Big spoilers ahead for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read this! You’ve been warned!
Okay. So. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the main character of Breaking Bad, shows up in Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) spinoff El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie for a scene. It’s true, it happens, we all saw it. And while we knew we would get appearances from Jesse’s homies Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), and could make educated guesses about seeing Todd (Jesse Plemons) again, Heisenberg was always a big question mark. Now that we know writer/director Vince Gilligan‘s true designs, a big question mark still remains: How the hell did they pull it all off?
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gilligan got into the nitty-gritty of his Walter White cameo, which he called “the zenith of Walt and Jesse’s relationship… this being the moment in their relationship that they probably had the most respect for one another.” Jesse and Walter always had a twisted version of a father-son dynamic going on, and Gilligan thought it essential to Jesse’s story to see a happier moment taken around the time of acclaimed season two episode “4 Days Out”:
Their relationship really started to devolve as the seasons progressed. And by the end of it, they literally want each other’s dead. And when people watch this thing all the way through and they binge it, that’s what they’re left with — these guys hated each other. I wanted to go back to a time when they didn’t hate each other, when there was in fact a grudging respect for one another.
Interestingly, even when Gilligan was filming the series finale of Breaking Bad, it didn’t feel like an ending to Jesse and Walt’s journey: “In my heart of hearts somewhere, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll see Brian and Aaron play these characters again someday.'” But when Gilligan filmed Cranston and Paul for their one day of shooting together on El Camino, it felt different. “Somehow watching them play it here, in the movie, felt more finite or definitive. It felt more like an ending. It felt in my heart of hearts, like, ‘This is probably the last time these guys were ever going to play a scene together as these characters.'” Uh… we’re gonna need a minute to emotionally process this.
Okay, we’re back! Now: how’d the crew make the big cameo happen? The odds were stacked against them: Cranston was in the middle of his exhausting, six-nights-a-week Broadway schedule for Network. A schedule that only allowed him 36 hours of Walter White time, from landing in Albuquerque to taking off again. And the whole enterprise needed to get done in secrecy — Gilligan even compared his crew’s efforts to “the Manhattan Project.” When Cranston landed, they rushed him to set — an actual diner in Albuquerque called Owl Cafe. How did they keep bystanders away from a public restaurant? One — they blocked off all the windows with green screens, needed for production anyway. Two — they invented quite the tale for anyone who dared walk by.
People are driving by and they’re seeing the RV with the bullet holes in the door and they’re saying, “Oh, my God, what is that?” And so Nathan, one of our [assistant directors], came up with this idea to tell people that we were shooting a commercial for the Breaking Bad tour. And by the way, we were using the RV that you can tour Albuquerque in. And the gentleman who owns the tour company was game and helped us keep the secret and let us borrow his RV, and we were handing out brochures for his organization to any curious onlookers who happened by. “What are you doing?” “Aw, we’re just shooting a commercial for the tour. You should really take it. It’s a lot of fun!” It was amazing the amount of logistics, and blood, sweat, and tears that went into keeping this thing secret.
When it came to the matter of “what will two of the most iconic TV characters talk about?”, Gilligan turned to Breaking Bad producer Melissa Bernstein for guidance. His original goal was simple: “The point of the scene is it’s a little thank-you to the fans. It’s allowing the fans to see Walt and Jesse together again.” Luckily for all of us, Bernstein implored Gilligan to dig deeper, asking him, “How does it relate back to the larger movie? What does Jesse learn from it? Because in my mind, this movie is about Jesse transforming from a boy to a man. It’s about him growing up and becoming an adult. What does he learn here in this scene that helps him along on that journey?”
Gilligan and Bernstein pondered this question for awhile, until coming up with a Walter line that summed it all up perfectly: “You’re really lucky, you know that? That you didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” Chills down the spine! It’s poignant yet tragic, both a call to action for Jesse and a foreshadowing of Walter’s downfall! What does it mean to Gilligan and Bernstein?
It’s kind of a compliment, but it’s a twisted one at that. More than anything, it gives us this glimpse into Walter White’s mind. It’s a sad moment because if Walter White thinks this is the greatest thing he’s ever done, what kind of life has he led? And really, it allows for this wonderful reaction on Jesse’s part, and Aaron plays it beautifully. Aaron’s reaction to the line is really what buttons the scene and what makes it what it is. It gives it a point. It gives the whole thing shape. It’s his silent reaction of, “Oh my God, you think this is greatness?” And that leads us into the final scene of him becoming a different person. He’s no longer in the next scene Jesse Pinkman; he’s someone named Mr. Driscoll. He’s a grown man, and older and wiser, and he’s going to go off and hopefully finally have the life that he deserves.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is currently streaming on Netflix. For more, check out our interview with Breaking Bad/El Camino composer Dave Porter.