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At Long Last, Jesse Pinkman Is the One Who Knocks

In the great new Netflix film ‘El Camino,’ Walter White’s sidekick gets the spotlight — and finally breaks free of his partner’s long shadow

On Breaking Bad, nobody ever took Jesse Pinkman seriously — even, initially, the show’s writers. It’s now part of the legend of this iconic show: how creator Vince Gilligan had planned on killing off Jesse during Season One, quickly realizing, however, what an asset he was to the program. But even so, Jesse always felt like the afterthought, the nuisance, the foil, the eternal sidekick. Breaking Bad had plenty of complex characters, including Jesse, but the show belonged to Walter White, a nerdy chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a ruthless drug kingpin. Walter’s story was dark, compelling and tragic — a decent everyman laid low by his own poisonous ambition who, at one point during the height of his twisted megalomania, memorably bellowed, “I am the one who knocks!” 

By comparison, Jesse was a screw-up — a local nobody who got high and sold drugs. He wasn’t as smart or fiendish as Walter, and he could be easily manipulated and tricked by the different forces in Albuquerque battling for control. Walter was Breaking Bad’s alpha, which made Jesse, by default, the beta — and Jesse always knew it.

Among the things that are so terrific about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is how it not only gives Jesse center stage but forces us to reconsider his entire narrative arc. We live in an age where Hollywood is constantly asking us to care about peripheral characters — the Breaking Bad producers have been part of this trend, crafting an impossibly terrific standalone series about Saul Goodman — but El Camino justifies its existence by deepening our understanding of a guy who was pushed around season after season. At long last, Jesse isn’t the sidekick but the main character — and after what he’s gone through, he’s finally ready to stand up for himself.

The movie, written and directed by Gilligan, takes place immediately after the events of the Breaking Bad finale. Jesse is driving like a lunatic through the desert away from the crooks’ compound, just as we saw in the last episode six years ago. El Camino explains what happens afterward — but, crucially, it also goes back in time to show us a few key moments in Jesse’s life that will have great significance in the film. Some of them are plot points, but others are more thematic. We spent so much of Breaking Bad invested in Walter that whatever Jesse did was viewed through the prism of how it impacted Walter’s narrative. As a result, many will watch El Camino wondering how this story can work without Walter around. (Who wants to watch two hours of the “Yeah, bitch!” guy?) Turns out, Walter’s death has allowed Jesse to find himself — and for the audience to think about Jesse in a way they may never have before.

In the film’s early moments, Jesse is trying to shake PTSD after his long imprisonment in Jack Welker’s lair. (At one point in El Camino, he mentions that he’d been confined so long that he’s not even sure what month it is.) Getting free at the end of Breaking Bad was a happy ending of sorts, but now that he’s out, he needs money and a plan to skip town before the cops track him down. Through flashbacks from his captivity, we see his interactions with Jack’s sociopathic nephew Todd, which provide a clue of how Jesse could start a new life. But Jesse will quickly learn that others are pursuing the same ill-gotten dough that he’s after. There’s really no possibility of getting away clean.

One of Breaking Bad’s consistent pleasures was how smart it was — not only in its plotting but in its characters. People rarely did dumb things just to create narrative complications, which forced Walter to come up with increasingly more ingenious plans to outwit his various adversaries. Part of the fun was relishing the chess moves and being surprised by the twists. Gilligan brings those same smarts to El Camino, but here he allows Jesse to be as brilliant as his old business partner.

At first, Jesse seems outclassed by some of the men he’ll come across — including Ed Galbraith, who showed up in Breaking Bad’s final season — and there’s a worry that the film will be a two-hour nostalgia fest, reintroducing us to forgettable bit players in the Walter White universe. (Oh, look, there’s the guy who owned the salvage yard.) But then El Camino’s greater purpose starts to assert itself. Jesse isn’t simply trying to find freedom — he’s looking for a fresh start, a way of shaking off the “Yeah, bitch!” persona that had been its own kind of prison. And to do that, he has to grow up.

Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface,” but El Camino feels more akin to a Western in which a bad man finds a glimmer of redemption by facing down even worse men. Recently turned 40, Aaron Paul (who won three Emmys for the role) can’t pretend to be the dropout, twentysomething loser Jesse was, and so there’s an inherent gravity that he brings to the character now. After his imprisonment and torture at the hands of Jack’s crew, Jesse isn’t a kid anymore, and so he possesses a steeliness that’s remarkable to see play out in different ways in El Camino

Tender with his parents one moment and then killing someone in cold blood the next, Jesse has a righteous anger that’s exhilarating — but there’s also a maturity, a weariness, to his every action. We watch the behavior of a man who’s tired of being underestimated. When Walter transformed into a monster, we recoiled at the horrible person he’d become. In El Camino, Jesse is a man with nothing to lose, but he refuses to follow Walter’s path. Rather than be a monster, he wonders if some other new form is possible.

I’ll be careful of spoilers, but let me say that one question most Breaking Bad fans will have about this movie — is Walter White gonna make an appearance? — gets answered in a most satisfying way. For all those glorious seasons of Breaking Bad, a superb saga of moral rot and men’s twisted views of their own importance, Jesse lived in the shadow of Walter, who knew he could bully him with his superior intelligence and confidence. But in El Camino, Jesse doesn’t just take the lead — he gets to see a path toward a true happy ending that eluded his partner. Walter was a more arresting character, but by the show’s finale, his grim destiny was assured. Jesse hasn’t yet arrived at a place where his choices have trapped him — he has the potential to change and grow. As much as Walter got the best of Jesse in Breaking Bad, Jesse achieves something in El Camino that Heisenberg never could: hope for a better tomorrow.

Here are three other takeaways from El Camino(Note: There will be spoilers.)

#1. What happens if you hang up on a 911 call?

In El Camino, Jesse thinks that Ed is faking when he picks up the phone to dial 911 and asks for the police to come to his shop and arrest him. Cocky Jesse calls the old guy’s bluff. “You don’t just hang up on a 911 call,” Jesse tells Ed. “They won’t let you, because the lady or dude, or whoever, is like, ‘Stay on the line with me, sir. Stay on the line until the officers arrive.’ And if you did hang up, they’d call you back immediately.” In Jesse’s mind, this proves that Ed was only pretending to call — and then the cops show up, to Jesse’s shock.

I’m with Jesse — I thought that’s how 911 worked. And I’m speaking from personal experience. I had a situation a long time ago where I accidentally dialed 911 on a landline — the first two digits of a telephone number I was calling didn’t work on my phone, and the next three were 911 — and when the emergency operator picked up, I panicked and hung up. I can’t remember for sure, but I think the phone rang back immediately. And within a few minutes, I had a knock on my door: Emergency personnel were there to make sure everything was fine. And this was in L.A., a fairly big city. 

So, obviously, the El Camino scene made me curious. Ed does hang up after giving his information, and nobody calls him back. Is that normally how 911 works?

Apparently not. The National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, warns citizens that if they call 911, even by accident, they should not hang up:

“911 call takers are trained to get the most important information as quickly as possible to get help on the way to an emergency situation. In an emergency situation, allow the call taker to ask you all the questions they need in order to get help there in the timeliest manner before you hang up or leave the phone. If you happen to call by accident, stay on the line until you can tell the call taker that you called by accident and there is no emergency. This saves the call taker from having to call you back and confirm there is no emergency or possibly sending police with lights and sirens to check your address for an emergency.”

Yup, that’s what happened to me with my landline. Is Albuquerque 911 different than the rest of the country? Did Gilligan not do his research? Or maybe he was just having fun flouting the rules in order to deliver a nice dramatic twist. Regardless, the scene works really well.

#2. How much cash could I carry?

Jesse fills a trash bag with hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is a common thing in crime dramas. (Stealing credit cards isn’t nearly as sexy or cinematic.) Drug-dealing is a cash-heavy business, and I always wonder just how heavy all that dough is. (One of my favorite little details in Widows is when they’re prepping for the heist, and they estimate just how much the bags will weigh that they’ll have to carry out of Colin Farrell’s house.)

So, let’s say I can comfortably tote around 25 pounds in a backpack or duffel bag. That’s not insanely heavy, which will keep me light on my feet if I need to run — and it won’t attract attention because it’s crazy-big. (For the record, the Widows crew train with 60-pound bags.) How much money could I walk away with?

Thankfully, the internet can do these sorts of calculations for me. This site informs me that a million dollars in $100 bills would weigh approximately 22 pounds. So I could lug around $1,134,000 million. If it was all $10 bills — an amount you never see in crime dramas, by the way — a million dollars would weigh about 220.5 pounds. In that case, I’m lucky to get away with about $113,000. If it was all $50 bills, my haul would be $567,000. Different dominations of cash weigh the same, so you can figure out the math yourself. 

Needless to say, I’m suddenly feeling very excited about my burgeoning life of crime. Imagine carrying around a million dollars in stolen dough! Of course, considering I get antsy when I have $100 in my wallet, I’m not sure I’d be the best crook. Carrying it is one thing — not attracting suspicion by looking all nervous and guilty is another.

#3. Rest in peace, Robert Forster.

This piece was nearly finished when the news broke Friday night that veteran character actor Robert Forster had died at the age of 78 from brain cancer. Forster’s professional life stretched more than 50 years, and it’s a good bet that a fair amount of people saw him in El Camino yesterday, unaware that he had passed until after they finished the film and checked their phone. He plays Ed Galbraith, the man who helped Walter White disappear near the end of Breaking Bad and who Jesse approaches in El Camino for the same reason. Forster has one main scene in the movie, but if you noticed, I mentioned him a lot in this article, all which was written before the announcement of his death. Clearly, the man was a scene-stealer.

For most viewers, Forster is probably best known for his work in Jackie Brown as Max Cherry, an aging bail bondsman who becomes smitten with fellow old soul Jackie (Pam Grier). Quentin Tarantino often is cited as being responsible for reviving John Travolta’s career thanks to Pulp Fiction, but he did the same thing with Grier and Forster, who received his only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, for the movie. Over the next 20 years, Forster became one of Hollywood’s go-to character actors. If you wanted someone with grit, tough-guy poignancy or maybe a little cool, you hired Forster.

He’d had a full career before that, most notably starring in 1969’s Medium Cool, in which he played John Cassellis, a blasé news cameraman who comes to understand the importance of the historic events he’s capturing during the turbulent 1960s. Hailed as one of the most politically astute films of the period — and for its innovative mix of fiction and actual footage from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention — Medium Cool made Forster a cult favorite. Gen-Xers will remember him from Disney’s live-action sci-fi adventure The Black Hole (1979), but post-Jackie Brown, he became part of David Lynch’s regular troupe (Mulholland Dr., the Twin Peaks revival) and was superb as the ailing father in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.

I remember a friend, years ago, telling me about how she met Forster after a Q&A and saying just how great he was, talking to her for quite some time about the movie she’d just seen him in. (If memory serves, it was Diamond Men, an under-seen drama that’s been mentioned frequently since Forster’s passing as being one of his best films.) But she wasn’t alone in that warm impression of the man: I’ve been touched by how many people on Twitter have mentioned not only Forster’s kindness but his trademark thank-you gift he’d send people, a silver letter-opener:

It’s a nice reminder that those little signs of gratitude mean a lot to people. Certainly gratitude was something Forster felt about his career. In an interview late last year with Vulture, he talked about how lucky he’d been as an actor, saying about the period after Medium Cool, “My career went upwards for about five years and then downwards for about 27 years.” He happened to run into Tarantino in a coffee shop, which got the ball rolling for him to be in Jackie Brown, and then his long second act began.

At the end of the interview, Forster was asked what he was working on now. The veteran actor was cryptic:

“I went into an office about three weeks ago and signed nondisclosure paperwork and read a script. And my agent told me when I did this that I was going to like it, and that I was going to want to work for these producers, and she was correct. So I am doing something that I am not allowed to speak about. It’s not a big job, but it’s a gem. And I don’t get a lot of big jobs anymore. I get, here and there, gems. But this is a big job and this is a gem as well.”

Could he have been talking about El Camino? It’s possible. Or he’s perhaps referring to his role on an episode of the upcoming rebooted Amazing Stories anthology series, based on the program Steven Spielberg created in the 1980s. So we may have one more gem from Forster to enjoy. In the meantime, savor him in El Camino. He’s so very good in it.