Spoilers below for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. This is a full review of the film, and is intended to be read after you’ve seen it.
Like Justified and Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad was always as much of a Western as a crime thriller. From its fondness for desert panoramas and Sergio Leone–style face-offs between rival gangs of outlaws to its jaunty country-western needle drops — including Marty Robbins’s “Felina,” which provided the de facto Greek chorus of its guns-a-blazing finale, and its title as well — creator Vince Gilligan and his collaborators stuffed every cranny of the show with allusions to the genre. Co-executive producer and regular episode director Michelle MacLaren once told me that she tried to work homages to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, her favorite movie, into every installment that she helmed. That tradition continues in the postscript movie El Camino, itself an unabashedly Western-tinged title, derived from the vehicle that Walter White’s former partner and pupil Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) steals to escape his imprisonment at the end of the show.
Writer-director Gilligan builds El Camino’s plot around Jesse, and his largely reactive presence gives it a different vibe than the series, which focused on a resentful genius who couldn’t shut up. The quietness extends to the production itself, which punctuates bursts of mayhem with long stretches in which we sit back and watch people figure their way out of problems. Despite the handsome production values — Gilligan reportedly got more time to shoot each scene than was typically allowed on the show — this is a smaller-scale exercise in tension than we’re used to seeing in the era of Marvel, DC, Game of Thrones, and endless Star Wars sequels, with scenes built around characters sneaking around, trying to acquire money, and/or dispose of bodies without getting caught by the police or killed by criminals.
After picking up right where Breaking Bad ended, the first part of the story reunites Jesse with his old running buddies, Skinny Pete and Badger (Charles Baker and Matt Jones), who treat him with the awed respect that Jesse once lavished on Walter until their relationship started to rot. Jesse carries himself with more gravitas here than on the series proper, although the strong-silent vibe is likely the byproduct of being tormented and abused in captivity and being single-mindedly focused on staying alive and starting a new life. Jesse’s chief adversaries are yet another gang of urban desperados: associates of the late, soft-spoken psycho, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons); they get wind of the cash that Todd squirreled away and agree to split it with Jesse, who needs a small fortune to pay for his disappearance and new identity courtesy of Robert Forster’s “vacuum-cleaner salesman” Ed (one of nearly a dozen Breaking Bad characters making return appearances). Their final face-off over $1,800 — the difference between Ed’s hardline price for his services and the cash Jesse has on hand — sets up the most overtly Leone-esque confrontation in the Breaking Bad expanded universe: a quick-draw pitting Jesse, who had previously handled guns with discomfort and reluctance, against the leader of the bad guys. The impending, inevitable violence is telegraphed by close-ups of anxious eyes and itchy trigger fingers.
Like so many moments in the original series and its prequel, Better Call Saul, Jesse’s nearly Eastwoodian confidence with his granddad’s antique semi-automatic pistol — a .22, a caliber that’s often derided as “a woman’s gun” in old gangster flicks — is best not fact-checked against reality. (But in a very Gilligan touch, he uses a hidden gun to drop the first body.) Jesse’s Wild Bill stylings have no precedent in the original series, but thanks to Paul’s agonized but mostly soft-spoken lead performance, they work brilliantly as an expression of Jesse’s animalistic will to endure, as well as his once-suppressed, now-volcanic rage at having been imprisoned and tortured by Todd’s uncle, the neo-Nazi scumbag Jack Welker. More so, the big gun showdown works with the sheer Western-ness of it all. Jesse’s ultimate destination, Alaska, is a place described by Jonathan Banks’s Mike Erhmentraut in a flashback as “the last frontier.” The “last frontier,” as it turns out, also describes the mind space where every iteration of Breaking Bad, including this movie, takes place. (Speaking of frontiers: This film’s debut on Netflix rather than AMC represents one too, considering that Breaking Bad went from a cult object to a popular success in part because AMC licensed just-completed seasons to Netflix.)
Beyond its brash confidence as a piece of filmmaking and its homages to the Western (including the use of a wider frame than was used on the show), El Camino is fan service executed at a very high level — an attempt to answer the perennial child’s bedtime-story question, “And then what happened?” after the words “The End” have already been pronounced and the parent has reached for the light switch. It seems iffy to describe a work dependent on thorough knowledge of the original series as a standalone, and El Camino definitely ain’t it. Like the Deadwood and Transparent wrap-ups that also debuted in 2019, it’s doing something different from its previously established norm, and yet it’s still tethered to the mothership show, without which all of the character turns and callbacks would be meaningless. There’s just enough context provided to get invested in Jesse’s story without having seen a frame of Breaking Bad, but who would want to do a thing like that? Ultimately this is extra episodes of the series in a fresh stylistic wrapper, with scenes every 42 minutes or so that could serve as makeshift cliffhangers if one were to break this 125-minute tale into thirds. Between the fanboy-ready cameos by major players and supporting characters, most of whom were bumped off in the series’ regular run (including Plemons’s Todd, Banks’s Mike, Bryan Cranston’s Walter, and Krysten Ritter’s Jane Margolis), and its callbacks to signature moments (including Jesse and Walt’s big cook from “4 Days Out,” the reference point for their diner conversation), El Camino could’ve been an official Comic Con co-production.
Still, between Paul’s raw, anguished work in close-ups and Gilligan’s sure hand at building tension (notice how skillfully he frames Paul in the foreground and impending menace in the background), it’s hard to imagine El Camino failing to satisfy most fans of the series. Although there may be scattered complaints about Gilligan needlessly prolonging a story that he already wrapped up, it’s worth pointing out that Breaking Bad was itself criticized for not pulling the trigger, so to speak, on a decisive and proper ending, instead seemingly trying to be all things to all viewers. The back half of the fifth and final season arguably gave fans three endings over three weeks, aimed, respectively, at those who thought Walter was an unhinged compulsive in the grip of demons beyond his control (“Ozymandias”); a monster who had poisoned or destroyed everything he claimed to hold dear (“Granite State”); and, at long last in “Felina,” a folk hero who was volatile and greedy but basically good at heart (thus his heroic “rescue” of Jesse, a character who wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place if not for Walter). It’s that final version of the end that lingers in the mind: Walter, the character who inspired New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum’s musings on the Bad Fan, bleeding out on a concrete floor with a contented look on his face, a modern-day outlaw going out in glory like the hero of Marty Robbins’s ballad.
The most original and affecting aspect of El Camino is that it gives Breaking Bad’s co-lead his own, very belated happy ending. In contrast to Walter’s sendoff, this feels like an unambiguously good and deserving outcome, notwithstanding the bodies Jesse leaves on the floor. Almost nobody deserves what happened to Jesse in Breaking Bad’s final season, or in any season. That’s why the question “What happened to Jesse?” has followed Gilligan around for years: We care about this guy in a way we never did about Walter, even when we rooted for Heisenberg to crush his enemies. The only unnecessary element here is the verging-on-torture-porn depiction of how Jesse suffered in captivity; the prolonged flashback to Jesse being tormented in that human dog run, especially, feels like an unnecessary reminder of why we’re supposed to be rooting for him.
For all its Scorsesean attraction-repulsion to bad men, Breaking Bad was always, perhaps compulsively, in the wish-fulfillment business — how many balding, 40-something white men went as Walter White for Halloween? — but here we have a case where a character more sinned against than sinning is sprung from Hell, makes a desperate run for Paradise, and drags himself over the line. True to Breaking Bad and true to the spirit of the classic Westerns this film evokes, Gilligan and Paul push against sentimentality in the final shot, leaving us with the memory of Jesse’s face instead of a shot of the majestic Alaskan landscape where he’s about to remake himself, letting notes of uncertainty and mystery creep into what might otherwise have played as a triumphant conclusion. Which, of course, sets up the question that inspired this project in the first place: And now what happens to Jesse?