This is a spoiler-free review of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Potential spoilers for Breaking Bad the show, however, should be implied. If you have somehow come across this review without having seen the show, read at your own risk. Or better yet, go watch the best show in television history, and then come back and read this review.
With the up and down final season of Game Thrones, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad reclaimed the top spot in my “Best TV Show of All-Time” rankings. It was, and still is, a near-perfect television show. The production value, the acting, the writing, the character development. You won’t find a show that does it better (Though I will concede arguments can be made for shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, maybe Mad Men. But that’s a discussion for another time.). The point being, the pressure was on for creator Vince Gilligan. So does it succeed? The answer is…kind of.
El Camino picks up immediately where the series ended, with Jesse figuring out his next moves now that he has escaped from Jack Welker and his white supremacy crew. From there, the plot somewhat meanders around, jumping back and forth between present day and flashbacks to Jesse’s time in captivity. This was an odd narrative choice. El Camino was made for fans of the show. You cannot watch this movie without having seen the series in its entirety.
With that in mind, the flashback scenes have no real meaning. For one, we know Jesse eventually gets away, so those scenes a lot of the tension that Breaking Bad was so good at creating. For another, did we really need to see Todd and Jesse spending time together – especially this much – as captor and captive? I’d argue we did not. Jesse’s uncertain future is infinitely more compelling than a past we already know a lot about. And while El Camino doesn’t recycle footage from the show, these new scenes from this part of Jesse’s life barely did anything to add to his character arc. These parts do at least inform some of Jesse’s actions post-escape, but the amount of time spent in the past was excessive.
With all the back and forth from past to present, El Camino doesn’t have enough time to focus on where Jesse goes from here. This is a man who was held captive, capping off a stressful stretch of years with arguably the worst time of his life. Tell that story. Jesse Pinkman is one of the all-time great television characters. Advance that storyline. Show us how that time in captivity affected him. Instead, writer/director/co-producer Gilligan settles for what essentially amounts to two hours of fan service moments.
Some of those moments are, truthfully, very good and lots of fun. It’s awesome being back in the Breaking Bad universe, back in New Mexico, seeing a lot of characters again. And fan service can be great, but not when that fan service feels like the reason for the movie even existing.
But there are two aspects that save El Camino. First off, it looks and feels just like Breaking Bad. The movie starts and you feel like you’ve dropped right back into the TV show’s world. Without capturing that feeling, El Camino would have faced an even steeper uphill climb. But with Vince Gilligan back at the helm, this part wasn’t ever really in doubt; but until you actually see it, there’s always that little seed of doubt.
And then there’s Aaron Paul, back as Jesse Pinkman, the role for which he won three Emmys during the show’s run. If Paul isn’t back in top form, the movie would stand no chance at success. But have no fear, Aaron Paul is back and as good as ever. He seamlessly slips back into the tortured role of Jesse. He is outstanding from start to finish. And with him rarely ever being off-screen, his performance lifts up everyone, and everything, around him.
Ultimately, the nostalgia factor, having Vince Gilligan in the director’s seat, and Aaron Paul’s virtuoso performance should be enough to satisfy the most ardent of Breaking Bad fans. But there’s not quite enough substance there to fully justify El Camino’s existence.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is streaming now on Netflix.