A few bits of housekeeping before we get to the review of this new Breaking Bad film. Yes, it’s a film. It’s shown on Netflix and if you’re in the right city in America then you may have the option to see this on the big screen. As a general rule, we don’t review films here, but, much like the Deadwood Movie last year, we felt compelled to review what we consider to be the next chapter in one of the best stories ever to be told on television…
When you click on El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story on your Netflix app, the film doesn’t play immediately. Instead, it’s preceded by a recap of the television classic, which is much-needed not just if you didn’t have time to cram all 46 hours and 30 minutes of runtime in the days leading up to the film’s release, but also to frame the story we are about to watch.
In that recap, we get a crash course of the troubled partnership between chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his longtime partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). It shows their early friendship, which blossomed into a father-son relationship before crashing and burning as Walt took Jesse down along with himself, with one particular line standing out. It’s something Walt tells Jesse in the season 5 episode “Blood Money,” in response to Jesse bringing up a murdered child:
“You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past.”
Vince Gilligan’s story picks up just moments after the final scenes of Breaking Bad. It’s been 6 years since we’ve seen Jesse Pinkman on screen, and 6 months since Jesse himself has seen daylight. Locked in a concrete underground cage by Neo-Nazis, Jesse has been a meth-cooking slave while Walt has been on the run. But, as El Camino shows us, that cage isn’t the only hole Jesse needs to dig himself out of.
Most prominently, the newest addition to the Heisenberg Extended Universe™ is a story of trauma. The film is littered with flashbacks. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) tells him to start fresh in Alaska but warns him that he can’t ever make things right.
Jesse finally makes good on his dream of running away with Jane (Krysten Ritter), the troubled heroin addict that once promised him a doomed escape from the meth business. We are even treated to a new Walter White scene from shortly after the duo’s first cook, where they talk about Jesse’s future, one that Walt ultimately stole from him. *Notably, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) does not appear in the film which only fuels the theory that Better Call Saul will soon pass the Breaking Bad timeline.*
These scenes range on a spectrum from fan-service to cathartic. With so much time having passed, it’s hard not to point in joy at the screen when our favourites return, even if it distracts from the story being told. But for a film with so much riding on dealing with and escaping the past, it would be hard not to include them. As much as Breaking Bad was a story about Walt’s descent into Heisenberg, it was also a story about Jesse finding himself in over his head. Both Jesse and Walt tore off bits of their soul throughout the series, but whereas Walt met that exchange with a steely-eyed hardening, Jesse became a beaten dog.
And El Camino picks up Jesse at his most beaten. Not only are his face and back covered in fresh scars, but every moment is filled with reminders of his time in captivity. A shower turns into the firehose Uncle Jack and Todd (Jesse Plemons) sprayed him with and a blank ceiling turns into the canvas that kept his cage hidden from sight.
The calling card for writer and director Vince Gilligan (who also created and was showrunner for Breaking Bad) in this universe has been storytelling through detailing process. He’s famous for some of the best montages in the business, meditating on experts honing their craft and working through problems. In no small part, El Camino is about the process of Jesse’s escape and starting the next chapter in his life, focusing its razor-sharp precision just as much on the physical logistics of Jesse’s journey as the emotional one he’s suffering through.
For example, it shows us Jesse looking desperately for Todd’s new hiding place for his money, turning his apartment inside out in cinematic montage. But the film also dives into Jesse’s memories of when he was last at the apartment, disposing of a body for his captor and ordinary, everyman serial killer Todd, giving us a taste of the torment Jesse suffered and colouring the real depths of his cage. It’s one thing to climb out of the concrete hole in the ground, it’s another to climb out of the dark descent that put him there.
Emotional and logistical process converge in the film’s climax, where Jesse quite literally kills his demons, shooting the man who built his cage in a Mexican standoff, blowing up his business (explosions bitch!), and finally getting into that little red van to a new beginning. When it’s all said and done, Jesse finally is able to come up for fresh air, finding his way to Alaska, just as his hero Mike would have.
Many fans of Breaking Bad probably felt that Jesse’s ending in the finale was pitch-perfect, his wild screaming the very embodiment of freedom. And for a supporting character (Breaking Bad was Walt’s story after all), I have no complaints whatsoever. But I always felt a twinge of panic for Jesse. He was free but only in the most literal terms. He was a wanted man with no money, no family, no future.
Is El Camino more than an expertly shot and directed piece of fan service? I’m not sure, and more importantly, I’m not sure it’s possible to know at this moment. It’s impossible to completely divorce the hype for the film from the show that it’s based on, much in the same way that the pilot episode of Better Call Saul was more-or-less a cameo fest, ending in the reveal of Breaking Bad original villain Tuco.
Over the course of its four seasons though, the prequel has managed to become far more than fan service. It’s introduced dozens of new characters and storylines alongside longtime favourites Saul, Mike, and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), while also fleshing out the backstory for characters we only knew on a surface level.
El Camino doesn’t have the luxury of time to evolve and is at an added disadvantage because it is revisiting the well-trodden ground that is Jesse Pinkman’s character. After all, we already know what happened to him while he was in captivity and we have seasons of intimate character development. So the film features almost purely familiar faces: Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) help Jesse get on his feet and Todd is essentially the story’s primary supporting character.
All of those factors, combined with the excitement to return to one of the most beloved shows of the past 15 years, make it almost impossible to not view El Camino as an extension of Breaking Bad, as opposed to its own thing in the way that Better Call Saul has become. That’s not a bad thing, but they are some massive shoes to fill.
It’s not a perfect film that can completely tap into the magic of Breaking Bad, and it’s not a paradigm-shifting character study, but it is a fitting farewell. Jesse is finally fully free.
Contributed by Jackson From Skip Intro