From a flashback featuring Mike Ehrmantraut, to a deep dive into the private life and home of the psychotic Todd Alquist, El Camino cooked up some superb comebacks for some of Breaking Bad’s most recognisable faces.
And, just before the film’s close, El Camino delved back in time for the return of the show’s central character: Walter White, the chemistry-teacher-turned-drugs-baron portrayed by Bryan Cranston. However, the man we saw in flashback is far from the one portrayed in the Breaking Bad finale.
Rather than a figure waging war against a neo-Nazi gang, we see a younger, pre-goatee Walter White, a family man still cooking meth in a busted-up Fleetwood Bounder.
Opening with the pair striding down a hotel corridor, the flashback sees White and partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) load up on a buffet breakfast in a nearby diner.
Although first chatting about Pinkman’s love of pineapple, Walter soon asks how long it will take to sell their latest batch of blue meth, apparently worth a total of $1.3 million. Walt then questions Pinkman what he aims to do with his share, and if he’d want to go to college to pick up a business degree (failing to remember that Pinkman graduated high school in the process).
Trailing off, Walt concludes: “You’re really lucky, you know? You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
So, what exactly was the point of this scene? Although seemingly innocuous, the sequence – like so much of Breaking Bad – is packed with meaning when considered in context…
When is the Walter White flashback set?
The diner flashback scene takes place during the ninth episode of season two, an instalment titled 4 Days Out.
As Breaking Bad fans will remember, this is the episode where Walt tricks Jesse into a four-day meth-cook in the desert, lying that their supply of methylamine is about to expire. Although the two make plenty of their crystal blue product in this extended weekend, they encounter a major problem when Jesse accidentally drains the battery of their RV meth-mobile.
Left out in the baking heat, it seems as if the pair will die in the wilderness. However, Walt manages to rig a makeshift battery from nails, loose change and spare wire (an object deserving its own spot on the periodic table, according to Jesse). Fortunately, this works and the two are able to drive back to civilisation.
While the episode then cuts to Jesse dropping off Walt at the airport to meet his family, the El Camino flashback takes place just before this – not only are the two characters wearing their desert clothes in the diner, but Jesse tells Walt several times he needs to re-hydrate, hinting at their recent ordeal.
In the flashback we also hear Jesse promising Walt his family will get “every dime they’ve got coming for them”, a pledge he repeats almost verbatim when waving farewell to Walt at the airport in 4 Days Out.
What’s the significance of the diner flashback?
Although initially seeming like a simple nod to Breaking Bad, it’s likely the scene was included to highlight Jesse’s potential, past and present.
Although Walt can’t remember Jesse graduated high school, he concedes Jesse would be a brilliant student of business – “You could practically teach that class!”. It seems no coincidence that soon after the flashback, we see Jesse in Alaska expertly answer questions posed by Ed ‘The Disappearer’ about his new identity.
Put together, both scenes strongly suggest that Jesse could have – as Walt speculated in the flashback – done extremely well at college. He could have enjoyed a happy successful life, doing anything he put his mind to and living out his days with his partner Jane (who appears in a later flashback). As Walt says, Jesse still has time for “something special” with his life.
It’s also worth considering that the diner scene could actually represent one of Jesse and Walt’s happiest moments. Both have just escaped near death, Jesse is enjoying his relationship with Jane, and Walt still has his excuse for breaking bad: making drug money for his family before cancer kills him off.
In fact, you could argue that every Breaking Bad moment after the diner scene leads to disaster for both characters. For instance, in the very next episode, Jesse starts smoking meth in response to Jane hiding their relationship from his father, a habit that leads to several disastrous heroin binges.
As for Walter, the diner scene takes place just before he learns his cancer is in remission. Although seemingly good news to everyone else, he reacts to it with a violent outburst in the bathroom, realising he’s lost moral licence for his recent misdeeds.
At the time of the El Camino flashback, the pair’s downward spiral – one leading to betrayal, death and enslavement – hasn’t yet started. Happiness is still very much a possibility at this point. It’s almost as if the Pinkman in El Camino has recognised that his past isn’t all bad – heck, he can even remember a reasonably pleasant Walter White.
And it’s this interpretation why the scene can be seen to be so significant: rather than looking back at the horrors in his past, Jesse is able to remember a moment filled with possibilities, a time where he was able to think that a future is possible.
Sure, he’ll always suffer from the physical and mental scars of his Breaking Bad ending, but if the final El Camino flashbacks tell us anything, it’s that there’s still something special around the corner for Jesse Pinkman.