spoilers

Should We Be Happy for Jesse at the End of El Camino?

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) on his journey in El Camino. Photo: Ben Rothstein / Netflix

Spoilers below for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and its ending.

The last time we saw Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, he was behind the steering wheel of an El Camino, screaming through happy tears as he sped off the Aryan Brotherhood compound where he had been held hostage. The last time we see Jesse Pinkman in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the Netflix film that reveals what happened to Jesse (Aaron Paul) in the days that followed the events of the Breaking Bad finale, he is, once again, driving a car. But this time he’s heading to Alaska and a new life that he’ll live with a new last name. There are no tears, just a very slight, almost imperceptible smile. Jesse’s expression, for the first time in the entire movie, is calm.

That certainly seems like a happy ending for the former crystal-meth maker, right-hand man to Walter White (Bryan Cranston), and perhaps most beloved character in the Breaking Bad universe. It’s easy to watch the conclusion of El Camino and presume that Jesse is finally free as he enters that American state known as the last frontier, and that all his problems are solved. But I’m not sure if it’s quite that simple.

The movie itself gives us reasons to doubt that. In a flashback near the very end of the movie, El Camino takes us back in time to a conversation that Jesse had with his now-late girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), who tells him that going wherever the universe takes you is a terrible idea. “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life,” she says. “It’s better to make those decisions for yourself.”

Jesse, heading off on his own toward Alaska completely unencumbered by his old identity and connections, looks on the surface like someone who is making decisions for himself. One could certainly argue that in El Camino he does just that. He does whatever he has to do to make sure he gets the hell out of Albuquerque, then he chooses to go to Alaska. But he’s gotten where he is because other men steered him down this snow-covered path.

Jesse’s desire to make Alaska his new home springs from a conversation he had with Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks), shown to us in an earlier flashback. If he could start over as a young man, Mike tells Jesse, he’d go to Alaska. Of course, Mike never gets the chance to start over anywhere: As we know from Breaking Bad, he gets killed by Walt. Jesse seemingly chooses Alaska as his destination because he is inspired by Mike, though it’s unclear whether he feels a responsibility to go there because Mike never got to go himself, or because he just likes the idea and steals it.

Every tool Jesse uses to escape Albuquerque is something he takes from other men. He swaps Skinny Pete’s Thunderbird for his El Camino, something Skinny Pete himself suggests. He snags Todd’s money from where it’s stashed in Todd’s refrigerator, and later claims the rest from Neil and Casey, the two associates of Todd’s who also come searching for it. In his final showdown with Neil and Casey, Jesse snatches the .22-caliber pistol from another significant male in his life: his own father. When he’s mocked for carrying such a low-caliber weapon, Jesse makes the gun sound like an artifact he inherited. “It was my grandfather’s,” he says. Jesse is deciding what to do, sure. But it doesn’t seem quite right to say he’s acting independently. He has to rely on other men, or the things that belong to other men, to achieve his objective.

He relies on nobody more for that purpose than Ed, the fixer played by the late Robert Forster. A common denominator between all the Breaking Bad properties — the original series, Better Call Saul, and El Camino — is that each one focuses on a man who changes his identity, usually, at some point, with help from Ed. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman by choice, but he becomes a Cinnabon employee from Nebraska because he has to. Walter White also assumes his alter ego, Heisenberg, by choice in Breaking Bad, but eventually he needs Ed’s assistance to assume another identity and slip away to New Hampshire. Jesse is the only one who never tries to be anyone else until the universe puts him in a place where he seemingly has no other option. After seeking out Ed in El Camino, Jesse does choose Alaska as his future place of residence. But his new name, his new Social Security number, and the birthdate of his pretend father: All those details about who he’ll be for the rest of his life are decided for him by somebody else.

Even though Walt is dead at this point, the connection between the two of them is still strongly felt in El Camino, via the terrific flashback to their conversation in the diner and also the parallels between how their onscreen exits play out. When Jesse visits Neil and Casey to get another $1,800 of Todd’s money, he takes a page from good ol’ Mr. White’s playbook: Just like Walt did at the Nazi compound in the Breaking Bad finale, Jesse brings surprise ammunition to the face-off. When Jesse climbs out from his hiding spot in Ed’s truck to find himself in wintry surroundings, it feels like a repeat of what Walt did when he fled to that cabin in New Hampshire. Even Walt’s last look at his son, Walt Jr., and his decision to leave him a trust fund is echoed in the letter that Jesse gives to Ed to mail on his behalf. The letter is addressed to Brock, the closest thing Jesse has to a son, and a young boy who’s now rendered motherless as a result, albeit somewhat indirectly, of choices Jesse made. We can’t see what the letter says. But like the money Walt reserves for his namesake, it’s fair to assume the letter is an attempt to make amends. Even when he doesn’t necessarily realize it, Jesse is still following in the footsteps of Walter White.

Repeatedly, Jesse is told in El Camino to appreciate what a rare and amazing chance he has to start over fresh. Ed tells him that. Mike tells him that in the flashback. In the diner scene, Walt talks about how Jesse could go to college and study business when all this meth stuff is over, which is essentially a different version of the same idea: He still has his whole life ahead of him. You can watch Jesse go down that long snowy road at the end of El Camino and believe that’s still true. Jesse had to rely on his past traumatic experiences to claw his way out of New Mexico and evade the cops, but now he can finally put the whole meth mess behind him.

Or you can watch Jesse drive away and realize that he had no choice but to go to Alaska. You can realize the notion that he can “make decisions for himself” has evaporated just as it did for Walt and Saul once they broke bad. You can see that last moment as one of reinvention or renewal, or you can see it as the moment that he has to say good-bye to the Jesse Pinkman he could have been. You can say he finally escaped. But you could just as easily say he had to disappear.

El Caimno deliberately doesn’t tell us which interpretation is right, although the tiny smile that Aaron Paul flashes at the very end suggests he’s closer to being in a good place than not. Still, the ending to the Jesse Pinkman story is just as ambiguous — maybe even more ambiguous — than the one we got in the Breaking Bad finale. That feels right. We shouldn’t be able to see the end of this winding road or where it will take him next. Walter White got something finite. His penalty was death. Jesse gets life, but not his own.

Should We Be Happy for Jesse at the End of El Camino?