A Video Essay Guide to ‘Breaking Bad’

If you’re like me, when news broke that El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie would be coming to Netflix, you thought to yourself, “Great! I’m going to rewatch Breaking Bad to prepare!” And then you forgot to do it, or you realized you had better things to do.

To help fans in need of a recap, El Camino star Aaron Paul went on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week to summarize all of Breaking Bad in under three minutes.

His synopsis is pretty good, but if you’re looking for a more in-depth guide to the show and its characters, motifs, and other preoccupations, then you may instead want to turn to the video essays below. They not only serve as a great refresher as you prepare to reenter what I guess we can now call the Breaking Bad Cinematic Universe but also provide you with some things to look for as you watch the film.

Poor Jesse

Any guide to prepare you for El Camino has to begin with Jesse Pinkman (Paul). In a show full of stand-out characters, Jesse may be the most compelling and sympathetic of the bunch: for five seasons we sit in front of the TV helpless as bad thing after bad thing after bad thing happens to him. He takes beatings, loses loved-ones, commits murder, struggles with substance abuse, and more. In “Poor Jesse,” TV Scholar Jason Mittell examines Jesse’s character arc in the form of a fanvid:

Mittell is currently working on a video essay book about Breaking Bad, which also includes an essay examining Jesse’s relationship with Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter), who makes an appearance in El Camino. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a death as hard as I felt Jane’s, and this essay explores that moment in a compelling, albeit hard to watch, way.

The Breaking Bad Style

In examining Breaking Bad, many video essayists have turned to the show’s formal elements. With Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan directing El Camino (he directed five episodes of Breaking Bad, including the first and final episodes of the series), expect much of that style to find its way into the film.

The first of these two supercuts is by filmmaker Kogonada, who compiles various shots from Breaking Bad in which we take on the point of view of objects: car trunks, ovens, a Roomba, lab beakers, etc. These shots have an immersive quality to them, not only bringing us into the world of the characters but forcing us to look right back at them, too.

The second one, by Jorge Luengo Ruiz, is a compilation of wide shots we have come to expect from Breaking Bad. The video essay is prefaced in its introduction on Vimeo with a quote from cinematographer Michael Slovis: “The wide shots people refer to as Breaking Bad shots. Directors will say, ‘Let’s do the Breaking Bad wide shot,’ which in television is not something that you very often see.'” The video goes on from there:

This short but brilliant video essay by Vashi Nedomansky uses one moment from Breaking Bad to illustrate the effect of motivated camera movements. It shows not only how such movements can surprise us but also how they can be used to tell us something about the characters at that moment. As is the case here in this intense moment between Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Skyler (Anna Gunn) in the show’s final season.

Don’t Forget About Walter

A video essay guide to Breaking Bad would not be complete without one about Walter White. Many great video essays have been made about Walt, but there’s one that has stuck with me more than any other, and it’s one I wrote about almost two years ago on this website.

“Where a Gun Begins” by Larry Erens illustrates the relationship between weapons and Walter’s development as a character. The essay begins at the pilot when Walt fails to commit suicide with a handgun, and it takes us all the way through to the show’s finale when he builds an incredibly complicated machine gun to kill a bunch of Nazis and save his and Jesse’s lives. Ironically, Walter takes a fatal bullet from the machine gun; he finally succeeds in killing himself. This video essay ends where Breaking Bad and Walter White end, thus making room for Jesse Pinkman and his new life. It’s the perfect essay to watch before sitting down with El Camino.

P.S. Watch this one, too. Trust me.

Will DiGravio: @willdigravio Will DiGravio began writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.