'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie': TV Review

Doesn't ruin the end of 'Breaking Bad,' but doesn't add much either.
10/11/2019

Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul jump back into the aftermath of 'Breaking Bad' for a two-hour movie that's fun and often thrilling, but never feels necessary.

When it comes to Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan has already pulled off several extremely difficult tricks, beyond just creating an all-time great show.

First, Gilligan and his team arced a classic final season, peaking with the Mt. Rushmore episode "Ozymandias" and building to a finale that, while probably too tidy, still stands as effective and satisfying.

Then Gilligan and Peter Gould dared to follow-up Breaking Bad with a spinoff, Better Call Saul, which is almost astoundingly close to being on the same level.

So when it was announced that Gilligan and Aaron Paul were reuniting for Netflix's El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, it sounded like the sort of foolhardy endeavor you'd scoff at, except that Gilligan has made a career of pulling off the unlikely. So does El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie give Gilligan a trifecta of TV unicorns?

No, but there's nothing disastrous about that. El Camino is a high-quality piece of suspense and action filmmaking carried by Paul's still-tremendous performance as Jesse Pinkman. It looks great, sounds great and if you're a fan, it's full of cameos and references that are sure to amuse. It's also — and this is not an insignificant problem — largely unnecessary as it pertains to the larger Breaking Bad narrative. At least it's unnecessary in an innocuous and entertaining way. It doesn't do any harm. It just gives answers I'm not sure I cared about to questions I'm not sure I asked.

Keeping spoilers to a bare minimum — assuming you've watched Breaking BadEl Camino picks up instantly in the aftermath of the 2013 Breaking Bad finale, with Jesse (Paul) driving away from the firefight that left a lot of Nazis, and also Bryan Cranston's Walter White, dead. The movie, with a running time of a solid two hours, is the immediate aftermath of that frenzied exit, not really in real time, but with enough sequences of the kind of step-by-step, tension-building process that fans of Breaking Bad and Saul have come to expect.

It's a surprisingly small story that Gilligan wanted to tell and it's designed for viewers who asked, "But after he drove away, it's not like Jesse just drove out of town, right?" and actually needed specifics on all of his next steps. Expanding the time frame a tiny bit are a lot of flashbacks, some basically fan-service cameo generators and, in more extended form, answers to the question, "What happened in those months the Nazis were torturing Jesse?" Like I said, I'm not so closure-driven that I needed an answer for that first question and I'm not so imagination-starved that I needed an answer for that second question. To me, "Jesse escaped, but I'm sure there were complications" and "He was tortured, duh" were always completely sufficient.

The best way to rationalize the "need" for this movie, is that Breaking Bad was always perceived and described as Walter White's story. It was pitched as Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, which was Walter's narrative, and that centrality was reaffirmed, even as the show became closer and closer to a two-hander, by the insistence on submitting Bryan Cranston for "lead" actor Emmys and Paul for "supporting," a move that meant they never had to go head-to-head for prizes — but also, if we're being perfectly frank, almost certainly cost Dean Norris and Jonathan Banks Emmys.

So Breaking Bad was presented as Walter's story and "Felina," the finale, was arced as the conclusion of his story. But maybe Gilligan realized, as becomes increasingly clear when you watch and rewatch Breaking Bad, that Walter White may have had the easier-to-encapsulate story but the series narrative truly belongs to Jesse. And, if you happen to believe that, Jesse gets the short-shrift in the finale. Yes, he survives, but to what gain and at what cost?

Except that Jesse Pinkman got exactly the ending he deserved in Breaking Bad. He may have become the moral center of Breaking Bad — Gilligan may also have gotten frustrated with fans who never relinquished their grasp on Walter's baseline heroism — but he wasn't exactly "good." He did empirically awful things and the series wasn't wrong in thinking that the escape he deserved as the culmination of that transformation wasn't a clean getaway, a pure victory. It needed to be exactly and precisely as unfinished as it was.

And now it isn't anymore, without adding much thematically.

Still, Gilligan remains a precise and complicated visual stylist and there are myriad rewards to seeing him get to work with a big-screen tableau. Once again, he's a master of contrasting claustrophobic interiors with expansive Southwestern exteriors and the conception of Breaking Bad as a modern Western — Walter White's black hat should have tipped you off to the frontier mentality — has never been more clearly (or "obviously" if you wanted to be less generous) articulated and executed. Better Call Saul cinematographer Marshall Adams' lensing rewards a theatrical experience, especially in its sequences in the desert, and Gilligan gets worthy contributions from Breaking Bad regulars like editor Skip Macdonald and composer Dave Porter, all relishing the return to the original show's grammar after the very different pacing of the Bob Odenkirk-centric spinoff.

Thanks to the flashbacks, this is a gift of a greatest-hits performance for Paul, who gets to touch on nearly every beat of Jesse's journey. Maybe he's plagued here and there by shoddy wig or makeup work and maybe he isn't necessarily the most plausible teenage Jesse anymore, but it's hard not to watch the movie and be amazed anew at all of the shadings of immaturity, maturity and damage Paul got to play, focusing mainly on his ability to be wounded and wonderfully funny.

Charles Baker and Matt Jones make welcome early returns as Skinny Pete and Badger, here given unexpected dignity beyond their fan-friendly comic beats as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this story. Jesse Plemons is the only other returning character whose appearance I'm prepared to spoil, and only because Todd is such an important part of the flashbacks. Plemons, subsequently nominated for Emmys for Fargo and Black Mirror, never got the respect he deserved for the portrait of unsettling villainy he crafted in the Breaking Bad home stretch, and this might be a good time to properly relish what an odd and awful guy Todd was. Beyond that, you'll get some of the returning cameos you want and some of their scenes are quite good. Not all. Most wouldn't have been necessary if El Camino had been a two-part finale after "Felina."

The movie isn't awash in vivid new characters, but I love how easily The Mick veteran Scott MacArthur, already stealing scenes this year in Florida Girls and The Righteous Gemstones, fits into this world. The time frame is such that MacArthur could certainly be used in Better Call Saul as that series shifts in the direction of its endgame.

So maybe you're a viewer who required more spelling out for the end of Breaking Bad. I'm not trying to insult you. The tidiness of the end for nearly every character in the series suggests that maybe you were owed something similar for Jesse? I'd suggest that maybe revisiting the character a year or two (or six) further along might have been a better approach. Not, "What happened to Jesse immediately?" but "What happened to Jesse eventually?" That's not this. This is a simulacrum of past momentum and the tiniest of slaps in the face to viewers who thought the second half of that final season was exactly the end Gilligan wanted, only to be told, "Fooled you! Here's a postscript."

For all that frustrated me about the lack of necessity to El Camino, I still generally enjoyed wading back into these waters and I'm not opposed to Gilligan (and his other collaborators) deciding that he wants to periodically do down-and-dirty, pulpy movie-books checking in on characters or unexplored corners of the story. What I really want is the all black-and-white Cinnabon: A Better Call Saul Movie giving real consideration to Jimmy "Saul Goodman" McGill's life in Omaha. If we can't get a full Better Call Saul episode in that vein, Gene in Omaha's story is one with actual necessity for me.

Cast: Aaron Paul and surprise guests

Writer/Director: Vince Gilligan

Premieres Friday, October 11 on Netflix and at select theaters.