Director: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Aaron Paul, Robert Forster, Charles Baker
Breaking Bad ended pretty well. Goddamn well, actually. That final run of episodes was TV dynamite, and an almost fully-formed exercise in how to close out a supremely popular cultural phenomenon (not always easy, is it, Game of Thrones?). Head honcho Vince Gilligan and his cohort Peter Gould have since brought the same quality to four seasons of its (superior?) prequel series Better Call Saul, but now – delaying the fifth season of that show – comes something different. Another finale for Breaking Bad.
Bit unnecessary, innit?
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely unnecessary. But now it’s here we might as well enjoy it, right? Truth be told there was unfinished business at the end of the show. What happened to Jesse? Did Huell ever stop waiting for Hank to come back to the motel room? At least one of these questions is answered in El Camino. Clue: not the second one.
Aaron Paul’s performance as Jesse over the course of six seasons of Breaking Bad was deceptive. Playing the class clown, the joker, the deadbeat and, frequently, the butt of the joke… it’s something of a thankless task. He was damned good at it, though. And when called for, he brought the intensity required of the show’s frequently intense story lines. By the end his Jesse was one of the few characters worth rooting for. It’s still easy to root for him, though Gilligan and his cohorts aren’t afraid of reminding the viewer of the blood on his hands.
El Camino picks up immediately where Breaking Bad left off. So if you’ve got some catching up to do, its best you do it now, before flicking this little curiosity on. Jesse has just busted out of the compound where he’s been held captive for some months, and Albuquerque, New Mexico is in a fervour dealing with the fallout of Walter White’s actions. Finding Pinkman is top priority. Jesse wants nothing more than to disappear (we’re reminded of his dreams of Alaska). For that he’ll need the services of vacuum-cleaner repair man Ed (dear-departed Robert Forster), and for that he’ll need money. Lots of it. Fortunately, a run of flashbacks shed light on just where Jesse might find some…
El Camino has a lot of fan servicing to do, and it sets about it with an openness that is nothing if not direct. Letting flashbacks into the narrative sets us up for a bunch of cameo appearances, and it’d be a shame to spoil some of those here. The one that seems more open to discussion is the broadening of Jesse’s relationship with his crazy captor Todd (Jesse Plemons). El Camino takes a particularly lengthy diversion down memory lane to open up the dynamic between these two; fleshing out something already known. It may seem like ephemera, but its the bread and butter of what Gilligan’s universe has continued to deliver since Breaking Bad went off air and, needful or not, it provides one of the most crushingly tragic moments we’ve yet seen for Jesse. His flightiness, his PTSD responses to freedom make more sense given this context.
This flick – which feels ostensibly like a TV special and nothing more – also features a smartly choreographed set piece within a ransacked apartment, one that plays cannily on power dynamics between those involved. So much of what made Breaking Bad fun was the guessing game of how Jesse and Walt would inch their way out of a corner. That magic is rekindled, albeit briefly.
With all of the series’ larger-than-life villains defeated, El Camino has to go some to make a memorable threat out of newcomer Neil (Scott MacArthur). In truth, it doesn’t manage it, and a spaghetti western stand-off followed by a big explosion feels a little “that’ll do” in comparison; perhaps the point at which Gilligan most keenly feels the pressure of bringing this little confection in at a tidy two hours. His storytelling style has grown comfortably into the patient long form of a TV season. That sensibility is still evidenced here, but its curtailed awkwardly by a feature film’s commitments to brevity. El Camino feels stifled.
But then there’s that subtitle. A Breaking Bad Movie. ‘A’ implies one of several, like those ill-fated Star Wars stories that have stalled following the so-so Solo. There’s the implicit threat of further episodes here. Again, not necessary, but if they’re coming there’ll be an audience for them. Gilligan isn’t satisfied just back-filling this universe with a prequel; El Camino shows a new appetite for the future. The giddy heights of Breaking Bad at its best are only echoed here, but who knows what the future holds.
No, seriously, is Huell still waiting for Hank? I wanna know.