While fans eagerly await the next (and presumably final) season of Better Call Saul, they can scratch their Breaking Bad itch with El Camino, a feature-length film set after the main series finale.
A Jesse Pinkman epilogue that plays more like an after-party or reunion tour, El Camino doesn’t even try to be accessible to new viewers. Simply put, if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, there is no point in watching this – and if you don’t remember Breaking Bad that well, you’ll miss out on some of the finer points and references.
El Camino is by no means essential viewing, and even at its best, it doesn’t really hit the soaring heights of quality of Breaking Bad’s final run – not for lack of effort, passion or talent, but simply because the show’s sublime, definitive ending hardly leaves one wanting.
If this came out right after the series finale, it probably would have felt a bit tacked on and unnecessary. Six years later though, watching El Camino is like greeting an old friend.
The story picks up immediately after the Breaking Bad finale (SPOILERS for the show’s ending) with a traumatized Jesse Pinkman screaming and driving away in the titular El Camino.
Jesse’s quest for freedom and a new life isn’t going to be as simple as driving to Alaska though. On top of being a wanted fugitive with close ties to one of the world’s most notorious drug kingpins, he’s also broke and haunted by painful memories of his captivity.
Jesse’s emotional journey through this really puts Aaron Paul through the wringer, what with starting as a broken shell of a man that slowly rebuilds his sense of identity. The old Jesse can never truly come back, as his scars – both physical and emotional – are plain to see.
Paul gives a terrific performance that is at once vulnerable and defiant, reminding us who Jesse once was while foregrounding the toll of all the terrible things he’s been through.
Many Breaking Bad characters return in minor, but important roles. Badger and Skinny Pete, for instance, help Jesse get back on his feet.
It’s (SPOILERS for El Camino) the return of major characters like Mike, Walter and Jane that feels fan-serviceish, but the film is smart in the way it utilizes them. They only come back for a single scene that contains both a) a small, but memorable character beat and b) hints for Jesse’s future.
The repugnant Todd gets the largest role of the returning cast in a series of flashbacks and writer/director Vince Gilligan somehow manages to make him even more despicable. I have hated very few characters as much as Jesse Plemons’ childlike sociopath.
El Camino even manages to introduce a few new antagonists that, well, get the job done. That’s all they can really do, as the story doesn’t really have room for hall-of-fame villains of, say, Gus’ caliber.
The narrative unfolds at the slow, meticulous pace that Breaking Bad is famous for. It takes a while before you start to see how the Todd flashbacks are at all relevant to Jesse’s present situation.
Other hallmarks of the series, like a montage of characters searching every nook and cranny of a location, or Western influences (at their most explicit) also make a welcome return – like an expertly made Breaking Bad highlight reel.
The fact that the actors have visibly aged does require varying degrees of suspension of disbelief. The events of Breaking Bad take place over the course of two years, but it’s been well over a decade since the show premiered. Sometimes you can let it slide, other times it’s pretty tough to ignore.
In terms of major events, El Camino is short on surprises. Any Breaking Bad fan that’s spent even the tiniest amount of time speculating about what happened to Jesse after the series finale could easily guess what happens at the end of the film.
As with the show itself, the devil is in the details and that’s where El Camino truly shines. This film is a treat for fans. It didn’t really need to exist, but I, for one, am really glad that it does.
In Loving Memory of Robert Forster, whose final role was in El Camino
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is out now on Netflix.