REVIEW: ‘El Camino’ is an extended episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ but not a memorable one

breaking bad el camino review
(Image: Netflix/AMC)

**Warning: Spoilers for all seasons of Breaking Bad.**

It took me a couple of years to get hooked on Breaking Bad but immediately after watching the first episode I was addicted, binging the first two seasons in about three days before pining for the next episode like… the most obvious metaphor imaginable for show about meth dealers. Over the course of five seasons (possibly six with the last cut in half) Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and everyone else crafted the best television show since The Wire (the greatest TV show ever, and yes, I will say that every time I mention The Wire, the greatest TV show ever, until something better comes around). While packed with mind-blowing action pieces, heartbreaking tragedies, bada$$ one-lines, disgusting visual effects, and a constant sense of dark humor, what really made Breaking Bad great was the two characters at its center: Cranston’s Walter White and Paul’s Jesse Pinkman.

With Walter White, Breaking Bad created a noble, hard-working school teacher trying to support his family as he was dying of cancer. With Jesse Pinkman, we had a wannabe thug meth dealer from a middle class family with no real problems other than wanting to be a thug. Walt was the hero and Jesse, while not a villain, wasn’t someone to root for. Despite all the harm he caused, all his acts of terror, and that he continued making meth even after he had more money than he’d ever need and his cancer was gone, we still hoped that Walt would somehow return to being that decent human being we initially cared about, only begrudgingly winning us over when faced with the ultimate villains: Neo-Nazis. (Hey, remember 2013, when we all agreed that Nazis were bad guys? Like, as a rule. What happened to that?). Meanwhile even as he descended deeper and deeper into depravity and violence – killing innocent people, spreading highly addictive substances all over the country, and never rarely having any motivation other than money – Jesse Pinkman emerged as a truly sympathetic figure. By the end, Breaking Bad had pulled off the impossible: it made the hero the villain and the (sort-of) villain the hero.

Now, Walter White is dead. And Jesse is alone.

Aaron Paul turns in a career-best performance in ‘El Camino.’
Image: Netflix / AMC.

Picking up literally seconds after the conclusion of Breaking Bad‘s finale, with a bearded, scraggily Jesse screaming in joy and horror as he speeds away from his captors, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie spares no time in tossing the audience right back into the Albuquerque underworld. As his name and face are broadcast everywhere in the city and beyond, Jesse needs to gather whatever he can to start a new life before his old one crashes down on him. Writer/director (and series creator) Vince Gilligan does a great job in emphasizing Jesse’s need for speed (Get it? Because Aaron Paul was in… never mind) and tossing his audience right back into the world of Breaking Bad. Trouble is, real time doesn’t work that way, and it’s hard not to notice that these actors, including Paul but in particular Jesse Plemons, playing the sociopath Todd Alquist, do not look like they did six years ago. Try as the story, the setting, the performances, and the filmmaking may, seeing Todd physically heavier now than he was when he died will always break the illusion. But El Camino has a much bigger problem than its cast growing older.

Over the course of El Camino‘s two-hour runtime, I couldn’t help wondering why I was watching. It’s well made but not very exciting, even boring at times. Every twist is obvious and keeping Jesse as the only central character saps every scene of tension. It doesn’t present anything especially new to the narrative, nor develop any new themes. It doesn’t even match the bombast of the series’ biggest conclusions. While Jesse was never as prone to destructive outbursts as Walt, there should at least be some kind of payoff. Instead, El Camino watches like an extended Breaking Bad episode, and an unremarkable one at that. Sure, it has all the elements of the television show, the characters are who we know, it looks great and there is confidence behind its execution, but it just doesn’t feel needed.

Skinny Pete, of all people, delivers ‘El Camino’s most emotional moment.
Image: Netflix / AMC.

To me, Breaking Bad started and ended with Walter White. While I hoped Jesse would get some sort of happy ending, and that Skylar, Flynn, and the rest of the survivors would find a way to recover from Walt’s destruction, the actual events were never important. I can imagine my own conclusion without seeing it. In fact, given the reception Breaking Bad‘s ending received, with many people hailing it as the best series finale of all time, it seems the audience doesn’t need a conclusion laid out either. Often the conclusion we think of on our own is better than the one we’re eventually given (just ask Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones viewers about that). In short: I don’t know why El Camino was made.

One possible reason, and perhaps the most noble, is to allow Aaron Paul to finally claim the spotlight. Brilliant as he was throughout Breaking Bad‘s run, Paul was always going to be second to Cranston, if only because Walt was the meatier part. He was our avatar, our entrance into the world, the catalyst of the action, and the lens through which we experienced the story. Even as Walt took his place as the series villain, Breaking Bad never allowed us to fully pull away from his perspective. We were as stuck with him as Jesse was. With Walt gone we can finally see Breaking Bad through Jesse’s outlook. Paul slides back into the role of Jesse Pinkman as easily as into a warm tub. Even after six years, he and Gilligan still know this character so well that it’s easy to imagine Pinkman coming back twenty years from now and, other than physical age, being just as convincing that no time has passed. Pinkman has endured a brutal period, including the most recent being chained and forced to cook meth for some very much not fine people, and Paul plays him with all the quiet desperation of the moment, along with a weary wisdom developed over his time spent alongside Walter White. Similarly, returning characters of Badger and Skinny Pete are also given a nice little focus, with Charles Baker as Pete standing out. I’ve long hoped that Aaron Paul would have a greater post-Breaking ­career, and if it takes a return to Jesse Pinkman to remind people just how talented he is, then El Camino is worth making.

The other possible reason for this film being made that comes to mind is one that furthers a sickening trend in recent entertainment. Without ranging into specifics as that would cause spoilers, El Camino uses several flashbacks, partly to stretch out a very thin story, but mostly to allow deceased characters to return. As nice as it is to see these people again, these scenes, spaced throughout the Breaking Bad timeline, provide nothing of importance. Perhaps excepting one line of dialog, no new insight or motivation is given in any of these. Obviously Jesse would have these people in his mind, he’d be entirely unrealistic without thinking about them, but why these moments in particular? Anything important would’ve been stated in the show itself so stories were told. We have moved on. The only reason to have these characters return is for fan service. Bringing back deceased characters for cameos in an unnecessary sequel movie makes El Camino feel like little more than a cheap cash-in on goodwill left from the Breaking Bad audience. As much as I don’t want it to be so, El Camino feels like just another entry in the recent genre of nostalgia entertainment, television and movies made to exploit the pleasant memories of the audience. I hope Gilligan is better than that but right now, given that Better Call Saul is a prequel series and El Camino feels less like a vital piece of storytelling and more like a desperate stab at relevance and/or money, I’m not sure he is.

Of course, years from now, El Camino may be remembered simply as Robert Forster’s last appearance.

‘El Camino’ may be most remembered as Robert Forster’s last film.

Walter White became a villain when he no longer needed to make and sell meth to support his family and pay for medical treatment. He’d done what was necessary, everything after that was optional. He chose to become evil. El Camino could have been made as a cash grab, a spotlight for its overlooked star, or as a farewell to its most sympathetic character. It could have been to codify an ending for one of its characters or a lead-in to more follow-ups showing what happens to others. However, none of these reasons present El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie as necessary. Making an inessential movie follow-up to a beloved television series may not be evil, but it’s definitely not noble. Hopefully Gilligan stops here, when there is still goodwill to rely on, before becoming a (sort-of) villain.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.