*Spoilers for the Breaking Bad finale in this review*
It’s been six years since Breaking Bad went off the air, a show which is often credited for helping usher in the Golden Age of prime-time television that has occupied the last decade. The show reinvigorated Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston’s careers, introduced us to Aaron Paul, while also making meth dealers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, television icons.
The series is an intense, but deeply rewarding watch with a line-up of A-list directing talent (Vince Gilligan, Rian Johnson, Michelle MacLaren) and an incredibly satisfying finale to boot (sorry Game of Thrones fans).
The finale wrapped up all major plot-threads with utmost care, as Walter White’s gradual transition from hero to villain came to a close. Audiences received a fitting farewell to Walt, as Jesse Pinkman drove off into the night sky, escaping his Neo-Nazi captors.
This brings us to El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which picks up immediately where the series ends. While the Breaking Bad finale was satisfying in providing closure to Walter White’s journey, Jesse’s fate was left with open possibilities. In El Camino, Jesse is a man on the run, as the police and people of Albuquerque react to the aftermath of Heisenberg’s meth empire. Jesse, reeling from the guilt of his actions on the show, has a plan to start over… however, this plan requires a few favours in order for it to work.
As a two-hour, man on the run thriller, El Camino works surprisingly well. If you’re not interested in sitting through sixty-two episodes of Breaking Bad, it’s certainly possible to enjoy the film as a purely standalone experience. However, there’s a plethora of Breaking Bad cameos and references that’ll be far more satisfying for people familiar with the show. For fans, El Camino is all about bringing true closure to not just Jesse’s journey, but in wrapping up a number of loose threads from the show that went to the wayside, as the drama started to ramp up – acting as a true epilogue to the show.
The equally excellent spin-off Better Call Saul, has offered glimpses of the post-Breaking Bad world, but purely (and appropriately) from the perspective of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman. El Camino lets fans experience how existing Breaking Bad characters would react to the death of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s prior Neo Nazi captivity. Fan favourites like Charles Baker’s Skinny Pete, and the late Robert Forster’s Ed Galbraith make welcome returns, in addition to some surprises best kept secret.
Thankfully, director Vince Gilligan doesn’t overuse these appearances. Often providing a quick nod to the audience, while keeping the characters in line with how they appeared in the show before properly saying farewell. This leads to both some humorous, and incredibly rigid moments that subvert expectations. Pinkman’s confrontation with Ed is particularly memorable in how it balances an incredibly tense build-up with Gilligan’s dry, ironic humour.
However, all kudos needs to be given to Aaron Paul. This is an actor that many people (myself included) wanted to see make a successful transition to feature films, following the conclusion of Breaking Bad. Unfortunately for Aaron Paul, Hollywood has only ever been interested in seeing him play a proxy of Jesse Pinkman, with the actor reduced to making cheap references to his Breaking Bad character (see his cameo in Central Intelligence). In El Camino, Paul portrays a world-weary and matured Jesse, broken and disturbed from his experiences during the show. The classic Jesse Pinkman sense of humour still exists in some scenes, but there’s far more emotional nuance to the performance, making this Aaron Paul’s finest portrayal of the character. This is Jesse Pinkman’s film, and Aaron Paul undoubtedly shines throughout the film, even without the presence of Bryan Cranston. Here’s hoping Aaron Paul receives some welcome recognition following this film.
As with the best Breaking Bad episodes, Gilligan utilizes the unique camera angles and shots that made the series stand out. Shots projected from the ceiling, as Jesse ransacks an apartment, are executed wonderfully. Gorgeous shots of the New Mexico desert are littered throughout the film, making you feel like you never left the show.
For what’s essentially a TV Movie, it’s still immensely satisfying watching Vince Gilligan approach scenes in a way that other shows wouldn’t have the time or creativity to attempt. El Camino still operates with a TV structure in mind, maximising the use of only a handful of locations, however this all works to the benefit of El Camino, as Gilligan finds multiple ways to move his camera and characters around the set.
A downside to El Camino coming six years after the conclusion of Breaking Bad, is that a number of actors have gone through noticeable physical changes. Gilligan contrasts a number of key scenes in the film with flashbacks set during the show’s timeline, incorporating Jesse’s time with the Neo Nazis, as a means of Jesse suffering for the guilt of his actions on the show, particularly his involvement in the death of Andrea Cantillo.
Jesse Plemons reprises his role as Todd Alquist in a number of these flashbacks, and while he is as fantastic and unnerving to watch as ever, the actor has clearly matured since the show ended. As a continuity gripe, this likely won’t affect everyone viewing El Camino, unless you’re watching Breaking Bad and the film back to back, but it’s still noteworthy.
El Camino also saves a lot of its action for the third act, so while the film may feel a little slow paced for some viewers, I’d argue it’s all effectively built up and executed with that classic Breaking Bad sense of increasing intensity, as it rewards with that oh, so satisfying pay off.
This is a film that effectively brings extended closure to one of the all-time great television shows. Fans, I’m certain, will be deeply moved by how the film concludes the journey of Jesse Pinkman, and how Vince Gilligan honours what’s come before. If you’re someone who’s never seen Breaking Bad, and you don’t care for the show being spoiled, there’s enough here to enjoy as a unique man on the run film. Otherwise, for fans returning after all these years, El Camino delivers on all accounts, to the point where you’ll likely be motivated to re-watch Breaking Bad the moment the credits roll on the film.
Breaking Bad is currently available to stream on Stan. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story is available to stream on Netflix.
Director: Vince Gilligan
Cast: Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks, Matt Jones
Writer: Vince Gilligan