Finishing up Breaking Bad, viewers got to see the disheveled Jesse Pinkman “ride off into the sunset” in his Chevrolet El Camino, providing a great moment of catharsis for perhaps the series’ most beloved character. However, with this moment still came a great amount of uncertainty for what the character’s future would hold. He would be a fugitive, one of the most wanted men in America, no doubt. The cops were already hot on his tail and one had to wonder if this brief release of elation would be short-lived for Jesse before his inevitable capture. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie seeks to build on that moment specifically and provide further closure to Jesse’s story. By keeping the vision focused on that point specifically, the film accomplishes exactly that and provides longtime fans with a memorable sendoff for one of television’s greatest characters.
Writer/director/show-runner Vince Gilligan brings us back into the world of crime-riddled Albuquerque with ease, utilizing flashbacks to remind viewers of the horrors that Pinkman was put through, while also showing lighter moments to reestablish his humanity and empathy. These are woven into the narrative relatively seamlessly, meaning to provide insight into the broken man we see on the run in the present timeline. The film picks up right where his story left off at the end of the series; we see him speeding off in his El Camino, screaming with delight at his escape, not yet even thinking what the future may hold. However, he quickly realizes his reality as the cops are in hot pursuit. He finds a brief refuge with old favorites Badger and Skinny Pete. From there, as the story unfolds, he comes in contact with friends and enemies alike as he determines how he will flee the authorities and set forth on a fresh start.
The seeds were planted for Jesse’s story all along in Breaking Bad, as Walt was indeed the show’s main character, but Jesse was really the character we were meant to connect with. The show saw him go through many changes over its run, from the young and eccentric dope peddler to Walt’s sidekick in his drug operation, to the eternally depressed drug addict who had gotten in too deep, to the caged animal forced to operate under a massive drug cartel, to the finally escaped prisoner of a drug war. Here, we see shades of all those personas come to roost. The flashbacks, in particular, do a great job in helping to show what the character has been through and foreshadowing decisions he will make as he works towards achieving eternal freedom.
The most common criticism that has been levied against this film has been its so-called “inconsequential” nature and people suggesting that it largely operates as a fan service device. There is some validity to these gripes, however, they appear to be under-selling the emotional charge that fuels this movie and its central character. Aaron Paul’s performance as Pinkman in the series was one the most memorable in television history, as Gilligan had famously originally planned to have him killed off early on but quickly saw the rich character he had on his hands and would instead build the story around him as a sort of 1B to Walt as the series went on. Post-Breaking Bad life has not been too kind to Paul as his movie and TV career has seemingly halted over the last five years (although he finally seems to have got a big break starring in the next season of Westworld for HBO), so it shouldn’t come as a shock that when Gilligan and Netflix came to him with an idea for a Jesse centric film sequel he was eager to sign up. He picks up the performance right where he left off and is quite exceptional here, bringing a great amount of levity to the character and reminding us why we fell in love with him in the first place.
We see many familiar faces here, if only in brief cameo-adjacent roles, and they are better left unstated for the purposes of this review. However, when thinking about the use of flashbacks and Jesse’s relationships in the series, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine them. This is likely where the complaints of fan service may arise and again, while there may be something to that, each cameo feels resonant with Jesse’s character and does a lot draw the viewer back into his state of mind, recalling past experiences and expounding upon them. One of these roles that warrants detailing at this time, however, is that played by the late Robert Forster, who we had learned of his passing not twelve hours before I sat down to watch this movie. Seeing him come on screen brought a tear to my eye and of course, he is perfect in his two scenes in this movie, bringing a muted sense of calm to the film. Aaron Paul and others have been sharing mournful thoughts on social media in the time since his passing and it really couldn’t be more fitting that we got this final sendoff for one of our greatest actors. He will be dearly missed.
Lovers of the legendary series that gave us so much will surely be more than satisfied to see it give us a little more. Vince Gilligan shouldn’t have been doubted in the slightest as his vision of Breaking Bad and more recently Better Call Saul has been one of the most expertly-crafted exhibitions of television writing and directing we’ve ever seen. With El Camino, he very much returns to the style of the original show and gives us what can be easily equated to our first television “DLC,” bonus content that only adds to the brilliance of the original story. It is hard to think of this without comparing it to Deadwood: The Movie, which HBO dropped earlier this year. There is one key difference between these two followups to two of the greatest series to ever grace our television screens: one finishes a story that had previously gone unfinished in a deeply meaningful way, while the other adds to an already satisfying conclusion that had been executed by its craftsman. There is certainly nothing wrong with the latter, especially when it is done with as much care and control as Gilligan exhibits here, but it is important to note that they are not the same. Still, while this might not be an addition that its story needed, should we still be happy that we got it? Yes, yes we absolutely should be.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is currently available to stream on Netflix — in addition to Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul