I love Breaking Bad, but its final scene has always rubbed me the wrong way. The series went to great lengths to demonstrate the transformation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from mild-mannered science teacher to monstrous drug kingpin. But in the final scene, after Walt has killed off his enemies and freed Jesse, Walt, who has been mortally wounded, gets an odd grace note where he gets the comfort of his chemistry. He finds his enemies’ drug lab, and lovingly touches one of the instruments to indicate his love of chemistry and a reminder of what he was able to build. Some may argue that the cosmic scales of justice have tipped to the point where Walt gets very little. He loses his family, he loses most of his money, and his legacy will be that of a monster, deservedly so. But I think the writers’ love for the character kind of peeks out in that final scene to show that they still have some affection for Walt even though the character has gone to great lengths to burn off any good will. It’s a scene that tries to have it both ways—Walt is a monster at the end of his story, but he’s also a man who liked chemistry—and you can’t really reconcile the two because the show has gone to great lengths to show that he is a horrible person.
I bring up this scene because the tone of the scene is strangely similar to the conclusion of El Camino, and it makes me wonder how showrunner and writer-director Vince Gilligan sees these two characters and what values they hold. In the final scene of El Camino, we’re treated to a brief flashback where Jesse (Aaron Paul) and his now-deceased girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) are having a conversation we he says he likes the sound of going where the universe takes you. She counters that it’s better to make your own choices rather than following the winds of fortune. The scene then cuts back to Jesse driving into the future with the subtext that he’s now finally free to make his own choices.
Taken on its own merits, this El Camino scene probably should have been at the front of the movie since it’s the thesis statement for Jesse’s character. I pointed out in my Breaking Bad recap that Jesse is constantly used by other people, but this scene indicates that Gilligan sees Jesse as an unfortunate soul who is tossed around by the motives of others, but lacks agency of his own, which is a very charitable reading of someone who is young but not exactly a child and not completely irresponsible for his own actions. That being said, Breaking Bad shows us that Jesse is never the monster that Walt is and that while Jesse did bad things, karmically he has paid it back by being tortured and imprisoned by neo-Nazis. But if Gilligan sees the story of El Camino as Jesse reclaiming his life rather than simply dealing with the fallout, then it would probably be better to have this scene with Jane at the beginning of the movie.
What makes these two scenes—the ending of Breaking Bad and the ending of El Camino—is that they’re both meant to be moderately uplifting as these two characters make some form of self-determination. Walt “respects the chemistry” in his final moments and Jesse makes a fresh start once he arrives in Alaska. They finally have the peace to no longer worry about staying one step ahead of the law or the cartel or their own actions. And yet this prism of “self-determination is the greatest good” seems to ignore all the choices these characters made along the way. Yes, there were times when they were unlucky, but they also made choices that led them further down a bad path.
While you can make the argument that Jesse is unfortunate, that’s a much harder argument for Walt, and yet they both end up in similar circumstances—alone and on the run—and with similar outcomes from a tonal perspective. You can tell that Gilligan loves these two characters, but that he doesn’t seem to have a good idea on how to conclude their stories. Breaking Bad is a propulsive narrative that’s always charging forward. Anytime it looks back it’s only to survey the amount of wreckage its characters have left in their wake. You can see in El Camino that the story has a difficult time with the past as there’s a fair amount of reflection, but not much reckoning. For example, Jesse can look back at the time Todd (Jesse Plemons) needed his help burying a body, but it doesn’t tell us more about Jesse or Todd. It ultimately just becomes grist for the plot to lead Jesse to finding Todd’s money.
The endings of Breaking Bad and El Camino don’t ruin either narrative, but they do show that Gilligan is more adept at showing personal devastation rather than a set endpoint. There’s a moral justice at the heart of his universe even if neither Walt or Jesse were ever caught by the cops. But the endings of their stories feel like a way for Gilligan to say goodbye rather than a statement on what happened. The similarity in the sendoffs fail to highlight the vast differences between Walt and Jesse, and the endings reduce all their struggles to “freedom is good.” It’s nice that Walt gets a final moment with chemistry and it’s nice that Jesse is now free to start over but Breaking Bad was never a “nice” show.