Breaking Bad fans were treated to a long-awaited coda this year with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
For those unfamiliar to the revered series (no judgement, I was a latecomer as well), Breaking Bad was the saga of a terminally ill chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth with one of his former students, and over the course of five seasons, evolves into an amoral and dangerous drug kingpin.
The series’ acclaimed ending saw a desperate Walter White stage an elaborate rescue to free Jesse from a white supremacist compound, where he’d been held prisoner and forced to make meth. El Camino picks up right where the show left off, with a desperate and traumatized Jesse fleeing for his life.
His first stop is his old drug dealer buddies Badger and Skinny Pete, who are surprisingly resourceful in helping him escape the police. He spends the rest of the movie trying to cobble together enough cash to buy a new life from a vacuum salesman who specializes in such things. Luckily for Jesse, he knows where his former captors kept their stash. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one who knows.
So, is El Camino any good?
Yes, actually. Arriving six years after the show’s well-regarded conclusion, El Camino can’t help but feel a bit like superfluous fan service. But for the most part, the quality of the film outweighs any objections to it being “unnecessary.”
Everything Breaking Bad did well, El Camino also does. It’s got the same methodical pacing that I admired about the series, as well as the startling twists and doses of grim humour.
We’re also treated to flashbacks from some of the most beloved characters from the show, including dirty cop turned underworld enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut, Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Jane (who fatally overdosed in season three), and Walter White himself (reminding us what a surly jerk he was even before he became a murderous criminal mastermind.) Of these, the only one that feels strictly necessary is Mike’s – a cold open in which he suggests Jesse take off to Alaska before he passes the point of no return.
“Alaska,” Jesse says, deep in thought. “Start over. Start fresh. Make things right.”
“No,” Mike replies. “Sorry, kid, that’s the one thing you can never do.”The best flashbacks, surprisingly, are the ones that depict Jesse’s captivity. These scenes are hard to watch, but they establish the stakes and give us a reason to root for the guy, even though he’s well past exhausted all of his second chances.
Aaron Paul’s Jesse was always the heart of the show, a kid-brained young man who picked the worst possible mentor in sociopathic Walt. Here, he’s bruised and broken, his primal drive to live the only thing keeping him moving.
He’s also, for the most part, completely alone. El Camino may mark the first time we’ve seen Jesse forced to be completely self-reliant, without Walt to fall back into, and it’s actually refreshing. After years of co-dependence, it’s a thrill to see him figure out his own plan, outwitting cops and criminals alike.
There’s also a scene where Jesse gets Wild West-style revenge on an old enemy, a security specialist who not only built Jesse’s cage but watched as his captors faced forced him to run around like a rat, testing the strength of the bars. There’s something cathartic about the scene – a hint of remorse in the man’s manner as he initiates the duel, essentially offering himself up for retribution. Penance disguised as an ego trip. Had this been an episode of the original series, this scene would have doubtless inspired a few think pieces.
No one was really clamoring for a Breaking Bad sequel, but it should be no surprise that El Camino turned out to be very, very good. After all, Vince Gilligan & Co. know what they’re doing. Back in 2015, many feared that Better Call Saul (a prequel focusing on Walt’s sleazy lawyer) would be nothing more than a lame joke; instead, it’s developed into one of the small screen’s most compelling tragedies, in some ways superior to its source material.
El Camino is yet another instance of the Breaking Bad team showing the same reverence and care to its offshoots as they did to the original show. If they can keep up this level of quality, there’s no reason they shouldn’t keep revisiting the vivid, violent world they’ve cooked up.
Title: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Director: Vince Gilligan
Screenwriter: Vince Gilligan