Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad Movie, El Camino begins with a brief flashback between Jesse and Mike (the always welcome Jonathan Banks) having a discussion about Alaska. It’s a calm scene full of foreshadowing with an elegiac tone, taking place by a placid body of water.
That respite is brief as the film then picks up seamlessly from the Breaking Bad finale. A haggard and grizzly Jesse bursts through the gates of the compound where the redneck white nationalists have him held in chains making blue meth for the Albuquerque masses. And just like that, we’re off. To the film’s great credit, it feels like we never really left.
Over the course of eight seasons, Jesse Pinkman became the heart of Breaking Bad. As Walter grew more Machiavellian in the latter years of the show, it was Jesse whom we related to. He was our eyes into a world that became increasingly more dangerous and downright mad.
In many ways, El Camino is like a valentine to Jesse Pinkman after all his years of suffering under the tutelage of Walter White. The consequences of which go far beyond the physical scars so evident on his face and body. Jesse escapes — narrowly — but he is spooked. He finds his way to Badger and Skinny Pete (both funny enough to where you could almost see a web series, if not a sitcom, based around the two).
Finding brief safe harbor with his old motley chums, Jesse showers, shaves, and tries to come up with a plan to get out — all the way out. The final scene between Jesse and Skinny Pete is not only well-crafted, but surprisingly moving. Badger and Pete may not be “good people,” but they do turn out to be good friends.
While El Camino is Jesse’s show, the rhythm and vibe of the production will be instantly recognizable to fans of the series. It would be incorrect to call the film nothing more than a two-hour episode. It functions both as a continuation and a stand-alone. The pace is a little more patient (almost like a classic western) and it feels visually more cinematic (particularly during a sequence in the desert with Todd). The extreme long shots taking a vulture’s eye view as Todd forces Jesse to cover up his latest malfeasance are stark and beautiful. This may be a Netflix movie, but it’s hard not to get caught up imagining what the desert would look like on a big screen.
Which if you think about it, is a pretty tricky line to walk. For the better part of the film, Walter White is merely a specter that hangs over the proceedings. Your opinion of El Camino will likely come down to how well you feel Aaron Paul can carry the weight of being in nearly every single scene.
In fact, the only other character from the series who gets a particularly long run in El Camino is Jesse Plemons as the aforementioned Todd. His extended sequence is both pivotal and somewhat problematic, as Plemons is much heftier now and his haircut doesn’t match his finale ‘do in the slightest. Still, if you can suspend your disbelief (and it is a little bit of work), Plemons’ turn as the dead-eyed but affable, soft-rock loving sociopath is a wonder to behold. Although you may find he looks a bit like Fatt Damon.
At its simplest, El Camino is an escape movie. Pinkman, now freed from his captors, must also elude the authorities while culling together enough money to finance his way out of New Mexico. His effort to do so leads up to the two best scenes in the film.
The first is with the great — and sadly and suddenly late — Robert Forster. Pinkman meets with ‘Ed,’ Forster’s vacuum cleaner shop owner cum creator of fake identities and escape routes. Jesse finds himself just short of Ed’s required fee. And Ed has a code. One he will not break. $123,200 is not $125,000. So, no deal. It’s a fabulous scene where all the wonders of Forster’s taciturn gifts are on full display and contrast perfectly with Aaron Paul’s palpable desperation.
Turned away by Ed until he can make up the $1800 shortage, Jesse must delve back into a dark corner of the world he just escaped to gather the necessary funds to meet Ed’s rate. In a fabulous standoff in a welding garage, Pinkman uses all his wits and guile to extract the funds from a man connected to his captivity. It is riveting, heart-pounding stuff. Much of what Jesse Pinkman has learned from Walter White has ruined his life. But in this penultimate sequence, that criminal education not only saves his life, it leads to a new one.
I’m not sure if Vince Gilligan and crew will dip their feet into the Breaking Bad pool again. If not, El Camino serves as a terrific capper to a legendary series. What I do know is if there is more story to be drained from these waters, I’d be more than up for seeing it.
It took eight seasons and a lot of cinematic blood, sweat, and tears for Aaron Paul to get his solo showcase. El Camino finds him more than up to the task. It’s a brave, wrenching, minimalist performance that is far, far away from the character we met in season one. The once low-level, slacker drug dealer and addict has seen and dealt out his share of loss. He is a murderer and a fugitive now. Paul brings this transition to aching life.
In El Camino, the callow, often hilarious, and occasionally annoying Jesse Pinkman matures into a nearly broken man who finds the will to survive and maybe — just maybe — live with what he’s done.
At least for now.
If this is truly the end, it’s been one hell of a ride. El Camino not only does no harm to the legacy of Breaking Bad, it further burnishes it.
That’s one mean feat.