Director: Vince Gilligan
Cast: Aaron Paul, Scott MacArthur, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Jesse Plemons
Running time: 122 minutes
In many ways, El Camino feels like the most unnecessary of follow-ups. The last time we saw Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) — the once deadbeat junkie who became a big-time player in the meth empire of his former chemistry teacher — he was at the wheel of the titular Chevy, teary-eyed, screaming hysterically, speeding off into the night toward an uncertain future with scars (both physical and figurative) that might never heal.
Granted, there was a lot left to ponder. Where would he go? What would he do? Would he, for instance, grab Andrea’s now orphaned son Brock, a family-size pack of Funyuns and flee to Mexico? Or would he instead hit up Skinny Pete and Badger and head to Hollywood with dreams of making their (next) fortune reimagining Star Trek episodes?
But within the inconclusive arc of a character who began life as a single-season throwaway and grew into the show’s warped moral compass, there was something of a perfect send-off: an untied loose end that contradicted the series’ moral framework by hinting at a hopeful answer to its most unfathomable question — could anyone in Breaking Bad ever truly find freedom?
A decade on, it’s this question that lies at the heart of El Camino — one that series creator Vince Gilligan (who both writes and directs here) looks to finally resolve. Things pick up immediately from where Breaking Bad left them, with Jesse tearing down the road mere minutes after his Walter White-assisted escape from the Neo-Nazi gang who held him captive, murdered his girlfriend and forced him to cook meth on an industrial scale. But with his former mentor and surrogate father figure now dead, and very few friends trustworthy enough to turn to, it isn’t long before Jesse realises his limited options are now even more restricted.
In the end, needing a moment’s respite, he winds up at the door of old friends Skinny Pete (Baker) and Badger (Jones), gorging on instant noodles before crashing out in the spare room. After a brief, heartfelt reunion during which his long-time bros go above and beyond to help their hurting hermanos, Jesse sets out on his own again, determined to finally flee Albuquerque for good. Despite being a fully-fledged fugitive on the run, something more than the Los Pollos keeps him from leaving New Mexico, however. Jesse remains a captive, constantly trapped within his own mind. Putting things right, as one character states early on, “that’s the one thing you can never do”.
Throwing all manner of irony over the movie’s title then — El Camino translates from Spanish to English as “way” or “road” — the story of Jesse’s escape, under the guise of a modern Western, is one of entrapment; a tale about a man’s desperate plight to break free of the cage that is the deep-set trauma of his past forever plaguing his present.
The film’s narrative structure cleverly mirrors this, with the 48-hours proceeding Breaking Bad’s ending interweaved with extended flashbacks of Jesse’s time as a slave in Uncle Jack’s white supremacist gang. Beyond its thematic resonance, however, there’s an unshakeable feeling that such sequences, all too neatly-packaged and wholly predictable, are engineered solely to enable the inclusion of a handful of high-profile actors whose characters failed to make it beyond the series finale (a selection of those who did show up in various cameos across the ‘now’ timeline).
There are exceptions, of course, and joy is to be found in the development of such relationships. None more so than the one between Pinkman and Plemons’ polite, child-like psychopath Todd, whose morally-absent, nonchalant attitude to killing represents everything that Jesse isn’t, but quite easily could have been. One particularly memorable scene involving a rug, a belt and a body both plays into Breaking Bad’s distinct brand of pitch-black humour and ushers in a nifty foreshadowing of the fate that eventually befalls Todd in ‘Felina’.
But, apart from a few unexpected deviations, things in this Breaking Bad movie follow a camino well-trodden. Its Netflix affiliation seems apt — this has more of a TV movie feel than it does a theatrical release — however, for loyal Breaking Bad fans, Gilligan brings down a satisfying, if not overly remarkable curtain on one of the series’ beloved stalwarts. Jesse Pinkman, the man who once traded a lovingly-crafted, home-made wooden box for an ounce of weed, has finally grown up and is flying (or fleeing) the nest. And not a single “bitch” passes his lips while he does it.