Right now, there is a lot of debate about the necessity of El Camino. Did this story need to be told? Was it worth being told? Does this do justice to Breaking Bad? The same questions existed when the movie was announced. You don’t follow up on what is generally considered one of the 3-5 best dramas ever made without fans feeling skepticism.
I’m not here to answer whether this story was “necessary.” Ultimately that’s not the point. The more important question here regards El Camino as an epilogue to Breaking Bad, and specifically Jesse’s story. By that metric, the movie succeeds. It succeeds by following the blueprint that made Breaking Bad successful.
Everything about El Camino screams of the same style and skill which made Breaking Bad a cinematic masterpiece. The style is impeccable, with sweeping shots of desert landscapes and city skylines. The camera angels are endlessly inventive. The transitions from present to pasta and back are excellent. Whether it’s a top-down view of an apartment being tossed upside down, rear-view mirror shots of a driver as he sings, or the tense moments before a shootout, this movie is always a joy to simply watch.
Arguably THE standout feature of Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul after it, is the cinematography, and El Camino lives up to that legacy with ease. This is unmistakably Vince Gilligan. Even after all these years, the pure style of the Breaking Bad universe remains nearly unmatched by anything else on TV.
The balance between the humor and drama also remains strikingly perfect. So does the pacing, the acting, and the dialogue. Really, none of this is surprising. El Camino more than lived up to expectations from a production standpoint. I suppose the only real question regarded Gilligan’s ability to pace a movie rather than an episode of television. He manages it quite easily. The movie’s remarkably well-paced considering how character-focused and plot-thin things really are.
The plot is the one thing which will cause debate about El Camino’s quality. Things pick up literally right where Jesse left off when Breaking Bad ended, with him driving the movie’s namesake vehicle away from the neo-nazi compound where he was held captive. From there, he hides from the cops and plans a way to escape the city. That’s really it. There are no major plot twists, no rollercoaster of ever-changing circumstances, no sudden mysteries to solve. Jesse just needs to leave the city. He has an obvious method (that fans of Breaking Bad will guess immediately) and works to fulfill said method.
I see no problem keeping the movie this simple. It’s clear that the point of the movie is seeing Jesse deal with his traumas and sins as he tries to leave it all behind. And here El Camino works masterfully.
Scenes alternate between the present-day and flashbacks to previously unseen moments in Jesse’s life, mostly involving his time as a captive during season 5 of Breaking Bad. The obvious themes here involve the difficulty of leaving the past behind, which we see both literally, as Jesse finds a means to physically leave, and emotionally as he deals with constant reminders of the past. By the end, these reminders morph beyond his traumas and more deal with other reminders of his past relationships.
Through these means, El Camino clearly wants to be a character study of Jesse Pinkman, not an exciting follow-up plot to Breaking Bad. There’s no real follow-up on the circumstances of other characters from the show. You don’t see a Hank or Gomez funeral or Skyler moving forward. Gilligan wants to send this particular character off right and conclude his story.
It works fantastically, in my opinion. Much of this is due to Aaron Paul, who slips back into this role as if he never left. He’s predictably fantastic in conveying Jesse’s turbulent mood and reminders of his trauma. When late-movie flashbacks takes us back to early-season Jesse, he easily recaptures that character. He’s excellent from start to finish.
Gilligan takes a bit of a risk focusing so much time on flashbacks to Jesse’s time as a captive, but this again plays into the focus on character over plot. Besides, these scenes make for arguably the very best of the entire movie and crystallize the past Jesse desperately wants to escape. They aren’t repeats or anything. We learn something new and they relate directly to Jesse’s actions in the present, both as a person and his ideas for escaping the city.
We also get some expanded looks on a few familiar characters. Skinny Pete and Badger feature significantly in the early parts of the movie, and Todd features in the majority of the flashbacks. Some other flashbacks see the return of other important figures in his life, and they’re really perfectly placed. El Camino does a great job of delivering fanservice without it feeling pointless.
For the most part, everything rolls effortlessly from one scene to the next, driven by Jesse’s past and plans. Nothing really comes out of nowhere or moves jarringly to something unexpected. Numerous expertly-placed references remind you of what he went through and how he ended up here. Some of these are subtle and if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad in a while, might go over your head. Everything that every truly mattered to Jesse factors into El Camino at some point, whether it is loudly pointed out or not. A single silent shot of a tarantula will never mean as much as it does here.
The one exception occurs late in the movie and involves the one shootout. It’s not completely jarring or contrived, but it’s close enough to raise questions and criticisms. Really, though, it’s a fun and exciting scene with a plausible setup and clever resolution.
I’ve seen some criticisms about Jesse not undergoing a character arc, and I can’t possibly agree with that. He spends all of El Camino learning how to move past and accept the consequences of working with Walter White. He ends the movie in a drastically different place than he begins. Really, he ends it in a drastically different place than he ever was during Breaking Bad. We see Jesse truly begin a new phase of his life, as a new person.
But can he ever really leave it all behind? He wants to outrun the past but can he really do so? It’s the obvious question with the expected complicated answer, and one Jesse comes to grips with by the end. The final flashback makes that much clear. It’s never really about leaving your past behind and ignoring it, but rather finding a way to accept it and cope with it. This universe has always put a heavy focus on the traumas and sins of its characters, and El Camino handles this theme every bit as excellently as its predecessors.
Considering the pacing by which Jesse evolves and changes over the course of the show, this fits perfectly in line with where his character should be and where it should end.
This does raise another major criticism; El Camino does not work at all if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad. It does not work at all as a standalone movie. It’s an extended epilogue episode of Breaking Bad. Nothing more, nothing less. You need to know who Jesse is, what he’s been through, and who nearly every major player in this movie is. If you don’t, you’ll get nothing out of it and won’t understand Jesse’s motives or decisions.
But how big of a flaw is this, really? I doubt there will be any significant number of people watching this movie who weren’t invested in Breaking Bad already. Gilligan and company made this because they wanted to follow up on Jesse Pinkman and give fans definitive resolution for his character. Why else would anyone watch this? It’d be like watching the Deadwood movie if you’ve never seen Deadwood. Of course you won’t get as much out of it.
As a diehard Breaking Bad fan, I loved it. I acknowledge it isn’t perfect, acknowledge what people didn’t like about it, but generally agree with the overwhelming praise it’s getting. I wasn’t too worried about El Camino. Better Call Saul exists and tells me all I need to know about the continued skill with which the Breaking Bad universe lives on.
This has become possibly the best television universe ever created, and El Camino only adds to the legend. It’s a brilliantly made, brilliantly acted follow-up to one of the best shows ever. It might be a bit safe and might not live up to the legendary twists and turns that Breaking Bad was known for, but that was never its intent. It just wants to do right by Jesse Pinkman.