Take WARNING, dear reader, for what is written below
contains SPOILERS for Breaking Bad, and El Camino
Since watching the series in its entirety about five years ago, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad has placed firmly among my favorite stories in any medium. To any viewer with an interest in tragedy (some of you prefer to stay away from the sad stuff–I see you), if you haven’t already had the pleasure, please take the time to watch this show. It’s an elegant, intricate gut punch, and it has it all: gorgeous cinematography, killer music, sharp dialogue, masterful acting, I could go on.
Best of all, it quit while it was ahead. Nobody water-skied over a shark; nobody committed needless arson with a dragon. Breaking Bad ended with internal consistency: each character’s arc having resolved in a way that felt appropriate and poetic for that character.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie dropped on Netflix two weeks ago. Prior to release, all we knew was that the movie would feature Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in the spotlight, and would pick up shortly after the events of Breaking Bad.
This is the point where I want to draw some fun comparisons between the Breaking Bad-verse and Ancient Greek Literature. It’s a pairing that, in my opinion, works oddly well.
Let’s Greek out, y’all.
Viewed with this lens, the original series mirrors Athenian tragedy. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the primary character of Breaking Bad, is in many ways like Creon of Sophocles’ Antigone. Under the false banner of righteousness and commitment to family, Creon and Walt each act in their own vainglory, and are gravely punished for their wrongs. Each dramatic arc ends with its main character collapsing as he beholds the death and tragedy caused by his actions.
However, Jesse’s role in Breaking Bad lends itself to a different comparison. Although Jesse also commits heinous acts throughout the original series, he seems to do so because of fear and manipulation by other characters, rather than because of wickedness or pride. Near the end of the series, we see him wracked with guilt at the death of innocent bystanders and desiring to escape his life of crime, with vague hints at starting over in Alaska.
Breaking Bad ends in death and destruction for many, but not for Jesse, who, after being imprisoned and tortured by a hateful gang of meth sellers, escapes the drama’s dire closing with his life. The last time we see Jesse, he is hurtling away in his former captor’s Chevy El Camino, screaming in what appears to be hysterical joy.
According to the poet Hesiod, a mythical woman named Pandora was given a jar (famously mistranslated as a “box”) by the gods, and instructed never to open it. Well, she opened it anyway, and in doing so released evil, sickness, and pain into the world. Depending on the version of the myth, Hope was (or was not) also released from the jar.
In the wake of the evil that abounds in Breaking Bad, Jesse represents this hope. Hope that a life of pain, violence, substance abuse, and despair can still start over, somewhere far away. Following the end of Breaking Bad, I hoped that Jesse was speeding away for Alaska, to be washed whiter than snow. To heal. For this reason, I was apprehensive before watching El Camino. I needed that hope. I needed Jesse to get away. And I feared that the story might take away my hope, sealing it in a jar, and bring only more death.
In a series of three mini-arcs, interspersed with shots that geniusly elicit suspense, El Camino depicts Jesse’s attempt to make his escape to Alaska, just like he said. He gets help from some beloved friends, evades police, gets some cash, faces judgment, fights in a cowboy-esque duel (!!!), gets some more cash, and, at long last, he makes it.
We are shown a short story that looks and feels like Breaking Bad, but isn’t it at all. And that (in my opinion) is a good thing. El Camino is an anti-tragedy. It’s a story of a character healing from trauma, growing to a point where he can control his own destiny, and starting a new, free life. It’s the story of hope that we all needed.
Near the end of the movie, in a flashback, we see a bittersweet moment between Jesse and his late lover, Jane (Krysten Ritter). The scene ends with Jane saying what I take to be the film’s thesis:
“I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life. It’s better to make those decisions for yourself.”