WARNING: The following review does not contain any spoilers for the film, but will disclose plot points of the five seasons of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, I’d highly encourage doing so, and reading my piece on it as part of the best shows of the decade.
How do you follow up to something that inherently had a perfect ending? The final season of Breaking Bad isn’t just great television, but one of the most perfectly crafted closures to any story told in the film medium. Every character ended on a note of finality, some satisfying and some ambiguous, but it felt like the last possible story to be told in that universe. Of course, the excellent spinoff series Better Call Saul explores events prior to the show’s timeline, but the idea of returning to the denomout of this saga is one that admittedly induces some anxiety on whether or not a story can ever end.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is not quite a continuation; it is a sequel to the end of Breaking Bad, but if anything it feels like an extended closure for Jesse Pinkman. It’s not taking the story in any wild new direction, and the only thing that differentiates it from an extended episode of the show is that it doesn’t feature Walter White and it’s two hours long. This is Jesse taking a new step forward by looking at the path behind him, and it’s ending doesn’t exactly venture into a different direction thematically from the one Jesse ended on in Breaking Bad’s finale “Felina.”
After escaping imprisonment and losing his mentor and best friend Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Jesse (Aaron Paul) is now on the run from the law, as he’s implicated in the gang slayings that were seen in “Felina.” Looking for a new identity and a fresh start, Jesse is looking for cash that would enable his new direction, but the old wounds still haunt him as he’s caught deep in reflection about how his life came to be this way.
Jesse was always the heart of Breaking Bad; in many ways he was just as tragic as Walt, and was always more of a moral center than an enabler. Things happened around Jesse and forces beyond his control kept him in the drug business, and Paul was always able to turn this once comedic sidekick into a product of the tragedy that surrounded him. In that sense, the best thing that can be said about El Camino is that it’s cathartic; El Camino details the pain inflicted to Jesse with the same amount of excruciating detail, but it also doesn’t turn him into a flawless action hero who comes in to save the day. Jesse was always my favorite character (which is true for a lot of people), and by revisiting the moments that built him, El Camino reflects on the legacy he has.
This legacy comes in the form of flashbacks that tie in events that happen around the fifth season with Jesse’s current on the run mission. There are a lot of familiar faces, and while it’s more than a checklist of cameos, there’s not a lot of new dramatic material being unearthed. I like that Jesse gets to see Skinny Pete and Badger again; those characters are great and it’s a moment of levity that shows the life Jesse left behind. They serve a purpose in moving the plot forward, but they’re also fan service, which isn’t something that Breaking Bad has ever really been about.
Most of the flashbacks show Jesse’s torture and captivity, but one in particular gives a glimpse into what Jesse was earlier in the story. Without spoiling anything (although it seemed rather obvious), this gives a glimpse at a different Jesse with different priorities, and although it doesn’t have any clear plot purpose, it’s a perfect way to counterbalance the character we see now.
More curious is the large presence of Todd (Jesse Plemons), the quirky sociopath who made Jesse’s life a living hell. Plemons is phenomenal and brings back the darkly amusing, Coens-esque sensibility he gave to the show, but his character takes up a massive amount of screen time that reiterates the same point about what Jesse went through. There’s a great moment that actually enhances the final season by showing the extent to which Jesse was under Todd’s thumb, but it seemed like the film could’ve either shown us more familiar characters or gone in a completely new direction.
This is a film that is light on story; Jesse’s task is simple and perhaps gone about in a convoluted way, but the beauty of Breaking Bad was always its unique perspective on the process of problem solving. Unique situations arose where characters needed to make fast decisions, and in El Camino there’s some expertly crafted tense setpieces where Jesse is faced with difficult moral decisions and must lay his cards out on the table. A scene in which Jesse is trapped in Todd’s apartment carries all the existential dread and visceral spontaneity that the show had, with Jesse caught in over his head and forced to question the extent he’s willing to go.
I’ve gone so far without mentioning too much about Paul, but suffice to say it’s a performance of jaw dropping magnitude. Paul ended Breaking Bad screaming in confusion and fury, and now he’s left with the afterthoughts of all these feelings as he is forced to go back to painful memories. There isn’t a definitive light at the end of the tunnel for Jesse, and this version has a more steely resolve, and doesn’t instantly revert to the “yeah, bitch!” quippy character we once knew. If Jesse was always the heart of the show, than this is a film that puts much more emphasis on feeling and requires a performance of the highest caliber; Paul carries an entire history on his shoulders, and suggests that even if Jesse doesn’t know what his future will be he just needs to forget the past.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is certainly an expertly directed film from Vince Gilligan; it’s exciting, visually inventive, and reflects the same process that the show had. It doesn’t really add anything to Jesse as a character; it enhances the things we’ve seen before and solidifies the direction he was going, but it isn’t a chapter that will drastically change the viewing of Breaking Bad, nor does it present a particularly original take on the “man on the run” mythology. That being said, it’s a fun treat for fans, and there’s nothing inauthentic here; if Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul decided that this was a story worth telling I respect their desire for closure, and the great craftsmanship and acting make it a respectable entry into the show’s canon. At the end of the day, I missed Jesse. I’m glad he’s back. Grade: B