Note: This post contains significant spoilers for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, as well as Breaking Bad (even if we don't consider latter spoilable at this point). Regardless, proceed with caution.
It's impossible to talk about the Breaking Bad phenomenon without talking about Walter White. Immortalized on novelty T-shirts, baseball caps, and coffee mugs, the chemistry genius turned public-school teacher who became a meth-cooking drug kingpin known as Heisenberg after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, was the driving force of AMC's nail-biting, Emmy-winning prestige TV sensation. The journey from "Mr. Chips into Scarface," the oft-repeated elevator pitch that creator Vince Gilligan used to describe the series, provided the backbone to all the machine-gun-firing mayhem and pizza-tossing absurdity that ensued. As big as the world of the show got, it all came back to Cranston's iconic character.
Not surprisingly, the actor, sporting what looks like a mildly distracting bald cap, makes a cameo appearance in Netflix's El Camino, which follows Aaron Paul's long-suffering sidekick Jesse Pinkman following the events of "Felina," the series finale that aired back in 2013. He's not the only familiar face to pop up in the movie -- otherBreaking Bad characters, notably Badger, Skinny Pete, Mike Ehrmantraut, Todd, and even Krysten Ritter's long-dead Jane, make appearances, as does Ed Galbraith, a.k.a. the Disappearer, played by the great Robert Forster, who died at age 78 on the day El Camino debuted on Netflix. Other bit players (e.g., Old Joe, Neil Kandy, Jesse's parents) turn up as well, but White is the one who will resonate the most with fans of the series. After all, he's the one who knocks.
Whether or not Walt would reappear -- and, more outlandishly, whether he'd be alive or dead-- had been a topic of speculation ever since El Camino was first announced, as his death in the Breaking Bad finale remains one of the most argued-over events in modern TV history. Now that El Camino has revved its way to Netflix, let's get under the hood and figure out what exactly makes the movie's poignant, heartfelt ending tick.
Is Walter White definitely dead in El Camino?
Let's get this out of the way: Walter White is dead, dead, dead. This should be obvious to viewers who watched the series finale, which ends with him bleeding out on the floor of a meth lab, but theories about him possibly being alive, often based on the idea that the finale only existed in White's head, have floated around comment sections and Reddit threads for years. Early on,El Camino confirms his death in a news report segment where an anchor plainly states, "White was found dead late Tuesday at the scene of a gang massacre, which claimed the lives of nine people." If that's not good enough for you, Vince Gilligan, perhaps tired of dealing with the question, officially buried the character earlier this month in an interview by saying, "Walter White is dead."
He might be dead, but he still has an important appearance inEl Camino. The first line in the movie, delivered by Mike in the first of many flashbacks, is a reference to White: "You know he's not going to be happy." Jesse's attempts to please White, who he viewed as a mentor and a father figure, provide the psychological underpinning for much of the action inEl Camino. Even though the movie keeps Cranston offscreen for most of its runtime, his presence is felt throughout. The havoc caused by White is visible right on Jesse's face.
When White finally does show up, it's in a flashback to the Season 2 era of the show. It comes towards the end of the movie, after Jesse has vanquished the scheming bad guys in a gun battle and set off a very White-like explosion. Seated at a diner in the flashback, the two talk about Jesse's future, with Walt asking him if he ever thinks about college. (Jesse wants to pursue sports medicine; Walt wants him to pursue a degree in business.) While some might argue that the cameo in El Camino lets Walt off the ethical hook, portraying him in a largely sympathetic light, he's still presented as a primarily self-pitying figure. "You didn't have to wait your whole life to do something special," he tells Jesse. It's a line that has more resonance as movie barrels towards its final image.
Who is Brock and what is the significance of Jesse'sletter?
As Forster's no-nonsense but kind-hearted fixer Ed prepares him for a new life in Alaska, Jesse hands him a letter addressed to "Brock Cantillo," a name that should have a special meaning to loyal Breaking Bad viewers. Brock was the young, PlayStation-loving son of Jesse's girlfriend Andrea, who was killed by Todd, the creepily deadpan villain played by Jesse Plemons. The poisoning of Brock with berries from a plant called Lily of the Valley was a pivotal event in the series, as it directly led to Jesse finally deciding that Walt was irredeemable and turning against him.
What did Jesse write to Brock? We don't hear any of the letter in voice-over, but it's safe to assume the letter contained an apology for getting his mother mixed up with the violent drug dealers who ended her life. Of all the sins Jesse has to atone for -- remember, he was not exactly a good dude himself -- the events surrounding Brock clearly weigh the heaviest on his soul. At the very least, the letter implies that Brock is still alive, a rare bright spot in this often bleak story.
What is Jesse hoping to find in Alaska?
The actual ending of El Camino isn't that different from the ending of "Felina." Both find Jesse driving to an unknown future. Both find the character making a form of escape. Both leave some questions unresolved. But the ending of El Camino, which finds Jesse exploring the great frontier of the North, a destination suggested by Mike, is more hopeful and serene, indicating that Jesse might finally be on the righteous path, turning away from the life of greed and violence that Walter White drew him into. When he was driving away in "Felina," it felt like he might crash into a brick wall; in El Camino, he appears to be finally in control. Will he take up ice-fishing? Get into dog-sledding? Take Walt's advice and get a business degree? Who knows!
It's fitting that Krysten Ritter's Jane -- not Walt himself -- is given the last flashback in the film. As Jesse cruises towards his new life, he envisions Jane, who Walt let die all the way back in Season 2, sitting next to him in the passenger seat. He then thinks back to a conversation they had years before about "going where the universe takes you." Jane tells him it's a bad philosophy, one rooted in a failure to take responsibility for your actions. Instead, she encourages him to "make those decisions" for himself. Freed from the shadow of Walter White, El Camino's final moment shows him taking that advice to heart.
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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter@danielvjackson.