Spoilers ahead!

El Camino opens with a flashback of Jesse Pinkman standing by an Albuquerque creek; the shot is filtered in sepia, the badlands of New Mexico as a backdrop. On the bank, Jesse dialogues with Breaking Bad’s weathered enforcer, Mike Ehrmantraut. In the conversation, Jesse hopes for respite and a new start in the last frontier, Alaska, where he might be able to finally make things right. The conversation is laced with longing, reminding fans of Jesse’s desperation to extract himself from the career path that has devoured him whole. Mike can only offer the chilling reminder that the things they’ve done can never be made right.

The serene landscape and the uneasy calm of the flashback vanish, and we pick up where the final episode of Breaking Bad left off. Jesse has been freed from the neo-Nazis and is on the run in a Chevrolet El Camino. What unravels after Jesse’s escape feels like a long episode of the original TV show. And for most viewers, any addition to the saga is welcome. Director Vince Gilligan’s first feature-length caters to first-time viewers and long-time fans without straying from what made Breaking Bad one of the best shows in TV history. The audience get their fair share of Albuquerque time lapses, a staple I forgot how much I loved in the original series. And almost all of the acclaimed characters get some screen time except for everyone’s favorite lawyer Saul Goodman. El Camino watches like a modern-day western: vintage guns, duels, cars that ride like horses, rugged landscapes, outlaws, sheriffs, and bounty hunters, while viewers wait to see if our conflicted outlaw makes it out of town before the sun goes down. But viewers aren’t just waiting to see if Jesse Pinkman can get out of Dodge. We’re hoping for one more glimpse at the state of his troubled soul.

Before we can know what happens to Jesse, the audience first sees the despair of Jesse’s enslavement. In many of the flashbacks, Jesse’s brokenness at the hands of his captors is evident. Whether it’s “helping” Todd (the show’s creepiest character) with his dirty work, or cooking crystal meth around the clock, Jesse lifelessly moves from one task to another. After his escape, Jesse is manic–he eats, scrounges, and hides like an animal as the flashbacks provide the commentary on his troubled state. When Jesse tears through Todd’s apartment looking for hidden drug money, he’s like a famished animal tracking the scent of food. Jesse claws, scratches, disassembles, and overturns every nook and cranny for the cash. Wrapped up in his crazed search is a sliver of hope that the bounty will be enough to pay for a new identity. And if he can track down Ed Galbraith, the vacuum cleaner repairman whose side hustle includes a witness protection program for criminals, then Jesse is Alaska-bound. 

Knowing what Jesse’s character has lost along the Trail of Tears that is Breaking Bad’s five seasons adds another level of sadness to his dehumanization at the hands of his captors. They bend his will however they please. And while their treatment of Jesse is cruel and inhumane, it’s the flashback of Jesse and Walt that reminds me that Walt was often the arbiter of control in Jesse’s life (even from Breaking Bad’s first episode, Walt blackmails Jesse into cooking meth with him). The only flashback we see of Walt and Jesse In El Camino is towards the end of the film. Their conversation bookends Jesse and Mike’s conversation at the beginning of the movie. But unlike Mike and Jesse’s exchange, Walter projects onto Jesse what he ought to do with his life. Like many conversations driven by Mr. White, there is much talking and little listening. Whether at diners, in meth labs, riding around town, or sharing a drink after a good cook, Jesse becomes more entangled in the downward spiral of Walter White. Seeing Jesse and Walt side by side brings a strange wave of nostalgia that’s quickly overshadowed by the bitter reality of how far they’ll fall. In Jesse and Mike’s conversation, there is a fleeting sense of hope for freedom just out of reach. With Jesse and Walt, their conversation is like one fool leading another into the belly of the beast.

El Camino begins with Jesse in a manic state, recklessly driving away from captivity. And after a Western tale full of cameos, flashbacks, and closure, Jesse scrounges together what he needs to rid himself of the shadow of New Mexico. He finds Todd’s money, connects with Ed, and makes his Alaskan dream a reality. If we don’t get a reboot in the last frontier now, then this will be the last we see of Jesse Pinkman. Some may scoff at Gilligan’s decision to tie up loose ends in the final chapter of Breaking Bad, wanting more ambiguity as Pinkman drives into the Alaskan wilderness. For me, seeing a clean, quiet Jesse Pinkman wind slowly on an Alaskan interstate in a beat-up Land Cruiser is peaceful and assuring. With all Jesse’s faults, poor decisions, and impulsive tendencies, it surely isn’t the freedom he deserved, but it is freedom nevertheless. Freedom that, at a price, was given to Jesse by a vacuum salesman who swept up his past, gave him a new name, and sent him to a place where the landscape is similar but different. The Alaskan ruggedness is reminiscent of New Mexico, but peaceful, the blood, sweat, and tears from the desert seemingly covered beneath a blanket of expansive snow.