Two weeks ago, on this very website, I gave odds on the likelihood that 17 different Breaking Bad characters would appear in this weekend’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. I predicted that we’d definitely see Skinny Pete, Badger, Old Joe, and Mike (check, check, check, and flashback check), and I figured there was a decent shot the artist formerly known as Heisenberg would show up (also check). Fan favorites like Huell and wrongful fan enemies like Skyler were nowhere to be seen, but the best moment in El Camino came from someone who didn’t appear on my supposedly exhaustive list at all: Todd.
Last we saw everyone’s, um, favorite neo-Nazi (Can you have a favorite neo-Nazi? That doesn’t feel right.) he was being choked to death by Jesse—the final killing in Walter White’s assault on Uncle Jack’s compound. In El Camino, Todd (played by Jesse Plemons, who appears to be very comfortable with new-day weight) is very much still alive, albeit in flashback form. The film intercuts a handful of memories with Jesse Pinkman’s attempts to survive in the present day, and none leave viewers feeling as close to the original series, and as awful for its protagonist, as those with Todd.
For those whose recollections of the life and times of Todd Alquist are fuzzy, allow me to get you up to speed. We first meet the quiet, obedient Todd as an employee of Vamonos Pest, a fumigation company Walt and Jesse use to cover one of their many cooks. After winning their favor, Todd joins the gang in the Great Train Methylamine Heist, and then just as everyone says to themselves, “Hey, Todd seems like a good hang,” he kills, without remorse, a child on a bike who witnessed the whole thing. You know, like totally normal, not at all terrifying people do. His uncle Jack is the leader of a neo-Nazi clan that Walt tasks with taking out a series of Gus Fring’s men across three prisons, à la The Godfather’s baptism murders. Later, rather than having Jesse killed, Todd convinces his kin to keep Jesse captive as a slave cook.
Todd is among Breaking Bad’s most confusing characters. He has a boyish crush on Lydia. It’s cute! And he kills Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea in cold blood for kicks. Such is Todd. In El Camino, he’s more of the same. The first time we see him, he’s sneaking Jesse cigarettes and breaking him out of the compound—though not without a threat about killing Andrea’s son, Brock, if he tries to run. After asking for Jesse’s help attaching a roof to the trunk of his titular car, Todd tells Jesse he needs help with one more thing.
In his kitchen, Jesse finds a body—that of Todd’s maid, whom he strangled when she innocently found a stash of his cash in a hollowed-out encyclopedia. Todd explains this in total calm while making Campbell’s soup. It is unnerving. He commands Jesse to help him dispose of the body, and they drive out to the desert to bury her. On the way, Todd sings along with England Dan and John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” on the radio and begs a passing tanker to honk while Jesse curls up in the trunk with a dead body and a shovel.
It’s when they’ve finally laid her to rest (but not before Todd mentions she was a “nice, nice lady, excellent housekeeper”) that El Camino gives viewers its best moment. Todd tells Jesse to retrieve more cigarettes from the car. Rather than do so, Jesse picks up the gun Todd’s left there. Here, in the barren wasteland of the American Southwest, he can finally be free. He holds the pistol tight, trying hard to muster the courage to pull the trigger. But Jesse isn’t human anymore. He’s something less; too far gone, too broken. Jesse can’t look at window shades without thinking of the bars that sat above his cage. He can’t shower without remembering how Jack and his crew hosed him down. Everything brings memories, and all of them are painful. Todd asks him to put the gun down and tells Jesse he did good today and that he’s earned some pizza—pepperoni, Jesse’s favorite. For a moment, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be enough; Jesse needs this, and we need it for him. But we know how this story ends. Jesse lowers his weapon, and then his head, as Todd consoles him.
Breaking Bad was hailed not just for its storytelling but for the myriad characters that made its world feel fully inhabitable. Walt’s cameo felt like a necessary piece to Jesse’s puzzle. Mike’s set Jesse’s plan in motion (shouts to my colleague Ben Lindbergh on correctly predicting his endgame). Todd’s helped us establish just how far gone Jesse was. And how far back he came by the film’s conclusion. Jesse’s arc, just as it did at series’s end, concluded with him driving out into the unknown, this time finally free.