El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is a story about Jesse Pinkman’s survival.
Evade the cops with the help of his friends Skinny Pete and Badger? Check. Talk his way into taking a $250,000 share of Todd’s stashed cash at gunpoint? No problem. Convince Ed Galbraith, aka the Disappearer, to get him out of Albuquerque and give him a new identity? An eventual victory. Get revenge on the men responsible for his enslavement under Uncle Jack’s Neo-nazi gang and scoop up the rest of Todd’s money? You bet.
Jesse’s survival instincts don’t come naturally to him, according to El Camino star Aaron Paul. Instead of being an innate part of his personality, Jesse’s traumatic experiences throughout Breaking Bad’s five seasons became the platform on which he built up his survival skills.
“I think he’s just been beaten for so long,” Paul admitted to Polygon at a roundtable interview in London. “When you first meet him, he doesn’t know what’s going on, you know? The moment that he connects with Walter White, though, his life is turned upside down. I think he has learned to survive throughout the years.”
And survive he has. Whether it was taking a physical beating from the likes of psychotic drug kingpin Tuco Salamanca or DEA agent Hank Schrader, the emotional devastation of seeing two of his girlfriends die, or even the mental torture sustained under Walter, Jesse was put through the mill before his eventual escape in the iconic Breaking Bad finale “Felina.”
Having endured more than his share of scarring events, it was satisfying to see that Jesse hadn’t lost any of the foolhardy bravado that made him a defining character of the last decade in TV. His wise-cracking retort aimed at Ed — played by the late Robert Forster — during El Camino’s superb vacuum store scene, or even his ingenious reply while being held at gunpoint by Neil Kandy in Todd’s apartment, were microcosms of this part of his persona.
When quizzed on this aspect of Jesse, Paul agreed that it was vital that Jesse’s humor was on display at various junctures in El Camino. In such a thematically dark film, punctuating the seriousness of his predicament with laugh-out-loud moments was also in keeping with the dark comedy Breaking Bad fans have come to know and love from show creator Vince Gilligan.
“I think it’s incredibly important [to show that side of his personality],” Paul said. “You’ve got to give this guy something so that he’s not 100% broken. He does still obviously have a lot of fight left in him — that’s what the movie is all about — but that humor is all about Vince. He does such a great job at taking you down such an intense, dramatic journey, but he also peppers in a lot of well thought out humor. You find yourself laughing at such inappropriate things in Breaking Bad and El Camino, so it’s a lot of fun.”
That sequence with Forster was made all the more poignant when, on the day El Camino arrived to Netflix, the Jackie Brown and The Descendants actor passed away after he lost his battle with brain cancer. Reflecting on his memories of his dear friend, a somber Paul admitted that Forster’s death came as a bolt out of the blue.
“It was very shocking,” Paul explained. “I had just spoken with him and he had seen the film — he had just watched it — and he was so proud of it and of me. He called to tell me that he loved me. I sensed something was wrong, but I got on a plane and, when I landed, he’d died. It was incredibly sad to hear.”
Save for a possible cameo in Breaking Bad spin-off prequel Better Call Saul, Paul confirmed that Jesse’s story is now complete. El Camino, then, brings down the curtain on Paul’s time as a character he has “lived and breathed as”. The affection that the show’s fanbase has for its morally flawed cast of characters, though, means that Jesse, Walter, et al will remain fixtures in their minds for years and decades to come.
For Paul, it’s a sign of great writers and the ability to draw viewers into Breaking Bad’s world from the get-go that made it such a special show.
“The writers didn’t hold back any punches, and they really knew how to format a story in a beautiful way,” he said. “Each episode ended on such a cliffhanger and you just found yourself lying in bed at night saying ‘Well, maybe I can do one more episode.’ It was also a show that you watched every character evolve. They weren’t afraid to change these characters and they suffered from their consequences and the actions around them. It really took the audience on that journey with these characters, and I think that’s why it’s so special.”