El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie opens with a flashback. Jesse and Mike standing in the very spot where Mike is soon destined to die after being shot by Walter White in one the shows biggest, “god damn it Walter” moments. There is no score and the sounds and atmosphere is all New Mexico. It’s beautiful. It’s quiet. The scene carries a weight that extends out of nostalgia and feels like this pocket of time. A newly discovered time capsule opening up the world of our favorite television series just a little bit wider. Both men are on the outs with the great Heisenberg. Trying to move out of reach of his monstrous grasp. We know how that story plays out and it’s that knowledge that should hang over this breathtaking New Mexico landscape like a storm cloud. Yet, there is optimism here. A glimmer of hope… just a glimmer. As Mike plants the seed of getting away to Alaska in Jesse’s head, something Jesse will tell Saul in a few short tumultuous days. We see these two men ignore the fact that “he” won’t be happy about their departure and start thinking about taking their future in their own hands. Jesse even laments on putting things right with this fresh start. Until Mike reminds him, “No. Sorry kid, that’s the one thing you can never do”, and that dark cloud that was hidden creeps its way in as our pocket in time dissolves.
The shadow of Heisenberg is too big to ignore.
It’s been six years since Jesse Pinkman and Walter White shared one final head nod together. One last moment of understanding before Walt went on to die in the one place he truly felt at home. And Pinkman drove an El Camino through a chain-linked fence freeing him of his meth cooking slavery. Six years ago I was content with that ending. Hell, I was completely satisfied. Not every show gets to stick the landing when it comes to the series finale and what Breaking Bad had given us was damn near perfect. It’s hard to argue with that kind of masterful storytelling. At no point did Vince Gilligan compromise his vision or his narrative. At all times he was loyal not only to his story but the characters it housed and the results were spellbinding. It’s not hyperbole to say Breaking Bad is the greatest television series of all time. It’s a fact.
Coming back to the Breaking Bad universe six years later could be considered a risky move. Sure, Better Call Saul has expanded this universe and fleshed it out in pleasantly surprising ways, but El Camino would be returning to the scene of the crime. Picking up right as Jesse escaped. That’s quite a gamble to take. To risk an ending that is universally beloved to tell one more story that no one thought they needed. What makes El Camino work is the confidence behind it. This isn’t a cash grab or a movie made just for fan service, although there is quite a bit in the film. No, this is a master storyteller who has clearly spent the last six years visiting and re-visiting this character in his head over and over again. Checking in on him like a concerned parent to the point where that concern builds and builds and builds until there is no other choice but to write what happens next.
El Camino may have started as a movie you didn’t know you needed but when those two hours wrap, you’re elated that they exist. From the moment the film starts with Jesse and Mike sharing that gorgeous New Mexico backdrop, El Camino feels like coming home. An invitation to a party that you thought was all but over.
But Mike’s right, this isn’t a movie about putting things right. That’s just not possible. Jesse can’t go back and undo what he’s done. He can’t say no to Mr. White’s offer to start cooking meth. He can’t unshoot Gale. He can’t erase the scars from his captivity with Todd and the neo-Nazis. One of the best things El Camino does is subtly highlight the ruin Walter White left behind without beating you over the head with it. You can pull away from the series finale thinking that White redeemed himself to some degree. He finds a way to leave what’s left of his money to his family. He frees Jesse from his enslavement and dies on his own terms. Happy. But El Camino reminds you that this man was a monster and is directly responsible for where Jesse is in life.
That’s not to say that Jesse is innocent. He’s not and he’s never shied away from that. Season three Jesse, fresh out of rehab, viewed himself as the “bad guy” in constant pursuit of atonement. But Gilligan craftily takes that conversation at the start of the film and uses it as the backdrop. The past can’t be changed but the future can still be shaped. The question becomes are you able to move forward and try to atone or allow the past to swallow any hope of a future. Jesse Pinkman has long since been the moral compass of Breaking Bad and El Camino brings his character to new depths. The flashily dressed character who constantly uttered the word “bitch” is dead and gone. Jesse Pinkman has grown up and it’s that maturation and self-awareness that carries him through most of the movie. His time in the neo-Nazi compound has steeled him and what emerges is a confident fragile human being who is willing to play the game one last time.
Aaron Paul’s performance is spectacular and one wouldn’t be able to guess that he hasn’t played this role in six years. At this point, Paul and Pinkman are two sides of the same coin as Paul effortlessly slides the character’s skin back on. His love for this story and these characters bleed into every scene, every look, every movement. Everyone is dead or gone. Walt, Saul, Mike, Lydia, Todd, Gus and all that remains is Jesse Pinkman. Paul carries the weight of these five seasons throughout the film. His performance is both fragile and delicate, almost waiting to collapse in on himself, while also being bold and courageous. Steadfast and brave in his choices. Aaron Paul allows Jesse Pinkman to shine despite how gritty and weathered Pinkman now finds himself. It’s a nuanced performance that reminds you just why Aaron Paul won three Emmys for this role.
El Camino is gorgeously shot and feels both like a movie and an extended Breaking Bad episode. The dark humor that we’ve grown to expect is still here, Badger and Skinny Pete will have you smirking, as is the tenderness and emotion. Sure, there are easter eggs and some characters return but it never feels cheap. Those appearances always serve the narrative and broaden the viewing experience opposed to distracting from it. I would say that there are four major character returns and each one serves a different life lesson for Jesse Pinkman. It’s all so calculated and effortless. Vince Gilligan isn’t concerned with playing the greatest hits or making a movie that’s strictly fan service. He wants you to focus on Jesse Pinkman’s journey and brings in enough tension and anxiety-laden moments that you can’t think of anything else. By the time an old face pops up you forget you were even waiting for them because you need to know what’s going to happen to Jesse. The atmosphere is dense and at times suffocating and never stops moving. At no point does El Camino stall out.
At the end of the day El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is a touching goodbye to a flawless television series. Providing the closure you didn’t know you were waiting six years for. No half measures are taken. Vince Gilligan and Paul come to the film putting it all on the line and it’s that vulnerability that allows the film to shine. For two hours we’re welcomed back to the Breaking Bad universe and reminded why this series is on a whole other level. And when the credits being to roll we understand that it’s hard to say goodbye. That maybe we never wanted to leave in the first place. El Camino is a gift and for that, we say thank you… bitch.
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