Can I get a “Yeah, bitch!”?
El Camino, the feature-length sequel (now streaming on Netflix) to the Breaking Bad series, had a lofty standard to live up to, but thankfully manages to do just that. The film steers viewers right back into the seedy world of Albuquerque, whose sun-drenched streets have been the setting for some extremely dark doings over the years.
In a strict sense, the film picks up where the series finale left off–with Jesse’s escape (courtesy of Walter White) from enslavement by Uncle Jack’s outlaw gang. The title El Camino actually refers to the getaway car, formerly owned by Todd, that Jesse (the sensational-as-always Aaron Paul) drives as he speeds away from the carnage at the compound. He isn’t able simply to ride off into the sunset, though (otherwise there would be no need for this follow-up); much of the narrative thrust here comes from Jesse’s labors to avoid a prompt re-capturing by the local authorities now hunting him.
Yet mimicking the workings of Breaking Bad, the film does not unspool its story in a merely linear fashion. There are a series of flashbacks employed, which also gives director Vince Gilligan the opportunity to bring back a host of characters from the TV series (some of whom were killed off along the way) in new, never-before-glimpsed scenes. These revisits with old friends and enemies are skillfully done, filled with poignant moments and smoothly sequeing into earlier points on the BB timeline. The one exception I would note involves psycho Todd (played by Jesse Plemons), who appears inexplicably and conspicuously chunky in his flashback scenes (seriously, dude, you couldn’t have dieted for this role?).
Perhaps the greatest gain from the back-and-forth cutting of the film’s narrative is the light shed on Jesse’s character. Even though he is no longer locked in a cage like a filthy animal, Jesse isn’t necessarily free. El Camino does a fine job of demonstrating the psychological trauma that lingers after the physical ordeal has ended. The presentation of additional scenes from the former captivity narrative chillingly evokes the torture and torment Jesse was forced to suffer, and his present-day recall of such Gothic experiences clearly reveal a haunted figure.
There is undeniable darkness here, but again in keeping with the precursor series, also terrific instances of humor. The hysterical banter between Badger and Skinny Pete alone makes this film a must-see for fans. At the same time, El Camino features a fine shading of crime noir, especially as Jesse crosses paths with some dangerous con men after the late Todd’s stash of illicitly-gained cash.
With a two-hour drive time, El Camino can’t adopt the same deliberate storytelling approach of Breaking Bad, but the pacing of the film nonetheless feels pitch-perfect. Scenes of frantic action and sweat-wringing suspense are balanced with quieter, more tender moments. While the film doesn’t quite achieve the same gravitas as the series, it does make for a quite satisfying sequel. Jesse Pinkman (basically a good kid who found himself partnered with a bad man) has always been the show’s closest thing to a moral compass, and it is undoubtedly rewarding as a viewer to watch Jesse finally get the ending he deserves.
One final thought: the stories for two of the major characters from Breaking Bad (Walt and Jesse) are now complete, but there is still another loose thread remaining. Even as El Camino furnishes a strong sense of closure, it also spurs anticipation, and curiosity about the ultimate fate of everyone’s favorite shady lawyer (turned Cinnabon manager). The new season of Better Call Saul cannot come soon enough.