Lightning in a Bottle

Almost 19 years ago, I read and fell in love with a little novel called, Lonesome Dove. In my view, it was nothing less than a masterpiece. To this day, I consider it to be my favorite book of all time. The miniseries is a rare gem as well. Subsequently, I learned that Larry McMurtry penned a sequel titled, Streets of Laredo. I eagerly devoured it and felt a profound sense of disappointment. No Gus. No Jake. No Deets. Faugh! I then discovered that McMurtry had written, not one, but two prequels to Lonesome Dove; Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon. I devoured them… And felt even more dispirited. The magic of the original novel just wasn’t there. I then learned that Hollywood had created a sequel miniseries to the original called, Return to Lonesome Dove. I watched it, and bemoaned the four hours of my life that were utterly wasted. McMurtry described the project as, “Spurious.” I heartily concur.

All two of you who read this blog may remember that, some months ago, I expressed fretful trepidation at the prospect of a Breaking Bad sequel movie. Casual readers of these hallowed pages don’t have to read far to know that I view Breaking Bad as the best TV series ever made. It was expertly acted, masterfully written and apparently, beautifully shot.

This included the finale. I agree with critic Alan Sepinwall that the emotionally brutal episode, “Ozymandias,” represented the true climax of the story of Walter White, while the final two episodes served as a kind of epilogue. Walt’s final bloody siege of Uncle Jack’s compound, resulting in Jesse’s rescue and his own death, was a fitting way to go out.

The final image we get of Jesse Pinkman is that of him tearing out of Uncle Jack’s compound in Todd’s pilfered El Camino, shrieking and laughing hysterically as he drives. It is a parallel to the episode, “Crawl Space,” in which Walter White lies prone in the crawl space under his home, screaming and cackling maniacally after learning that Skyler gave away a large chunk of his ill-gotten lute to Ted, her one-time lover. Walt arises from the crawl space as Heisenberg fully born. Jesse’s eruption from the place of his imprisonment symbolizes, not only his liberation, but a rebirth of sorts.

Jesse made quite a journey over the course of Breaking Bad. He went from hapless drug-dealer, to the capable right hand of the most powerful and ruthless drug lord in modern crime fiction, to an imprisoned and broken animal, all within 62 amazing episodes of television. When he burst forth from captivity, he was headed toward… What? El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, seeks to answer that question.

Did we really need a movie to wrap up Jesse’s story? My initial answer was, hell no! Then, I got sucked in by the trailers, the pre-release interviews, the social media hype, etc. Skinny Pete telling the cops, “I ain’t gonna tell you where Jesse is!” was music to my ears. I thought, if anyone can pull this off, Vince Gilligan certainly can.

After the fact, I have to say that my original view was correct. El Camino is an enjoyable romp down memory lane. We get to see Aaron Paul flex his acting chops once again. We get to hear Dave Porter’s unique musical score. We get to visit a lot of familiar faces, including dead characters such as Mike, Jane and yes, Walt. But ultimately, I feel that Jesse would’ve been better served if the final memory we had of him were that of a half-crazed escaped prisoner fleeing for his life.

One of the many things that made Breaking Bad so compelling were the emotional gut-punches that it could deliver when appropriate. Vince Gilligan often said that the show was really about the quiet, in-between moments of Walt and Jesse’s lives. I agree. The quiet subtlety of Walt’s family life, or Jesse’s PTSD after Gale’s murder, is what made the show special. But this is a crime series and it requires violence to drive home the point. Everything from the murder of Krazy-8 to the plane crash to Gus’s murder to Walt kidnapping little Holly was a ‘holy shit!’ moment that fans would be buzzing about on Facebook and at the office for days hence. El Camino held no such moments for me.

The primary question posed by El Camino is, will Jesse get away? I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all, but all you had to do was study interviews from the cast and crew during the final season of Breaking Bad to know where El Camino was headed.

One of the refrains echoing over and over again by Gilligan and company was, “I feel sorry for Jesse. He’s really being manipulated and abused by Walt.” Given this mindset, it wasn’t hard to guess where Gilligan (the sole author of El Camino) was headed. He probably thought, Jesse has been punished enough for any misdeeds he may have caused. He was jerked around by Walt, then used by Hank as a means to an end, then imprisoned and tortured by Uncle Jack and Todd. His penance has been paid.

When looking at El Camino through the lens of sympathy, it’s no surprise that Jesse is treated, not as an anti-hero as Walt was at his best in Breaking Bad, but as a fully-formed hero. Jesse, the boy-turned-man, ground down by his enemies, now deserves redemption. To that end, the movie glosses over the sins of Jesse Pinkman in an effort to help the viewer feel more sympathy for him.

And what are the sins of Jesse Bruce Pinkman? As a diehard fan, it’s not hard to catalog them. Among other things, Jesse is guilty of:

• Selling addictive poison to people, first tainted by chili powder, later tainted by a harmless blue coloring.
• Breaking the hearts of his parents by refusing to engage in serious addiction recovery.
• Knowingly re-entering the drug trade with Walt after disposing of the bodies of Krazy-8 and Emilio.
• Sparking a drug war between Walt and Gus Fring by killing two of Gus’s henchmen, knowing that it was a fatal move.
• Shooting Gale Boetticher in the face as he tearfully begged for his life.

• Targeting people in an addiction recovery program in the hopes of getting them hooked on Blue Sky meth. One of these targets was Andrea Cantillo, who had a young son named Brock.
• Participating in a train robbery that lead to the death of an innocent boy, Drew Sharpe.
• Wearing a Kenny Rogers T-shirt.

These are just some of the transgressions that Gilligan seems to want us to forget as he converts Jesse from anti-hero to hard-bitten hero, desperately trying to seek escape and redemption after Walt rescues him from the neo-Nazis in the finale of the show.

My sister-in-law is living proof that a person with a PHD does not always make smart judgments. One of her questionable judgment calls is her assertion that the show Sons of Anarchy is superior to Breaking Bad. This is just silly. Yet, as I watched El Camino, I occasionally felt that some of the plot elements would’ve been more at home with Jax and his merry band of loser bikers than on the greatest TV drama in history. I won’t rehash all of it here, except to say that the villains whom Jesse confronts as he struggles to find enough cash to leave Albuquerque forever ring a bit hollow next to the complexities of Gus, Todd, Lydia and even Tuco.

We do get to see long dead characters in flashback, but the scenes smack of contrivance more than necessity. It’s as if Mike, Jane and Walt are all holding up signs that say, “Forgive yourself, Jesse, and move on!” These are a far cry from the nuanced flashbacks often presented in the course of the series that usually high-lighted a character aspect that was going to be flushed out in the subsequent plot.

The best part about watching El Camino was that I got to spend time talking to Katy. Aside from that, I honestly could have done without it. I wish that my last glimpse of Jesse was as he was bolting from the compound with Walt’s bloody carnage in his wake. I wish Vince Gilligan had left the rest to my imagination. I hope showrunners like Shawn Ryan, Graham Yost and others take heed. I don’t need to know what Vic Mackey did after he walked out of his cubical at the FBI office. I don’t need another reunion between Raylan, Boyd and Ava. I don’t need to see the further adventures of Arya Stark and Jon Snow. And I sure as hell don’t ever want to see Lumberjack Dexter again!!! Leave the masturbatory fan service to the fanfic authors. Because, as we’ve now discovered with Deadwood and Breaking Bad (and we’ll probably discover again with the pending Captain Picard series), having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is illogical, but it is often true.

Sidebar: Better Call Saul will commence with its fifth season in four months. It’s solid, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the mother ship. I also want to again voice my disgust at the fact that BSC and El Camino have audio description, but we still can’t get Breaking Bad with an AD track. NO JUSTICE!!!

Lightning may strike twice, but you can only catch it in a bottle once. If Walt were here, I’m sure he would give me the scientific explanation for this concept… But he’s dead, isn’t he?