(Spoiler warning: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and don’t want any details, including on its opening scene. There are also Breaking Bad spoilers from six years ago.)
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie opens with Jesse Pinkman and Mike Ehrmantraut on on the banks of a fast-moving river, looking out at a beautiful mountain range, contemplating life. If the sight looks familiar, it should: It’s the last sight Mike ever saw on Breaking Bad.
The banks of the Rio Grande previously appeared on Season 5, Episode 7 of Breaking Bad, “Say My Name.” (Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan creator identified the river by name on the Breaking Bad Insider podcast.)
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We aren’t saying the opening scene of El Camino takes place on the exact same stretch of riverbank where Mike (Jonathan Banks) had his ill-fated meeting with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in “Say My Name.” But they’re at least very similar stretches of the cottonwood bosque found close to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the main setting for Breaking Bad.
The “Say My Name” meeting, as you’ll recall if you’ve seen the episode (stop reading if you haven’t), ended with Walt shooting Mike through a car window, the car rolling toward the river, and Walt following it to find no one inside. He walked down to a marshy stretch of river bank to find Mike, in the place where he had chosen to die.
Walt realized, in this moment, that there might have been no need to kill Mike, and stammered a very Walter White apology. But Mike was having none of it.
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“Shut the fuck up,” he told Walter, “and let me die in peace.”
Then, staring out at the mountains, he slumped over and did just that.
Breaking Bad is so good at so many things that it’s easy to forget the excellence of its location scouting. Remember when the penultimate episode, “Granite State,” substituted New Mexico’s mountains for those of New Hampshire?
Fantastic location scouting is also on display in El Camino, in the opening scene and throughout. Not to get too heavy about it, but it’s not hard to interpret the river as a metaphor for life, moving quickly, with or without us.
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In the moments in “Say My Name” before Walt arrives and kills Mike, we see Mike holding small skipping stones as he looks out at the water. This is clearly the place he comes to relax and contemplate.
El Camino reminds us, in its opening scene, how deeply Mike cared for Jesse (Aaron Paul). He let Jesse be a part of his riverside contemplation, and even gave him a bit of advice about what he’d do with his life if he still had Jesse’s youth. Mike says he would travel to Alaska, which he calls “the last frontier.”
The simple scene—and setting—establish Jesse’s journey for the remainder of the film.
We see the phrase “the last frontier” again at the end of El Camino, when we see that Jesse will try to live out the life Mike couldn’t, and escape the fate dealt to Mike on the riverbank. MM