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The Shadow of Walter White Hangs Over ‘El Camino’

Even if the ‘Breaking Bad’ movie is about Jesse Pinkman’s redemption, he’ll never be able to get rid of the man known as Heisenberg

AMC/Ringer illustration

Rewatching Breaking Bad six years after it went off the air, Walter Hartwell White comes off a bit differently. On first watch, the early-series presentation of Walt as a harmless, often pathetic, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher lingers for most of the series; in Vince Gilligan’s “Mr. Chips to Scarface” narrative, it’s difficult to let go of the idea of Walt as Mr. Chips. There was a thrill in seeing him take control of his life, break the bonds of domesticity, and win, even when winning entailed convincing an old man to explode himself and take down a kingpin in the process. The series surely chipped away at your empathy for Walt—within the span of one episode (“Phoenix”), he missed the birth of his daughter and let Jesse’s girlfriend Jane die from an overdose—but it wasn’t until “Ozymandias,” the antepenultimate episode of the series, when the image of Walt the Human fully dissolved.

On rewatch, though, any loyalty to Walt disappears almost immediately. As you watch him throw himself into making meth in the aftermath of his cancer diagnosis, Walt’s words from the series finale are impossible to shake. “All the things I did, you have to understand,” Walt tells Skyler, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really—I was alive.” Knowing that—really knowing that—the justifications Walt offers in the early seasons fall flat, and what’s left behind is a true villain; a small, selfish, power-hungry man who used his condition as an excuse to unleash his worst traits.

No one is more subjected to the collateral damage of Walter White than his partner, Jesse Pinkman. A lowly, unassuming dealer when he came back into Walt’s sphere, Jesse’s life was repeatedly ruined by his former teacher: His relationship with his parents was destroyed, he was beaten within an inch of his life multiple times, he was pushed to kill, he descended into nihilism and addiction, he was held captive by neo-Nazis, and he was present for the death of a girlfriend on multiple occasions. Jesse was never exactly destined for a clean life, but the trauma caused by his association with Walt is immeasurable. And every time he approached an exit, Walt was there to pull him back in. “Mr. White, he’s the devil,” Jesse told Hank and Agent Gomez in “Rabid Dog.” “He is smarter than you, he is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen, OK?”

To promote the release of El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie that will follow Jesse in the immediate aftermath of the series finale, Netflix released a Chloe x Halle music video (because nothing says “methamphetamines” like teen pop duos) that detailed every awful thing Jesse has lived through. The video ends by showing Jesse’s escape from the neo-Nazi compound in “Felina”—which also stands as the presumed beginning of El Camino. It’s deeply upsetting to see all of Jesse’s most excruciating moments squished into three minutes and 17 seconds. And while the primary point of the video is to emphasize the amount of trauma Jesse is set to face when the movie picks up Breaking Bad’s story, another message lurks beneath its surface: Even after his death, the stain of Walter White remains.

It seems likely that El Camino will tell a story of retribution for Jesse, as he makes amends for those destroyed by Heisenberg. The movie’s trailer shows Jesse at the river where Mike Ehrmantraut’s body was last seen; there’s a shot of the photo of Andrea and her son, Brock, that Jesse kept while he was in captivity, suggesting that Jesse may be trying to check in on Brock after his mother’s murder; another shot even shows Jesse inside the White home. He seems to be desperately tying up loose ends, righting wrongs before starting out on a new life (fans have collectively speculated that the voice at the end of the trailer is that of Ed, the “disappearer” who helped Walt escape to New Hampshire in Season 5). But while Jesse is surely the focus of this movie, the reality is that no Breaking Bad story can ever be solely his. Walter White is the center of this universe, around which everything—including Jesse—revolves. He is the one who put, and kept, Jesse on his path, and he is the one who will haunt him for the rest of his days, even if Jesse manages to abscond to some lake in Alaska, as Gilligan once envisioned. Perhaps El Camino is not about Jesse escaping the memory of Walter White, but learning to live with it.

Whether or not this means Bryan Cranston will literally be in El Camino, I don’t know. Jonathan Banks, the actor who plays Mike, has already confirmed that he’ll be in the movie, and many have surmised that he is one of the figures on the river bank in the trailer, standing next to Jesse as a hallucination or part of a flashback; if he’s in the movie as a vision of Jesse’s, surely Walt would pop up under similar circumstances. (IRL, Aaron Paul and Cranston are forever tethered to one another by ... mezcal.) But Walt doesn’t need to be physically present to touch this story. He already has in so many profound, unforgivable, irrevocable ways.