Here’s a shocker that belongs in the annals of great cinematic twists: In the entirety of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Jesse Pinkman doesn’t deliver a single utterance of his favorite word, “bitch.” (In the present timeline, at least. He says it once in a flashback, while understandably excited at a buffet.) Jesse and “bitch” were attached at the hip—Aaron Paul says the word is something strangers shout at him, endearingly, when they see him on the street—and he deployed it to express a broad range of emotions. It was the perfect catchphrase for a character who hadn’t really grown up; shaped by drugs, bad decisions, and the influence of ill-fated authority figures like Walter White, who manipulated and tormented his meth protégé in irreversible ways. It is a small mercy that Walt set Jesse free from his neo-Nazi captivity in the series finale of Breaking Bad—for Jesse, freedom came at a price, and couldn’t wipe away his trauma or the lives destroyed by his association with Heisenberg.
If there is a reason El Camino exists—other than because people are, like, really into Breaking Bad—it isn’t just to provide closure to Jesse’s arc with a definitive epilogue, it’s to serve as a litmus test for Jesse himself, and whether he’s capable of mending his soul and moving on with his life after everything he’s done and endured. Walt’s chapter might be closed—and don’t worry, the movie assures everyone that Walt is actually dead—but Jesse’s story at the start of El Camino is still being written. And what “everything” entails is at the crux of El Camino, which combines its present-day narrative of Jesse trying to get the hell out of New Mexico with some contextual flashbacks of Jesse’s time spent in captivity.
With so much of Breaking Bad’s final episodes focused on the crumbling of Walt’s drug empire, Jesse’s climactic arc got short shrift. Granted, we got the gist of it: He was being tortured by the neo-Nazis and particularly Todd, who killed Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea in the show’s penultimate episode when Jesse tried to escape from their compound. Todd’s appearances in El Camino flashbacks are jarring—if only because El Camino was produced with such secrecy you had no idea who was going to show up—but crucial when it comes to understanding why present-day Jesse is vastly different from the character we knew for the majority of the series. (And why, you would expect, he’s no longer fond of shouting “yeah, bitch!”) The scenes we see of Jesse’s time in captivity—which include his getting hosed down like an animal, and helping Todd dispose of a body in the surreal, beautiful expanse of New Mexico desert—made Jesse paranoid and somewhat feral, but also self-reflective. He was in an unimaginably awful situation—and one viewers can easily empathize with; he was living in a damn cage—but Jesse was also personally complicit in Heisenberg’s misdeeds, which ultimately landed him there.
When Skinny Pete and Badger show up in El Camino, what’s most telling (apart from Skinny Pete’s predictable affinity for Axe body spray) is how Jesse reacts to their kindness with bewilderment; after spending so long in captivity, he’s shocked that anybody could be nice to him. “You’re my hero and shit,” Skinny Pete beams—a well-meaning gesture from a pal that must feel like a punch in the gut. Jesse may have been Breaking Bad’s complicated conscience, but heroic isn’t among the adjectives you’d use when looking back on his life. Though the fact he can recognize this tragic irony is encouraging in and of itself.
Part of Jesse’s newfound maturity is, of course, coming to terms with the sad state of his life. Unlike Walt and Saul Goodman—the subject of his own Breaking Bad spinoff on AMC, Better Call Saul—the die hasn’t been cast on Jesse’s morality. Walt and Saul inevitably broke bad (it’s in the title and everything!) under distinct but compelling circumstances. What makes El Camino a worthy extension of the Breaking Bad universe is that it offers the first look at a character with a chance to recalibrate his moral compass. It can still point north—provided Jesse gets a fresh start.
And that’s where the familiar, kinetic thrills of Breaking Bad come into play. Jesse has to use his wits to escape Albuquerque while the authorities scour the city for his whereabouts, but in typical Breaking Bad fashion, the best-laid plans are set back by the tiniest of problems. Jesse searches Todd’s apartment for a hidden stash of money he could use to pay for a ride out of town and a new identity—presented in a cleverly constructed montage that shows Jesse stripping every inch of the place apart. (More than anything, the sequence was reminiscent of Mike Ehrmantraut taking his car apart to find a tracking device in Better Call Saul.) This search eventually brings Jesse into contact with an individual who’s implicated in Jesse’s neo-Nazi enslavement.
You’re inclined to dislike this character—and you should!—and Jesse still has a primal impulse to exact revenge on him. But the character’s complicity in Jesse’s captivity is not unlike our protagonist’s relationship with Walt in the original series: Jesse was a willing participant in something unquestionably evil, and even though he had many qualms and was sometimes manipulated, Jesse still went along with most of Walt’s plans. Walt wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger on Gale; two girlfriends died merely because of their association with Jesse. Of course, this El Camino character doesn’t have the same reservations over his complicity with Todd and the neo-Nazis, and that difference explains why we’re continually drawn to Jesse Pinkman, and keep rooting for him. He continues a lineage of sad, broken, self-destructive men on television who do the wrong things and hate themselves for it all the while. I love characters like this—you’ll be shocked to know I ride or die for The Americans’ Philip Jennings and Succession’s Kendall Roy, who belong on the Mount Rushmore for Golden Age TV Sad Bois along with Jesse.
Jesse’s journey in El Camino, while light on action by Breaking Bad standards, is heavy on meditation, and is a thematically appropriate bow on the character’s story. The film is a deconstruction of Jesse, the trauma that’s shaped him, how he’s persevering through it, and what can happen once somebody gets a new lease on life. On a basic level, it probably means “bitch” is no longer our guy’s favorite word. Fundamentally, it means even the most broken men can still be mended so long as they’re willing to change—and instead of erasing the past, choose to learn from it.