The last time we saw Jesse Pinkman, he was screaming his heart out, speeding into the distance and, most of all, free. His final moments at the end of Breaking Bad were powerful, mythic and … not enough, apparently.
Jesse is back in the new feature-length film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which you can watch on Netflix now. It provides some closure for one of the lead characters of the phenomenally popular AMC show, just as spin-off show Better Call Saul deepened the show’s backstory.
The question is whether closure was needed, or whether El Camino has anything to add to one of the greatest TV shows ever made.
Breaking Bad began over 10 years ago, in 2008, and ended six years ago in 2013. The finale closed the book on the story of Walter White, mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, but while Walter tied up loose ends with a spectacular combination of engineering and firepower, Jesse had a more ignominious ending. The show’s creators had written him into a hole, literally, as he was imprisoned by neo-Nazis, which meant he was a shadow of his former self during the final episodes. The new film’s writer and director and the creator of the original show, Vince Gilligan, sets out to correct that by putting Jesse firmly back in the spotlight.
El Camino picks up immediately where the show left off, as Jesse speeds away in the vehicle of the title. The finale was ambiguous enough to imagine a happy ending for Jesse, but life isn’t like that. In real life — and in Breaking Bad especially — the light breaking over the open road is just another army of cop cars heading your way.
Even as he escapes the worst experience of his life, Jesse, played by Aaron Paul, is heading straight back into trouble. If Breaking Bad had a formula — aside from Walter’s formula for his signature blue meth — it’s characters with big plans derailed by endlessly escalating small problems. So it proves for Jesse as he drives his El Camino into a new story.
Along the way, Jesse runs into various minor characters from Breaking Bad, as well as Easter eggs like Star Trek lounge chairs or a folded Vamonos Pest uniform. There aren’t many of the show’s characters still alive, it must be said, and not all needed to be resurrected. Fortunately, you don’t particularly need to remember who they all are, and the characters and dialogue are again a joy to behold.
Jesse stumbles from situation to tense situation, with flashbacks giving us context. The film revisits moments from the show’s past and puts a new twist on them, a hallmark of the show’s intricate storytelling. Like the intriguing original series, the film is full of interesting people doing slightly odd things, and you have no idea where it’s going. There are darkly comic set pieces in bright open scenery. And you pray it doesn’t end badly even when you know it surely will.
There is a sense of diminishing returns with some of the old faces, however. Jesse spends a lot of time struggling to recover from his torture at the hands of the neo-Nazis, but those guys were never as interesting or as compelling as the show’s other, much more textured bad guys. A lot of El Camino is spent reckoning with characters who felt secondary even when the show was on.
And ultimately, you expect different things from a movie. There’s been a six-year gap since the show ended, and a movie is a one-off, an occasion — El Camino is even being marketed as “A Netflix Event.” The stakes and the scale are bigger in movies. When a film is based on a TV show, the characters go on vacation to a new location, or face bigger challenges, or even bigger characters turn up – – as in the recent film where the royal family drops in to Downton Abbey.
So you might expect something a bit more definitive, a bit more special, just a bit more from a one-off movie. But what we get is basically another Breaking Bad episode.
In some ways, El Camino feels like a selection of deleted scenes: enjoyable but not essential. And yet, even if it feels like a Breaking Bad episode, it’s a reminder that Breaking Bad was absolutely one of the greatest TV shows ever made. Suspenseful, funny, emotional and endlessly surprising, El Camino reminds us why we love Breaking Bad.
While it’s fun to return to New Mexico and slip comfortably back into Breaking Bad-land one more time, the film undermines the very concept of an ending. We thought the show’s finale was the end, but it wasn’t. So how can we trust the ending of El Camino?
It’s interesting that Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Deadwood, perhaps the three TV shows which did most to launch and define the golden age of TV, are all resurrected as movies (Deadwood and Breaking Bad this year, to be followed by Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark in September 2020). Is this the end of television? Or is it the end of endings? Sometimes we want a final freeze-frame, an ambiguous ending, a car speeding away. But now it seems any finale can be undone, the story continued.
Great news for…
El Camino shows us that even after the most iconic final shots from TV or cinema, the road continues. Even after an apocalyptic showdown, a hero still has to take a shower and eat something and go to bed, just like the rest of us. And then get up the next day and have to earn some money, just like us. And deal with the police and neo-Nazis, just like us.
El Camino is great TV in the shape of a movie, and that’s OK. Above all, it’s great to see Aaron Paul and Jesse get the send-off they deserve.
Originally published Oct. 11, 5:17 a.m. PT.