I can’t say that I missed Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) — whether you loved or hated Breaking Bad’s finale, it was definitive — but it’s nice to see him again.
The big question when El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie was announced, as with any spinoff or sequel, was whether or not we “needed” it. Why mess with closure? Granted, Vince Gilligan has proven us fools for doubting before. Better Call Saul, the spinoff/prequel series centered around crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), is, dare I say, better than Breaking Bad, and even Gilligan’s X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, was unusually charming. But unlike those episodic extensions, El Camino doesn’t propel Gilligan’s vision forward to become a necessary addition to the canon; rather, it’s calling to the sense of familiarity invoked by the sight of a porkpie hat, or a cry of, “Yeah, bitch!”
Written and directed by Gilligan, El Camino is a postscript to the acclaimed series, following Jesse in the immediate aftermath of his escape from white supremacists. Tellingly, it operates on the assumption that viewers will have some familiarity with what came before. Flashbacks of Jesse’s time as a meth-cooking captive help fill in the overall picture, but the blanks they color in are moments that went unseen in the series rather than opportunities to catch up, and Gilligan’s context clues are sparse. (This may be refreshing for steel-trap-minded fans, less so for those who haven’t rewatched the series recently.)
The actual drama of El Camino is rickety. Much like Better Call Saul, the film feels caught between two worlds. The heart of the story is meditative — the film is ultimately about Jesse working through the trauma inflicted upon him by Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) as well as Walter White (Bryan Cranston) himself — but it can’t quite avoid veering into the shoot-’em-up territory that the franchise is better remembered for. The scrapes that Jesse ends up getting into, akin to the Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) asides in Better Call Saul, feel like fan service for those longing for a taste of Heisenberg’s meth-lab-exploding action. A late face-off between Jesse and a man involved in his imprisonment offers us one of the most interesting dynamics in the film, and the conversation’s eventual turn into a shoot-out feels disappointing.
The big set pieces are fun, including a shootout reminiscent of an old Western, but they’re not as impressive or affecting as Paul taking Jesse through the emotional minefield lying between him and a potential fresh start. We got glimpses of what Jesse went through as an enslaved cook in the series, and flashbacks drive home the horror of what he endured: the underground bunker (a glorified cage) where he was kept. Quiet scenes ramp up tension simply by focusing on Jesse’s expression as brief chances at escaping the compound butt up against just how beaten-down he’s become. Jesse’s grief is also the most compelling part of the current timeline; it’s just more interesting watching him try to cope on his own than having to turn to Heisenberg’s extreme tactics.
El Camino’s strength is its interpersonal relationships, best illustrated by its opening scenes, which find Jesse appealing to his old friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) for help. Their banter doesn’t require any imminent sense of danger to be interesting or convey their bond — it’s a coping mechanism to deal with their sense of separation from what their friend has been through, trying to find a level ground between that trauma and normalcy.
The film unfolds in just a few days, making most of Jesse’s journey an internal fight for survival. Gilligan, who has always had a flair for the cinematic, doesn’t rush these quiet moments along. El Camino also feels even more like a swan song as it’s shot in a wider aspect ratio than Breaking Bad, stretching out to accommodate even more of the gorgeous New Mexico scenery — and, sometimes, feeling more claustrophobic as the lowered vertical scale seems to close in on Jesse.
To that end, El Camino almost feels like an Easter egg, something you’d find in the Breaking Bad special features to reward intrepid fans. Jesse’s ride into the sunset in Breaking Bad seemed uncomplicated, as he whooped in joy and relief as he drove away, but digging any deeper would prompt the questions: would Jesse really be able to escape so simply? Wouldn’t he become a fugitive, robbed of his freedom all over again? They’re not questions that need answering, but it’s nice to have some clarity, regardless.
Breaking Bad has streamed on Netflix since the early days of the service, but this is the first time the series has felt like a Netflix property. The audience for El Camino falls into two categories: those who’ll be waiting to watch it as soon as it premieres, and those who’ll come across it while looking for something to watch, and find it just diverting enough to pass the time.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is streaming on Netflix now.