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What Vince Gilligan and the Ending of ‘Breaking Bad’ Tell Us About ‘El Camino’

The show’s creator once told viewers it was up to them to decide what happened to Jesse Pinkman. But he’s reclaimed that right—and possibly tipped his hand.

AMC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the penultimate page of the script for “Felina,” the series finale of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan wrote an open-ended ending for Jesse Pinkman, Walter White’s long-suffering former student, sidekick, victim, and antagonist. With Walt’s help, Jesse, played by Aaron Paul, had escaped from captivity at the Aryan Brotherhood compound and fled in the late Todd Alquist’s 1978 Chevrolet El Camino, cry-laughing in relief. “Grimly determined, fearing nothing, he speeds through the darkness,” the script read. “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.”

Gilligan didn’t actually leave it at that. Six years after “Felina” aired, Jesse’s story will pick up where it left off in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which will premiere on Netflix and in selected theaters on October 11. Gilligan, who wrote and directed the movie, kept quiet about his desire to extend Jesse’s journey until early 2018, when he approached Paul to tell him he’d written a script. But he’d begun to envision what a Jesse-centric sequel could look like even before finishing Breaking Bad.

“I didn’t really tell anybody about it, because I wasn’t sure I would ever do anything with it,” Gilligan told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview published last month. Yet in the years after he put Breaking Bad to bed, but before he began El Camino, Gilligan was often asked by fans and interviewers to detail Jesse’s fate. On a few occasions, he humored them. The years-old answers he offered before El Camino may offer some insight into what’s in store for the character he considered killing in Season 1.

Fairly early in Breaking Bad’s run, Jesse offered his own vision of a carefree future far from Albuquerque. In the second-to-last episode of Season 2, “Phoenix,” Jesse and Jane Margolis (who would die of an overdose at the end of that episode) celebrate receiving Jesse’s cut of a million-plus dollars of Gus’s meth money. “I can be anybody,” Jane says. “What do you wanna be? Where do you wanna go? South America? Europe? Australia?”

Jesse suggests New Zealand. “New Zealand, that’s where they made Lord of the Rings,” he says. “I say we just move there, yo. I mean, you can do your art, right? Like you can paint the local castles and shit? And I can be a bush pilot.”

I would watch a movie about Jesse’s post-meth-making career as a Kiwi pilot who’s dismayed to discover the lack of local castles, but it doesn’t look like that’s what El Camino is going to be about. In the trailer released last week, which seems to be set immediately after “Felina,” the old script’s “something better” looks a long way away. Jesse, who’s broke but alive—as Saul would say, “That’s the Irish sweepstakes”—holes up in Skinny Pete’s house, where he washes away the outward evidence (if not the inner trauma) of his imprisonment and gingerly takes stock of his physical and psychological scars. As he tries to stay a step ahead of homicide detectives, DEA agents, white supremacists, meth manufacturers, and any other adversaries who might want to track him down, he’ll reportedly encounter close to a dozen Breaking Bad characters either in person or via vision or flashback.

All of that tracks with what Gilligan said in his first post–Breaking Bad comments about Jesse, which appeared in an Entertainment Weekly interview that ran the day after the finale: “He’s got a long road to recovery ahead, in a sense of being held prisoner in a dungeon for the last six months and being beaten to within an inch of his life and watching Andrea be shot. All these terrible things he’s witnessed are going to scar him.”

As Gilligan acknowledged in that EW Q&A, Jesse’s celebration as he drove away from the compound may have been premature. “Some people might think, ‘Well, he probably got two miles down the road before the cops nailed him,’” he said. In an interview with GQ in November 2013, Gilligan elaborated on that theme, adding, “The most likely thing, as negative as this sounds, is that they’re going to find this kid’s fingerprints all over this lab and they’re going to find him within a day or a week or a month. And he’s still going to be on the hook for the murder of two federal agents.”

Small wonder, then, that many Breaking Bad fans—most of whom spent the fifth and final season scared for Jesse’s life—are now feeling anxious anew about his prospects for survival. At least one gambling site is accepting bets on whether (and how) Jesse will die. In light of what Jesse has been through on Breaking Bad, though, it would take a special kind of cruelty to kill him so soon after his escape. And it’s hard to imagine Gilligan and Paul being eager to team up again, after the best-received finale in TV history, just to continue to torture a character they clearly love.

In the EW interview, Gilligan expressed his sympathy and affection for Jesse, saying, “All [of us] in the writers’ room just loved Jesse, and we just figured he had gotten in way over his head. … So this poor kid, based on a couple of really bad decisions he made early on, has been paying through the nose spiritually and physically and mentally and emotionally. In every which way, he’s just been paying the piper, and we just figured it felt right for him to get away. It would have been such a bummer for us, as the first fans of the show, for Jesse to have to pay with his life ultimately.”

Presumably, it would still be a bummer. In the EW interview, Gilligan said, “We always felt like the viewers desired Jesse to get away,” and he’s consistently expressed that he shared that desire. “I prefer to believe that he got away … the romantic in me wants to believe that he gets away with it,” he told EW, and he reiterated that belief to GQ. In a Reddit AMA in March 2017—which would have been shortly before he started writing the script for El Camino—he answered a question about whether Jesse ends up happy by saying, “I really believe so. In my mind, yes. Don’t take that as gospel, just take that as what I personally want to believe.”

Now that we’re on the verge of watching the Gospel of Gilligan, we may find out how Jesse gets away and where he ends up. Before he found out in “Confessions” (the 11th episode of Season 5) that Walt had poisoned Brock, Jesse was about to take Saul up on his offer to get him a new identity and spirit him out of Albuquerque. When Saul asks him where he wants to go, Jesse chooses Alaska, inspired, perhaps, by the setting of his favorite after-work watch, Ice Road Truckers. (Walt: “What happens on that one?” Jesse: “Guys drive on ice.”)

In the EW Q&A, Gilligan said he pictured Jesse moving to Alaska and enjoying “a peaceful life communing with nature.” He told GQ that he thought Jesse “got to Alaska, changed his name, and had a new life,” and on Reddit, he repeated that he wanted Jesse’s ending to be “peace.” In March 2014, June 2015 (when he pranked fans with a fake announcement about a Breaking Bad spinoff), and February 2016, Paul approved of that plan, first saying, “I like to think that he’s living as a carpenter somewhere—somewhere in Alaska” and later adding, “I think he’s living happy on a lake somewhere in Alaska, fishing a lot, making things out of wood.” Maybe the wood was chopped by Lumberjack Dexter.

Most of El Camino was shot in Albuquerque, but THR mentioned that its bigger budget allowed Gilligan to film in “some picturesque out-of-state locations.” We’ll soon see whether one of those locations is outside of the continental states.

“It’s up to the viewer to decide what happened to Jesse,” Gilligan said in 2013. Now, the character’s creator is reclaiming that right, but perhaps he’s tipped his hand. Six years ago, he was fully in favor of an idyllic epilogue, noting, “You want that for the kid. He deserves it.” And three years ago, Paul said, “He could be locked away in a prison somewhere. But we don’t like to think about that version of the show.” To pivot from that to more misery would require quite a change of heart. Then again, hearts growing harder is what Breaking Bad’s all about.