If Breaking Bad’s ending wasn’t the greatest in television history, it still resolved things satisfactorily—and, for the most part, conclusively. Nonetheless, since no property is ever dead in this age of sequels, reboots and spin-offs, Vince Gilligan has seen fit to revisit his small-screen phenomenon with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, a two-hour coda that picks up directly after his series’ 2013 finale, charting the efforts of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to escape arrest and death in the aftermath of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) blaze-of-glory massacre.
What he delivers is fan service of a moderately effective sort. Although in the process, he also proves that sometimes, closure is overrated.
Given that El Camino has been shrouded in secrecy up until the moment of its Netflix premiere (this morning, Oct. 11), it goes without saying that everything that follows is a spoiler. What’s disheartening about Gilligan’s feature, however, is that those spoilers are rather mundane, as there’s very little about this material that won’t be largely expected from die-hards. Moreover, despite superbly composed widescreen visuals and a tense late shootout, both of which strive to cast the proceedings as a neo-Western about a desperado on the run and in search of freedom, peace and salvation, this saga plays as little more than an extended (and, at times, distended) episode of the show itself. No matter its grand trappings—including a late explosion that shows off Gilligan’s bigger-than-usual budget—it’s an afterthought that’s surprisingly small in scale.
El Camino opens with a flashback to Jesse and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) on the banks of a river shortly before the latter’s demise, discussing possible future plans should they make it out of their circumstances alive. Mike suggests Alaska as a “last frontier” destination where one can start fresh, and that advice hovers over the ensuing action, which in the present day finds a bearded, scarred, and heavily freaked-out Jesse fleeing the scene of White’s slaughter of neo-Nazis—who had kept him imprisoned like a dog for months, cooking their meth—in former captor Todd’s (Jesse Plemons) El Camino. In need of help, he turns, naturally, to old buddies Badger (Matt L. Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). They’re still clownish second-tier gangsters with a gift for talking trash—playing a racing video game, Badger tells Pete “You drive like a blind guy with no legs”—and when Jesse arrives on their doorstep, they instinctively take him in.
It’s nice to see this trio reunited, and El Camino largely exists to provide such nostalgic pleasures. When Skinny Pete tells the scruffy, filthy Jesse that he can use any of his colognes, and Badger chimes in with, “Obsession’s the bomb, yo—I got it for him for Christmas,” it’s hard not to be happy about this opportunity to spend more time in the company of these characters. Yet considering the relative lack of momentum to the plot itself, which inches forward in short bursts, there’s an immediate sense that that’s just about all Gilligan has to offer. And it’s an impression only compounded by the writer/director’s decision to interrupt the plot proper with flashbacks that explain, and contextualize, Jesse’s current behavior, and plan to escape—and which are, predictably, populated by cameos from some of the series’ notable players.
The longest of those yesteryear sequences involves Jesse’s imprisonment at the hands of Todd, a laid-back sociopath whose pleasant demeanor is merely a façade masking his sadistic psychosis. Plemons remains chilling as the white-nationalist lunatic, as when, while driving, he cheerily sings Dr. Hook’s “Sharing the Night Together”—waving his hands out the car’s open window, and even motioning to a passing truck to honk their horn—while Jesse lies in the trunk alongside a rolled-up-in-carpet dead body. Gilligan uses this sequence as a way of both revisiting bygone friends and affording Jesse a memory that will give him the means to acquire some get-out-of-dodge cash. And he directs it with slow-burn menace and electric visual style; an upturned shot of a foreground Todd (on the street) and a background Jesse (on a second-floor apartment balcony), their heads positioned so they’re directly facing each other, is one of many flourishes that energize this methodical tale.
Jesse’s ensuing odyssey brings him into contact with a variety of faces both old and new, and Paul—looking insanely haggard and stressed out for most of the two-hour runtime—is as good as ever. His Jesse was always most captivating when he was more anxious, desperate and furious than goofy (yes, we do get one throwback, “Yeah, bitch!”), and El Camino embraces that fact, turning his predicament into a narrow, claustrophobic flight from peril. Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t funny. Instead, it’s that most of its comedy comes from sources other than Jesse, save for a late bit about a high school diploma that comes during a years-earlier scene shared by Jesse and Walter at a diner following their “Four Days Out” desert cook—a reunion that gives viewers what they want, if not a lot more than that.
Then again, that’s the story of El Camino in a nutshell. Unlike HBO’s recent Deadwood: The Movie, which bestowed David Milch’s acclaimed Western series with the ambiguous close it was denied by the network in 2006 (when it was abruptly cancelled), Gilligan’s film tells us what happened next to Jesse without ever really justifying why we needed to know it in the first place. The show’s “final” sight of Jesse speeding out into the night, terrified and traumatized and free, was always an adequate and fitting end for the character, in need of no further elaboration. As a result, discovering that he had to perform some twisty-turny criminal stuff in order to facilitate his heartwarming exodus feels underwhelming, and devoid of the character-expanding richness that defines the writer/director’s Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul.
That El Camino is superfluous won’t matter to fanatics who, if only for completionism’s sake, will want to know Jesse’s ultimate outcome—and who will undoubtedly revel in the crispness of Gilligan’s storytelling, which is marked by many small clockwork mechanisms operating in perfect harmony. But that doesn’t change the fact that Breaking Bad was whole before this film existed, and doesn’t feel more so now that it’s here.