Few TV characters in recent or even ancient history have suffered as much as Jesse Pinkman, the small-potatoes Albuquerque meth dealer played by three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul.
After being recruited to make science-enhanced meth by his former chemistry teacher, Walter White (four-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston), the following things happen to Pinkman over the two years in which the totality of Breaking Bad takes place:
- Loses his good friend, Combo (Rodney Rush), after recruiting him to sell meth
- Loses his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), who chokes on her own vomit while strung out on heroin in bed next to him
- Goes to rehab
- Beaten viciously, to the point of hospitalization, by White’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris)
- Forced to shoot a (mostly) innocent man in the face to save his own life
- Manipulated into believing his boss, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), poisoned the young son of his new girlfriend, Andrea (Emily Rios)
- Learns he was betrayed by White, his own partner, who actually did poison the kid
- Loses his girlfriend, Andrea, who is executed by a thug named Todd (Jesse Plemons) while Jesse watches helplessly
- Enslaved and tortured brutally for six months
- Also, he loses a lot of hair
Considering all the hellacious torments that creator Vince Gilligan put Pinkman through, fans must have been relieved to see the character ride off into the sunset at the end of the series. As we last see him, Jesse is newly sprung from captivity, hysterically cry-laughing at his implausible freedom in the driver’s seat of an El Camino.
After six years, however, Gilligan is ready to disabuse anyone of the notion that this ending is as happy as it may seem.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which drops on Netflix on October 11, picks up with Pinkman as he takes off in that titular vehicle to the next uneasy chapter of his life.
In case you need a bit of a refresher course before diving in, however, here’s the breakdown on Breaking Bad.
The arc of the show
When Breaking Bad premiered 11 years ago, the world of television had never seen anything like it. Sure, antiheroes had flourished in that space before—Tony Soprano comes most readily to mind—but never had we born witness to a mild-mannered guy slowly morphing into a supervillain. (Weeds‘ accidental drug kingpin Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker, came close, but never turned evil exactly.) The show became a phenomenon, almost single-handedly putting AMC on the map (Mad Men helped) and eventually spawning the successful spinoff Better Call Saul, which stars Bob Odenkirk and is now entering its fifth season. In broad strokes, the arc of the series went like this:
Walter White was once supposed to make millions with a pharmaceutical breakthrough but had a falling out with his partners. Now he’s a high school chemistry teacher quietly carrying a chip on his shoulder. When he learns he has lung cancer, Walter is desperate to make money for his treatments, and resorts to making incredibly pure meth in an RV with local dealer and former student Jesse Pinkman. While keeping his danger-fraught drug business secret from his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), Walter eventually adopts the handle Heisenberg and beats cancer.
At first, Walter and Jesse recruit the latter’s dopey friends Badger (Matt Smith) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) to sell their meth. After Badger is arrested, though, Walter uses the dirty lawyer who handles that particular case, Saul Goodman, to find a wholesale distributer: chicken chain restaurant-owning entrepreneur Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Soon, we meet Fring’s main enforcer, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), when he is called in to help dispose of Jesse’s deceased girlfriend, Jane, who died, preventably. From here, Jesse goes to rehab, and Walter starts working full-time for Fring in a custom-designed lab space with a new assistant, Gale (David Costabile). Meanwhile, Walter also lets Skyler in on his secret money-making plan, which leads her to file for divorce. Walter won’t go quietly (or at all), so Skyler gives up and begins a doomed affair with her boss, Ted (Christopher Cousins.) After Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, who is pursuing the Heisenberg case, beats the crap out of Jesse, Walter hires Jesse to be his assistant again and fires Gale. However, when Walter and Jesse get on Fring’s bad side, Jesse has to kill Gale, who knows how to make meth as well as Walter—and therefore could be tapped as a replacement in Fring’s empire.
Fring then tries to drive a wedge between Walter and Jesse and maybe get rid of Walter altogether. Sensing this trajectory, Walter convinces Jesse that they need to poison Fring using ricin. Instead, Walter ends up poisoning the small son of Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea, pinning it on Fring. Fired up, the pair finally murder Fring by using the character Hector Salamanca, who figured into an earlier season, deploying him as a wheelchair-bound human bomb.
With Fring out of the way, Jesse and Walter destroy their lab, and all attendant evidence, and partner with Mike to take over the drug trade. Their new operation introduces two new characters—Fring business associate Lydia (Laura Fraser), who sets up a distribution network, and robotic hustler Todd (Jesse Plemons), who works at the pest-control company they use as a front for making meth. Things go well for a while, until they don’t.
Hank is closing in on Hesienberg, which makes it hard to keep operating. And Todd reveals his true colors by shooting a small child who witnesses one of the group’s crimes. Mike and Jesse want to sell out their share of the business, but before that can happen, the DEA freezes Mike’s assets, prompting Walter to kill Mike. Todd then introduces Walter to his Nazi uncle Jack, who stages a prison assassination of Mike’s former associates, keeping Walt separate from the Fring evidence trail that led to Mike. Walter is in the clear, he’s made enough money to keep his family secure for a long time, and just when he’s ready to retire, Hank finds a copy of a book Gale left to Walter (on the toilet, no less!) and realizes Heisenberg has been under his nose all along. The endgame is now in place.
Hank confronts Walter, who warns him away from a straight arrest, around the time Jesse realizes Walter was the one who poisoned his girlfriend’s son. Jesse teams up with Hank to get Walter while Walter hires Todd’s Nazi uncle Jack to kill Jesse. When Hank and Jesse lure Walt out to the desert, where Walt has buried his money, Nazi Jack and his crew show up, surprising everyone. The gang kills Hank, takes most of Walt’s money, and kidnaps Jesse.
Now fully a supervillain, Walter lets Jesse know—just as Jesse is being taken away to certain doom—that he watched Jesse’s former girlfriend Jane die and didn’t try to prevent it. Harsh. Walter then brings his remaining money home and tries to hit the road with his family, but they want nothing to do with him anymore. Walt retreats to a cabin in the woods, while Jack becomes a meth overlord by forcing Jesse to cook meth for him, under threat of killing his girlfriend’s young son if he doesn’t comply. (Todd has already killed Andrea herself at this point.) Walt sneakily creates a $9 million trust for his estranged family and goes on a suicide mission to save Jesse. This effort is successful in that Walt murders nearly all of Jack’s gang (Jesse takes out Todd.) Once Jesse gets away, Walter is revealed to have a bullet wound in his side. He lies down in the meth lab to die, alone.
What we know about the movie
“I don’t intend to do anything further,” Vince Gilligan said in a recent interview, about whether El Camino marks the end of the Breaking Bad saga. But then again, that’s what he thought after the series initially ended. Having kept a tight lid over the project, very few other details have slipped out in advance. From the previews we do know this, however: Jesse Pinkman is a wanted man, as someone watching TV sees a local newscast saying as much. Someone will be digging in the desert sand at some point, and both Badger and Skinny Pete with be on hand as well. (When last they appeared in the series, they were using laser pointers to help Walter convince his former pharmaceutical partners he had gunmen waiting outside, so that they would create a trust for his family.) As for who else might make a cameo, well . . . .
Who is still alive
- Skyler White, Walt Jr., and daughter Holly, who have left Walter behind for parts unknown.
- Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), Hank’s widow, who is aware of Walter’s true identity.
- Saul Goodman, who now goes by the name Gene Taković, and manages a Cinnabon in the Cottonwood Mall of Omaha, Nebraska.
Watch a featurette about El Camino below.