Netflix's 'Breaking Bad' Movie 'El Camino' Captures What Was Great About the Series
Foot slamming on the gas and air gasping in his lungs, Jesse Pinkman escaped the hell Walter White trapped him in. In the most cathartic and memorable image from "Felina," the controversial series finale of Breaking Bad, we finally saw Aaron Paul's Jesse, the deeply troubled teenager who got wrapped up in a drug empire with his high school chemistry teacher, get a long-awaited taste of freedom. While so many characters on the show met brutal fates, riddled with bullets or blown up by increasingly complicated explosive devices, Jesse was the one who got away. After 62 episodes of suffering, it felt like he earned it.
So, why go back? That's the question that hangs like stale desert air over El Camino, a six-years-later follow-up to that final episode that essentially picks up mere seconds after the violent ending of the series, delivering greatest-hits references to past conflicts and fan-service-y cameos for the show's ever-faithful audience on its journey to redemption. Creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed the coda-like film with his typically meticulous touch, clearly has a real affection for the crime-ridden junkyards, pastel-colored apartment complexes, and run-down vacuum repair shops of New Mexico. As the still-airing spin-off Better Call Saul shows, the guy can't stay away -- he'd rather back himself into a creative corner and then find a way out. He likes a challenge.
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Tricked out with poignant flashbacks and tasked with replicating the series's unyielding momentum, El Camino must serve multiple masters. The sense of divided purpose, a combination of backward-looking nostalgia and forward-pushing urgency, is a hallmark of the heavily scrutinized modern TV spin-off movie, one of the odder outgrowths of peak TV abundance. (While Breaking Bad aired on AMC, El Camino debuted on Netflix, the service that many viewers probably first binged Breaking Bad on in the early '10s.) Unlike the recent Deadwood send-off, which had two hours to provide closure for an ever-expanding show that was cut down in its prime, El Camino is at least saddled with less narrative loose ends to tie up. From a storytelling perspective, Jesse is behind the steering wheel for the two-hour runtime.
Still, there's an initial awkwardness to seeing Paul, now a stockier 40-year-old man, putting a beanie back on and attempting to play a character still referred to as a teenager in the opening scene. This isn't a movie that follows Jesse ten years into the future, sets him up in a new world, and lets him go on a new adventure. The plot, which I won't describe in too much detail here, mostly concerns Jesse's escape from New Mexico following the events of the finale, which means he's still scrambling and scheming, searching for hidden cash and solving a series of increasingly escalating tactical problems. For Gilligan, it's a chance to put a familiar character in a Coen Brothers-like crime movie vice grip and squeeze.
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While Paul's age and physical growth can be distracting, he's actually become an even more compelling screen presence with age. The moral calculus of the show's universe, which requires characters to make life-or-death choices in the most stressful circumstances imaginable, plays out in his eyes. Without overdoing it, he lets us see what trauma has done to Jesse. He's still fresh-faced and willing to let his deep, gravelly voice crack with excitement, but there's a grizzled weariness on display that fits well with the Western genre elements Gilligan weaves into the movie's undeniably intense action set-pieces.
It's worth noting that the movie looks fantastic, expanding on the brightly lit, carefully edited visual vocabulary of the series. Unlike the final few seasons of Breaking Bad, which perilously leaned too hard on the idea of Walter White as a powerful drug kingpin, El Camino earns its more grandiose moments. Gilligan rarely overreaches, instead letting Paul play off skilled character actors, including friendly faces like Robert Forster, back as the mysterious Ed, and Jesse Plemons, returning as soft-spoken psycho Todd. More often than not, Gilligan frames their movements in strikingly inventive shots, making effective use of the widescreen format.
Your reaction to El Camino will likely depend on your relationship to Breaking Bad, a historically fraught show that delivered huge, watercooler-talk thrills but one that can feel a little silly and over-wrought when viewed through the rearview mirror of time. (I'll admit that I was mostly exhausted by the show at the end, particularly after Gus exited the series in a gruesome fashion.) But in terms of impact, there's no arguing its subsequent influence on dramas like Ozark and comedies like Barry. While El Camino doesn't quite stand alone as a movie -- the series recap provided by Netflix is helpful but hardly thorough enough to bring a newcomer up to speed -- it is a surprisingly satisfying addendum to the Breaking Bad mythos. Instead of doubling down on the muscle-car roar of the finale, Gilligan thoughtfully tinkers with the engine of his creation. Like his characters, he remains a master at escaping the traps he sets for himself.
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