EL CAMINO: Breaking Bad’s non-essential yet fitting coda

While billed as a Breaking Bad movie, El Camino falls between two stools. With a two hour running time and a solo Netflix slot, along with an element of theatrical release, Vince Gilligan’s film technically fits the bill of a motion picture but, ultimately, El Camino never misses a step in how it syncs up with its parent show.

Gilligan reputedly had the idea of how to continue the story of Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul’s hapless dropout turned meth-cooking, streetwise junkie, while shooting the final season of Breaking Bad back in 2013. He kept it under wraps until they approached the 10th anniversary of the series before electing to push ahead and make it happen, alongside production of still-airing prequel series Better Call Saul. Gilligan has consistently now played in his Breaking Bad universe for over a decade and while Better Call Saul is yet to reach an end point, El Camino very much draws a line under the post-Season 5 future of Breaking Bad. This is the coda you never imagined you needed.

Or perhaps you may have thought along the same lines as Gilligan, who always wanted to know what happened to Jesse after he escaped Neo-Nazi captivity thanks to his old mentor Walter White in series finale Felina, screaming away in torment at the wheel of the titular Camino to an uncertain, open-ended future. Walt’s fate had long been sealed as Breaking Bad’s complicated anti-hero protagonist but Jesse, often, served as the vulnerable, manipulated humanity at the heart of the series. To have him escape horrendous suffering and deep psychological trauma and not find out what became of him does, in retrospect, feel like a lost opportunity. El Camino very much takes advantage of that.

As a result, Gilligan gives us closure, maybe as much for himself as Jesse Pinkman.

El Camino is unusual in the sense that it is both a sequel movie to Breaking Bad and a direct continuation from the series finale at the same time.

It feels as a result more akin to the epilogue of a book series or video game saga; indeed it reminded me in that sense of the end of Red Dead Redemption 2, the recent Rockstar Old West epic prequel which developed an entire coda to the main story that flowed neatly into the narrative of the original game. You don’t need to see El Camino to have seen Breaking Bad, is the point. If you want to finish with Jesse screaming off into the void, you can. This is an optional extra and, consequently, it is very much tied to the series. Were this a theatrical release you decided to see without having watched Breaking Bad, you would be thoroughly lost.

Not many successful TV shows develop movie versions beyond their shelf life like El Camino. Some gravitate to the big screen and tell a story, like Downton Abbey recently, which you can enjoy independently of the series as long as you roughly understand the general concept. Many level up and make the canvas broader – Star Trek, for example, did just that with its Original Series and Next Generation crews, with mixed success. A rare beast was the first X-Files feature, Fight the Future, which was produced during the series to capitalise on its popularity and served to bridge two seasons with a connected dash of mythology, but even that film attempted to create a fairly solitary story within the context of broader arcs to prevent new viewers being lost. El Camino makes no such concessions.

The key is not approaching El Camino as a direct sequel or new lease of life for Breaking Bad. It isn’t. This is closing the book on the series people knew and loved with much of the same visual and narrative stylistics, picking up directly from where Felina left off and following the one major loose thread to its logical conclusion. El Camino is Jesse’s equilibrium, his peace. It’s not quite his redemption as Jesse doesn’t necessarily make right all of the mistakes he made during Breaking Bad. It is how he reconciles what happened to him across that series and finds some semblance of a life after trauma and change. Gilligan presents here an introspective Neo-Western fused with a post-traumatic stress drama. It’s about survival.

Aaron Paul never quite managed to carve himself out as a leading man post-Breaking Bad in the same way Bryan Cranston did, partly thanks to some poor choices (Need for Speed, anyone?), and also because he has never quite shaken off Jesse as a character. Cranston was a great character actor before Walter White came along, and he remains one afterward. Paul will be defined by Jesse, a character he imbues with such sensitivity, vulnerability and desperation, he is a heartbreaking soul to watch. His transformation across Breaking Bad from selfish, venal middle-class rudeboy to haunted, traumatised recovering drug addict remains one of the best character arcs in TV history (perhaps second only to Walt himself or Tony Soprano), and El Camino gives Paul the space to encompass Jesse once more. While he looks older, he steps back into Pinkman’s shoes without missing a beat.

Oddly enough, the only scene in El Camino which feels strangely out of step here is a flashback sequence to Jesse and Walt (a welcome cameo for Cranston, which he took a few days off performing on Broadway in Network to shoot), which is set during an earlier season but doesn’t quite flow given Paul, particularly, can’t quite switch easily back into the Jesse of old. He has almost come too far with the character to turn back now, yet Gilligan isn’t afraid to rewind the clock and immerse viewers in Breaking Bad lore to flesh out Jesse’s journey here. Jesse Plemons gets more to do than you might expect as the psychopathic yet calm Todd, and Walt isn’t the only cameo appearance to enjoy. Gilligan does indulge a little here but there is a feeling he has probably earned it by this stage, and he always tethers these appearances to Jesse’s central arc.

My favourite, incidentally, was a return for Robert Forster, who sadly died the day El Camino was released, yet remained until the end as skilled a character actor as there ever was.

It does feel like padding though, in some respects. El Camino doesn’t actually have a great deal in the way of plot, as such. There is no grand master narrative in play here. It’s a fairly stripped back idea – how Jesse starts over, and Gilligan plays it out in relatively standard terms. The enjoyment is the immersion back into the distinctive style of the Breaking Bad world, with its blend of blue & white collar losers, violent grifters and compromised law enforcement, all set to the background of the starkly beautiful New Mexico landscape. With added budget, Gilligan is also free to throw a few broader vistas and artful shots into the mix along the way, but he never detracts from how Breaking Bad itself looked. El Camino is very much of a piece, designed to work in step with the show preceding it – even to the point of more than a few darkly comic beats, and one delightfully cheeky direct nod to the Western genre Gilligan has so vividly updated and deconstructed with the Breaking Bad universe over all of these years.

El Camino ultimately is more of a love letter to the Breaking Bad franchise than a movie sequel in its own right. It could never exist without the TV show and is unashamed about that. It knows its place. It understand what it is setting out to do and it executes it well. This would never be able to equal Breaking Bad at its peak, which arguably came—unusually—at the very end, as five years of brilliantly constructed plotting unravelled in heart-stopping fashion. El Camino, to its credit, doesn’t try to. It is purely designed to give Jesse, and perhaps Gilligan, the ending Breaking Bad by necessity simply wasn’t capable of doing, given how it was first and foremost the story of Walter White. El Camino is Jesse’s story, and it cements him as a Neo-Western anti-hero and trauma victim who quietly, given he in the first half has minimal dialogue, experiences his own literal and emotional journey.

Even if it didn’t necessarily need to exist, Breaking Bad may end up being enhanced by El Camino in ways nobody ever expected.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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