Aaron Paul on Jesse Pinkman’s ‘Heartbreaking’ Reunion With Walter White in ‘El Camino’
The “Breaking Bad” Netflix movie is here. Aaron Paul opens up to Melissa Leon about Jesse’s big reunion and his huge act of heroism. [Warning: Spoilers]
Months spent in a concrete cell. Beaten, tortured, and humiliated by white supremacists. Forced to watch his own girlfriend’s murder, with her little boy’s life threatened next. All because the man he once respected as a mentor—and protected, believed in, and killed for—handed him over to die. The Jesse Pinkman we meet near the start of El Camino is not well.
Minutes have passed since Jesse ripped out of a neo-Nazi compound in a black and red El Camino, howling. Walter White is dead. The Breaking Bad finale allowed him an exit on his own terms, in a final blaze of cunning—that oscillating machine gun—with the satisfaction of knowing, in some way, he’d won: he’d killed all his enemies. Devised a way to sneak his money to his family against their wishes. He’d held onto the power and control he valued above all. And he’d played the hero to Jesse one last time, freeing him from the compound to a new life on the run.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s meditative neo-western El Camino attaches a coda to Jesse’s story, detailing the emotional (and physical) scars Walt left him to live with. Through shootouts, explosions, and slow-burn sequences of expertly-orchestrated tension, it follows Jesse’s escape from the chaos of Albuquerque to a remote corner of Alaska. Its quieter moments, meanwhile, devote themselves to a survivor’s slow, steady climb back to personhood, and to the grit and compassion that sort of journey entails.
Jesse’s state of mind in the present is contextualized with periodic glimpses into his past, to moments spent with former lovers, enemies, and friends—including Walter.
In their first scene together in six years, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston slip back into a long-gone dynamic: miserable, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher and his drug-dealing former student. They’re in a diner. Jesse piles pineapple chunks onto his plate like a guy who thought he’d never taste food again. (The flashback follows the Season 2 classic “4 Days Out,” in which Jesse and Walt become stranded in the desert.) Walt glowers and lectures, chiding him to recommit to his education once these obligatory meth-cooking days are done and money for his family is secure.
It’s a snapshot of days when, in Jesse’s eyes, “Mr. White” seemed incapable of poisoning a child, letting Jane die, or leaving him to be enslaved. Red flags of narcissism go unnoticed or dismissed. (Jesse learns Walt thinks he never graduated high school, despite being onstage when he received his diploma!) But before the scene ends, Jesse senses something strange about Walter. “You’re really lucky, you know,” Walt tells him. “You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
He’s talking about cooking meth—not something Jesse can think of as a lifetime’s achievement. It’s a telling moment in a scene full of them, each darkened by what we know happens next. (Just see how Jesse dotes on Walter, reminding him to eat, reassuring him that his family will be taken care of, and patting him as he coughs, which only embarrasses Walt.) As Paul himself says, “It was pretty heartbreaking.”
The Emmy-winner (times three over for his work on Breaking Bad) spoke to The Daily Beast on the eve of El Camino’s release on Netflix, as boyishly hyped about it as Jesse sometimes gets about magnets. Between praise for Gilligan’s “love letter” to his character—and for Cranston, whom he counts among his “best friends”—Paul spoke to how the film changes Jesse and the character’s legacy, what it was like to share a scene with Cranston again, and more spoilers from the film. Read our conversation below.
I saw the movie yesterday—
And? What did you think?!
Well, Jesse was always my favorite character, so it was especially satisfying for me.
Ugh, I love you! That’s awesome.
I read that you re-watched just one Breaking Bad episode before shooting El Camino. Which was it?
It was a [Season 5] episode called “Buyout,” and it was just to remind me of where Jesse was mentally when he decides that he’s going to leave the business, leave Walt, leave Mike, leave everyone behind and make his escape. It was just to get me mentally prepared for where he was at in that scene with Mike by the riverbed, at the very opening of the whole thing. But yeah that was it, other than that I kind of knew where he was at. And I loved how Vince painted this picture for everybody. I thought it was beautifully told.
You get to share a scene opposite Bryan Cranston again, in character as Walt and Jesse. Can you tell me about that day on set and what feelings it stirred up?
You know, it was very odd. It was so much fun. Just being around Cranston in a work environment again is such a dream come true. He’s so incredibly immature, that man. And also so professional. But he’s just a class clown, he’s just a goofball. And he’s the best. He’s the best. He’s one of my best friends and my mentor so it was nice to zip on these skins, these characters that completely changed our lives forever. You know, I talk to him every day. I really do. So it was really special for both of us, and for the whole crew. Every background player in that diner scene was either a crew member or the family of a crew member, so it was so nice to be surrounded by loved ones in such a secretive scene that’s a part of such a secretive movie. The fact that we kept it under wraps, even long after we shot it, was such an accomplishment.
That scene is such a fascinating snapshot of a specific time in Jesse and Walt’s relationship. Walt is still just a defeated, miserable chemistry teacher trying to leave money behind for his family, and Jesse is really still just a kid, far removed from who he is in the present day.
I know! He’s sort of this sweet, little innocent kid before all the darkness just sort of took over him. As the actor that has played him for so long, and knew him so well, it was so nice to be reminded of the happier times in his life, like when he was in love with Jane, before that relationship turned into kind of a chemical romance, in a way.
Why do you feel that Jesse remembers that moment in the diner with Walt right then?
They just had survived something pretty major. That scene landed toward probably what would have been the tail end of the episode “Four Days Out” where they’re in the middle of the desert and they almost die because Jesse left the keys in the ignition [of the RV] and drained the battery. And he’s just so happy to be alive. Then he remembers something that Walt said toward the end of the conversation: “You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” It just hit him in such a major way like, my god, we’re just cooking crystal meth here. Not all that special. So yeah, it was pretty heartbreaking.
Skinny Pete tells Jesse early in the movie, “Dude, you’re my hero and shit.” And the more we watch, the more we do see Jesse as an honorable, heroic outlaw. The movie reiterates how much he values human life, what he’s done to keep other people safe. And then we see him make a stand, like a white hat in an old Western. Do you feel like he goes from victim to hero?
Yeah, it actually all ties into the advice he got from Jane at the very end of the movie, like, you have to create your own destiny. You can’t just go where the world takes you. No, you have to take control of that yourself. And Jesse finally does that, from the very beginning, he escapes and sheds this skin a little bit—you know, he shaves this ratty hair, he shaves that dirty beard, and he’s like moving forward. And I love that. He’s no longer going to be the victim. And he gave those guys at Kandy Welding the opportunity [to live.] He wasn’t trying to rob them of all their money. He said, look, this is just a favor. Just 1800 dollars, that’s all I need. That’s it. He gave them a way out and then his hand was forced. And Vince got his true Western shootout, which was so great.
How do you feel like the movie changes how we see Jesse?
I think it just kind of paints a more detailed picture of what I believe most of the audience wanted for him. You know, so many people would stop me, still, really, on a day-to-day basis. “What happened to Jesse? Where’s Jesse?” And now it’s like, “I can’t wait to find out what happens to Jesse. I hope he survives, I hope he’s okay.” And I think this just sort of paints that picture of what is probably gonna be a rocky road ahead of him, but he’s making the appropriate steps to finally find his freedom.
Is there one thing in particular that felt the most special to revisit about the character?
I mean, to be honest, just to be able to be inside of that skin and give Jesse this ending that I didn’t realize that I wanted. I thought Breaking Bad ended so perfectly and I loved that it was sort of ambiguous, like, “Oh wait. I think he’s OK. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I’m OK with not knowing and I’m OK with sort of creating my own version of that story.” But to be able to be in that skin and be directed by our creator, who is just such a beautiful man, such an incredible talent, but also the most humble person in Hollywood, who just never takes credit for himself—which he should really learn to start to do because he deserves it. But just revisiting with old family and friends from the show. It was just such a beautiful time in my life, Breaking Bad was so life-changing for everyone involved. To be able to play around in that universe yet again and be directed by that creator is obviously just such a dream come true.
Was there any initial trepidation on your part about potentially over-explaining Jesse’s story, or whether it would have been better left in viewers’ imaginations?
Yeah, honestly, zero. I had zero hesitation. Just because I know Vince as a storyteller. I know he is the last person on the planet who wants to mess with the legacy that is Breaking Bad. That is his baby. You should have seen him anytime he was trying to wrap up a season. He was just such a stress case, because he wanted it to be perfect. Years later, he had this idea that he couldn’t shake. He doesn’t have to tell this story; he just felt that there is a story here. And I want to create that and give that to people. I think if you liked the show, then you trusted in Vince, and if you trusted in Vince, that trust shouldn’t stop after Breaking Bad. He’s a beautiful storyteller and always has been. So I’m so excited that people who are watching it have been pretty pleased. It’s been pretty unanimous. Everyone’s been pretty excited about what Vince did with this story and the legacy of Breaking Bad and Jesse Pinkman.
He approached it with such care, you know? When he told me, he said, “Look, I just wanted to gauge your interest first. I feel like I have this story arc. Now that you’re onboard, let me just write this script and I’ll get back to you, but I do want to be honest with you about something: if and when I finish this script, and it’s not perfect, I don't want to do it.” You know, and that was it. “I don’t want you to get excited or disappointed, I just want you to be aware of the reality. I don’t want to do it unless there’s a reason to do it.” And I think he did just that.
You know people are now going to stop you on the street and ask what happened to Jesse in Alaska.
(Laughs) I know, I know.