El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
So, let's get to the story so far.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) came back from self-imposed exile, insuring that his family was going to be cared for an getting rid of a bunch of neo-Nazis that were holding his partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) hostage and forcing him to cook meth using White's recipe. While White dies from a gunshot wound after setting off a remote-controlled machine gun, Pinkman hops into an El Camino owned by a psychopath named Todd (Jesse Plemons) and high-tails it on out. The end, credits roll.
That was four years ago as Breaking Bad came to its end. I won't say the show was perfect; in fact, I think its spin-off, Better Call Saul, is the superior program. It is kind of unfair to compare them since, even though they are the same universe and some of the same characters, the feel of the shows couldn't be more different. That is why it is strange that, instead of a new season of Better Call Saul, creator and director Vince Gilligan decided to let us in on what happened with Pinkman after that fateful night.
Rumors of a Breaking Bad movie of some sort had been swirling since the show went off the air, but El Camino just about showed up out of nowhere, finished, and ready to go on Netflix. In all honesty I, like many others, were happy with how the show ended. Pinkman may have started off as a lowlife drug dealer whose life would probably straighten out in another 10 years or so if his mouth didn't get him killed, but his former chemistry teacher Walter White, using his family as an excuse to let out his dark side when he suddenly got ill, ruined all that. Not only that, but White tangentially ruined the life of an innocent father, got his brother-in-law killed, a second girlfriend of Pinkman's murdered and her son orphaned and almost killed. In addition he was, due to his actions, responsible for a few hundred people dying in a mid-air collision. Pinkman, understandably, came out of the whole ordeal with more scars than just what we see on his face and back.
We begin with Pinkman on the run and wanted by the police. He stows the El Camino at the house shared by his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones), who aid him on his way. Through flashbacks we are introduced to some information about Todd, and Todd's habit of keeping cash hidden around his apartment. Jesse needs the money, but unfortunately so do some lowlives that used to work with Todd's Uncle Jack. One of them, Neil (Scott MacArthur), was responsible for building the rig that kept Jesse leashed.
The reason Jesse needs the money is not for revenge; he is pretty much done with that, and almost anyone he would need to get revenge against was already killed by Walter. Instead, he needs to gather the money to convince Ed (Robert Forster) to give him another chance and help him disappear.
One of the first things I noticed was that El Camino felt, in some ways, more like an episode of Better Call Saul than Breaking Bad. As it gets toward the end it begins to feel more like the latter, especially when it turns out that Jesse has learned quite a few moves from Walter, whether he wanted to or not. There are also shots that recall the grand sweep of scenery from Breaking Bad, particularly a scene that takes place in the Painted Desert. However, instead of being based on any typical action tropes, El Camino often feels like it cares more about the characters this time around rather than watching one man cause the world to burn. Better Call Saul shows us the conflicted person Saul Goodman really is, makes him a tragic figure by seeing his humanity slowly chipped away. Likewise, we see Jesse Pinkman redeemed through the fact that, after everything, the good person in Jesse that Walter White and everyone else tried to destroy is ultimately still there.
We get a number of cameos throughout, with one toward the end being particularly hard-hitting emotionally. Vince Gilligan has been riding a high ever since this series came out, and he doesn't stumble here either. It was risky to try and fill in the blanks, but ultimately Gilligan did a good job of wrapping everything up from the original show in a satisfying way that doesn't come as a sudden betrayal of those final last seconds as the series came to an end.
There are still some problems I have with it. Despite ending well, I don't think it really adds anything to what people expected for Jesse in the first place. There were really only a few limited options for him, since his parents rejected him early on, everyone else he loved was dead, as well as everyone he hated. Skinny Pete and Badger were the only ones left, and they make a brief, but memorable appearance early on, which leads to another problem with considering this to be a Breaking Bad movie. There is a purpose to Jesse's actions, which only become revealed after a number of flashbacks. In fact, a good part of the movie is flashbacks, while another large part is characters from the show appearing and interacting with Jesse in one way or another to further the plot.
Rather than see a whose-who reminding us of why we miss the show (and, again, the final cameos hit hard), it would have been nice to give Jesse more to do than just drift through the wasteland Walter left behind. Things do pick up at the end when he becomes more his own person and less of a whipping boy, but it the feel of El Camino is less of being a movie about Jesse Pinkman than it does a two-episode coda to the series. It doesn't help that it has been four years, the actors themselves have aged, and many were not really expecting to be in a Breaking Bad movie, particularly Jesse Plemons. While I swear Badger shrunk, Todd expanded, and that was largely due to roles Plemons had to take. Aaron Paul himself also looks significantly older.
Despite these concerns it is still nice to see the character one last time, and see how much the ordeal has changed him. It is closure on the series, which means after Better Call Saul finishes after another season or two that will largely be the end. I think part of why Gilligan did this, other than a thank-you to the fans, was to make sure that it was clear that we are nearing the end of everything related to the two shows. Hopefully if Pinkman can make it through the fire then Saul, in some way, can, too.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
Time: 122 minutes
Starring: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Scott MacArthur, Robert Forster
Director: Vince Gilligan