusion, offering a deep dive into his character on the way.
“Jesse has just been beaten up since day one, just dragged through the mud,” Paul tells Bustle on the El Camino red carpet in Los Angeles. “I think it is just his strength inside that keeps him going — his love for life, his constant search for maybe something better, and hopefully he finds that.”
Throughout the show's five-season run, Jesse is continually put through hell at the hands of his one-time teacher and the everyday upkeep of a volatile meth empire. His journey is a tragic one, littered with immense loss and bitter disappointment. Jesse has been painted as a fierce but simple-minded sidekick to Walter, but this film offers up an intimate portrait of Jesse after Walter's reign of terror is over.
El Camino is a slow burn, and the stakes feel high from the moment you first hear tires squealing and see Jesse's scarred face flash on the screen. There are shootouts and car chases in the show's neo-Western style, but the majority of the film is quiet, squarely focused on the gravity of Jesse's situation. Every single bump in his journey to "something better" feels cataclysmic.
Though Jesse is finally free from his chains — and from Mr. White — he has been changed by the loss of life he's seen and the atrocities he has had to endure. So it makes sense that he first goes to the only place he knows he can be truly safe: with Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). His stoner buddies welcome him with open arms, but it's in their lightness and humor juxtaposed with his anguish that the full gravity of what he has been through sets in.
“We all have friends from our past that we did dumb stuff with when we were young,” says Jones at the premiere. "Those are friends you can't just get rid of."
The trauma of captivity weighs heavy on Jesse, and Skinny Pete and Badger notice this immediately. When he arrives on their doorstep, barely holding himself upright, they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect him. No questions asked.
"You can't help but care for these guys, because they are great people and their characters are a lot deeper than they seem," Baker tells Bustle.
Breaking Bad is a show about desperation and the lengths that human beings will go to survive. El Camino finally gives Jesse a chance at redemption for the things he has had to do.
“I thought Breaking Bad was done at the end of the final episode,” says creator and producer Gilligan. “I didn't foresee this happening and then the idea [of telling this story through Jesse’s perspective] grew on me over the years.”
Walter’s descent into pure villainy often leaves Jesse to pick up the pieces. It's Paul's character who first tries to leave the meth business, growing more and more weary of the violence, but Walter insists they continue. Throughout the course of the show, Jesse is constantly tossed aside, put down, and forced to deal with the consequences of other people's mistakes. Now for the first time, Jesse is in charge of his own story.
“I sat there in silence after [reading] the final page of the script. Of course, [I was] taken through such an emotional rollercoaster as a fan of the show, but also as an actor who plays this guy," says Paul. "It hit me very hard but in a beautiful, beautiful way."
After an epic odyssey, El Camino comes to a close on the quiet snowy roads of Alaska. As we watch Jesse breathe in the crisp, mountain air, it looks as though he has finally gotten the ending he deserved all along.