El Camino holds its own as a solid road-film thriller, fit with Vince Gilligan's first-rate direction, strong performances and deftly paced drama.
There’s a sense of nostalgia when reflecting on the unexpected success and impact that Breaking Bad left on audiences worldwide, forever changing the state of serial television and pop culture. While the series has found its lifespan extended by the equally brilliant spin-off/prequel Better Call Saul, that show has not yet captured the mass attention or ‘influential’ status that its predecessor gained by its final season. The sudden appearance of El Camino registers, then, as a surprise to fans, with the story of Walter White seemingly wrapped up for good. While it may suffer for some viewers as an unnecessary ‘extended episode’, El Camino justifies itself as a swansong for the character of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), whose original ending arguably left his arc incomplete. El Camino ties up these loose narrative threads, providing expectedly first-rate thrills and introspection with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s inimitable hands on directing duties once more. It manages to stand out on its own, injecting a rare, much-needed glimmer of hope never fully seen before within the tragic degeneration of the Breaking Bad universe.
A previously unseen flashback, featuring Jesse and series regular Mike (Jonathan Banks) discussing their futures, eases us back into familiar territory. While the actors have clearly aged – an issue that will likely distract some – the chemistry is as strong as it ever was. Jesse pitches the potential of “starting fresh,” to be relieved of the painful experiences we’ve watched unfold throughout Breaking Bad, and repair his fractured life. Mike quickly shoots that optimism down, reminding Jesse “that’s the one thing you can never do” – a re-assertion of the series’ emphasis on consequentialism. From here we pick up, via jump cut, where the finale left us: Jesse victoriously escaping his captivity from the neo-Nazis, a brief moment of catharsis before the nerve-wracking realisation that the danger is not over yet. In many ways this jarring transition epitomises the show’s presentation of hope as fleeting, thrusting us back into a world of peril and lingering scars. Whereas Breaking Bad was firmly the end of Walt’s arc, El Camino is established as the missing puzzle piece, showing Jesse liberate himself from his past, regain his agency and mould his own path forward. As one character states near the film’s climax, “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life. It’s better to make those decisions for yourself.”
Jesse was an incredibly important character in Breaking Bad. Conceived originally as a temporary side-kick to be disposed of in the show’s first season, the abused junkie remained through sheer luck a long-standing player who had a staying power with audiences, becoming one of the few truly sympathetic characters by the series’ end. He is still culpable for much of the past; El Camino doesn’t omit this guilt, but Jesse constantly bore (and continues to do so here) the sins of others, whether as a result of Walt’s manipulation or taking blame to help his brother. The response to his virtues was often that of punishment.
While this central theme – that goodness does not always equal goodness in return – remains in El Camino, it’s because Jesse keeps to his faith and goodwill that he is given one last opportunity for reprieve. With this, Jesse is able to effectively transform and overcome his trauma. It is in this compelling framework through which El Camino is able to prosper, particularly in its palpable tension-building and precarious stakes, and one that keeps true to the original philosophy governing Breaking Bad while adding to it a chance for amnesty. This is helped by Aaron Paul, who steps back into this deeply traumatised soul with ease. His performance yields the same emotional power as before; the actor is not burdened by top billing. It’s hard not to be both excited and fearful for Jesse’s final stand, speaking to our need for his goodness to prevail, and El Camino rewards us this hint of optimism with a satisfying conclusion.
It would be wrong to class El Camino as an ‘original’ story, functioning more so as the frosting to Breaking Bad’s cake. Some knowledge of the series is needed to engage with the feature, but that’s to be expected. After all, the subtitle is ‘A Breaking Bad Movie’. This is another element of El Camino’s effectiveness though, as Gilligan’s tight direction keeps it from being led astray by the trappings of fan service. The film does revisit several iconic settings and characters, but these are never to the detriment of the exacting pace and prove crucial to Jesse’s development and making sense of his decisions going forward. The copious flashbacks can seem to wear the plot thin at points, especially one that is thin enough on its own. Without them, though, the small-scale form this epilogue takes on would be far emptier, particularly as an addendum to Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul’s grim moral outlook.
Part crime thriller, part road movie (‘El Camino’ translating as ‘the road’), the show’s genre cues remain balanced throughout the film too. The neo-Western overtones become even more obvious and crucial to the construction of story. Indeed, the same expressionist cinematography of Marshall Adams is employed to larger cinematic proportions, its signature shaky shot compositions, lighting and hand-held style once again proving Gilligan’s directing talent. The familiarly seedy and barren New Mexico locales are imparted with a more threatening and empty presence this time around, lending Jesse’s journey a greater sense of danger and finality. Moreover, Skip MacDonald’s faultless editing helps to augment some of the more tense, thrilling sequences. Dave Porter’s cerebral score, and an appropriately low-key soundtrack, signifies El Camino’s steady shift from the show’s past. As far as epilogues go, this proves quite rewarding as one last ride with some of our favourite characters from a genuinely beloved series. As a quiet reflection on all that came before and all that will come after, El Camino serves as a worthy coda.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, directed by Vince Gilligan, is available to stream now via Netflix, certificate 15. Season 5 of Better Call Saul begins on the 24th February, with a new episode available on Netflix every Monday.