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The cameos in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie serve a critical purpose

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How familiar faces impact Jesse’s journey

Jesse (Aaron Paul) peers out from behind a door.
Jesse’s back.
Source image: Netflix | Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

Part of the joy of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is seeing familiar faces from the show pop up either in flashbacks pulled from throughout the series or, in a few cases, even in the unfolding timeline. If you watched El Camino, you’re probably a Breaking Bad devotee, which means that every cameo feels like reconnecting with old friends. It’s been six years since the finale.

The good news is that series creator Vince Gilligan has crafted a coda to Jesse’s story that makes each blast from the past feel earned, like the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Unlike so many sequel cameos, they happen for a reason, and often appear in El Camino’s quiet, more introspective sequences.

[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for El Camino: A Breaking Bad movie.]

Jesse (Paul), bedraggled and beaten, stands dressed in a yellow apron.
Jesse (Paul) in the Breaking Bad finale.
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Despite his death in the finale, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) looms over El Camino, appearing in flashbacks to Jesse’s time as a captive of white supremacist gang leader Jack Welker (Michael Bowen). In scenes stretched across the film’s runtime, we see Jesse accompany Todd over a single day, helping him dispose of the body of his housekeeper.

Todd is just as bizarrely calm as we remember, treating Jesse almost like an unruly child. When the meth cook manages to get ahold of a gun, Todd talks him down through promises of pizza and beer as a reward for behaving. It’s an awful scene to watch, as Jesse could have shot his tormentor and run away. But he buckles under how much damage Jack and Todd have already inflicted upon him, and the risk they impose on Andrea (Emily Rios) and Brock (Ian Posada). Todd remains one of the scariest characters in the series, expressing feelings of remorse for violent actions and telling Jesse he’ll do a better job of keeping him clean, but doing nothing to actually stop his mistreatment.

Though we get a few other flashbacks of Jesse’s captivity, the scene helps us realize just how badly the experience broke him down, and the distance he now has to cover in order to resume an even remotely normal life.

Todd (Plemons) makes beans as Jesse (Paul) looks on.
Jesse (Paul) and Todd (Jesse Plemons) in Todd’s apartment.
Netflix

If Todd is the ghost of the past, Ed Galbraith (the late Robert Forster) holds the key to Jesse’s future. Introduced in the final stretch of Breaking Bad as a man who specializes in helping others disappear, Ed appears in his natural (or unnatural) element in El Camino, operating his cover of a vacuum store as Jesse desperately tries to scrape enough money together to leave. The last time he and Ed crossed paths, Jesse chose not to take the escape rope, and he’s forced to confront that choice, here, as Ed tells him he owes him for the ride he didn’t take as well as any additional services. The “road you didn’t take” aspect of Ed’s appearance in El Camino is clear — one of Jesse’s most emotional scenes in the original series was his telling Walter White (Bryan Cranston) that his life would have been different had they never met — and almost a coda to a coda when Jesse finally does get the money and has Ed take him to Alaska.

Alaska, in turn, is revealed to have been a seed planted by cleaner Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) in a conversation at the very same riverbank where he would later die at Walter’s hands. Having decided they want to leave the business behind, Jesse and Mike ruminate on what they’ll do next, with Mike saying that, were he in Jesse’s shoes, he’d go to Alaska for some peace and quiet. It’s a poignant scene not just because we know that Mike will soon die, but because Mike served as something of a father figure to Jesse in a way that Walter was not. Jesse’s choice to follow Mike’s wish speaks to his finally escaping from Walter White’s shadow.

Jesse (Paul) and Walter (Cranston) sit across from each other in a restaurant booth.
Jesse (Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) together again.
Netflix

But, of course, this wouldn’t be a Breaking Bad story without Walter White. The chemistry teacher turned meth lord appears in one of the briefer flashbacks, sitting with Jesse in a diner after one of their early cooks, with their RV parked outside. Their conversation sums up their dynamic in a nutshell, while recalling White in a kinder light. Though he entirely forgets that Jesse actually has graduated from high school, the teacher-turned-drug-peddler encourages him to go to college, telling him that a business and marketing degree would be a cinch. The scene’s concluding note — “You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special,” Walter says — is particularly bittersweet, neatly encompassing the sense of unfulfilled ambitions and lost opportunities that sat at the center of Breaking Bad.

The same goes for Jesse’s brief remembrance of Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter), who tells him to take his life into his own hands. After so much suffering, he finally is free to choose his own path, rather than being buffeted along by White, who still was pressing him despite his best intentions, or having to cook meth for neo-Nazis.

Other characters — Old Joe (Larry Hankin), who was there to witness, “Yeah, magnets!” as well as Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), Badger (Matt Jones), Jesse’s parents, and a certain tarantula — also appear to help guide Jesse along his path to freedom, reminding viewers of the very long road that Jesse has had to walk in order to get here. They all help to inform the emotions he’s going through, building out Jesse’s journey rather than popping up as novelties.