It’s incredibly difficult for a television show to stick the landing. Long running programs tend to become different things for different viewers, particularly shows that have fully lodged themselves into pop culture. For every controversial ending (I’m thinking Seinfeld, Lost, and especially The Sopranos) there are relatively few that are universally praised (The Shield, Six Feet Under, and Justified all come to mind). There seems to be a general consensus that Breaking Bad has a ‘good’ ending, in the sense that it satisfied about as many people as possible while tying off virtually every loose end in its sprawling narrative. Indeed, the final season of Breaking Bad is about paring down that narrative, eliminating characters left and right until we were left with only the last, essential thing – Walter White’s final rage against the world he felt had wronged him. It came as something of a surprise when creator Vince Gilligan made his next project a Breaking Bad prequel, as there didn’t seem to be much left to mine from this particular world. Shockingly, Better Call Saul has become one of the best shows on tv, a slow burn thriller that shifts and tweaks the moral trajectory of Breaking Bad into a smaller, more intimate character study that is arguably even better than its progenitor. So there was hope that El Camino (listed as ‘A Breaking Bad Movie’ on Netflix’s website but never identified that way in its credits) could further buck the trend. Unfortunately, El Camino reveals itself to be an absolutely unnecessary sequel, a story no one was asking for that didn’t need to be told.
Not unlike two episodes of the show mixed and edited together…seeming to suggest that there’s not enough story to fill out a feature length film.
Unlike the recent Deadwood Movie, which picks up in real time roughly ten years after the end of the series, El Camino begins exactly where we last saw Jesse Pinkman, liberated from Todd, Uncle Jack and their crew of neo-nazis by Walter and driving off into the night, his screams a mixture of joy and agony. While this ending did not explicitly detail what would happen to Jesse going forward, it left him (and the viewers) with a palpable sense of relief. There was unlimited opportunities, freedom from Walter and an open road full of possibilities. El Camino proceeds to eliminate those possibilities, instead sending Jesse on the most uninteresting version of this particular journey. Jesse needs food, rest, and money, so he first visits Skinny Pete and Badger, then sets off to make his escape from Albuquerque, all while a nationwide manhunt is underway. Gilligan is the writer/director here, and he shoots the hell out of this thing. The whole movie looks great, which only makes its paucity of imagination stand in even sharper relief. Eventually Jesse makes his way to the recently deceased Todd’s apartment, and we get the first of a series of long, drawn out flashbacks that both flesh out Jesse’s time in captivity and become a kind of secondary, parallel narrative. It’s not unlike two episodes of the show mixed and edited together, but also seems to suggest that there’s not enough story to fill out a feature length film of Jesse simply being on the run. If you want a wacky side quest adventure of Todd and Jesse disposing of a body while Todd inadvertently reveals to Jesse that he’s got a million dollars cash stashed in his apartment, then this might be the movie for you. Despite all the talent on display here, I was bored stiff. Aaron Paul is a fine actor, and his Jesse Pinkman was an important part of Breaking Bad. But he was not, in the end, essential to the show. To put it bluntly, there could be no Breaking Bad without Walter White, but it’s not difficult to imagine a version of the show without Jesse. Sure, he was a sort of moral sounding board for the audience, and by the end of the series his vaguely child-like innocence had become a kind of Dorian Gray scenario, Jesse’s violent degradations a visual representation of Walt’s own moral unraveling. But without Walter White, Jesse simply isn’t that interesting. El Camino ends in exactly the same place as Breaking Bad the series, with Jesse behind the wheel of a car looking out over the horizon at his unlimited possibilities. I’m not sure we needed a two hour movie just to get him, and us, back to square one.