Breaking Bad is pretty much a perfect series. Vince Gilligan and his team of writers knew the arc of the show, but they didn’t plan everything out, giving the story enough structure to tell a compelling narrative, but flexible enough to maneuver and make strong choices. One of the best choices was choosing to build on the relationship between protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his former-student-turned-accomplice Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Jesse was famously supposed to die at the end of the first season, but Gilligan wisely saw the potential in the character and the strength of Paul’s performance, and now it’s impossible to think of Breaking Bad without the dynamic between Walt and Jesse. But what does Breaking Bad look like without Walter White? What if it’s just Jesse? Those are the questions Gilligan’s El Camino attempts to answer. The result is a movie that feels like a compilation of episodes that couldn’t quite fit into the show’s final season, so they’ve been cobbled together into a movie. El Camino doesn’t match the dizzying highs and nerve-wracking tension of the series, but it does provide a solid sendoff to the anguished Jesse Pinkman while letting us briefly visit with an array of supporting Breaking Bad players.
El Camino picks up right where Breaking Bad ends as a traumatized Jesse Pinkman flees from the neo-Nazi compound where he was kept prisoner and forced to cook meth. All of Albuquerque is looking for Pinkman as a person-of-interest after Walt’s shot up the compound and killed everyone there. Jesse knows he needs to get out of town, but he has no money. In order to flee the city and stay alive, Jesse has to go to some dangerous places to get the cash he needs to buy a fresh start.
If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you’re probably not even bothering with reviews and went to watch the movie as soon as possible while avoiding all spoilers. The addictive nature of Breaking Bad hasn’t diminished and you can see from El Camino that Gilligan has lost none of his control over this setting that skillfully balances a seedy underworld with a sun-bleached New Mexico. But whereas Breaking Bad maintained a propulsive narrative that always kept a lot of balls in the air (“What’s with the floating teddy bear?” “When’s the ricin going to come into play?” “How will Hank discover Walt’s secret?”), El Camino, by its very nature, is at the end of the story. Breaking Bad left very few narrative loose ends, and unfortunately, the biggest one left—Jesse’s trauma—never really gets explored.
Gilligan has largely crafted a plot-driven story that attempts to fill in some blanks while giving Jesse some more resolution. If El Camino were recut, you could easily see the film just becoming a few more episodes that weren’t included in the final season because they would seriously slow the momentum. The problem is that even as a movie, El Camino doesn’t provide the depth and texture of Breaking Bad episodes like “Cancer Man”, “Peekaboo”, and “Problem Dog” that give us insight into Jesse’s character. El Camino hints at that kind of exploration in its first act as Jesse copes with the trauma of his captivity, but the need to hit the next plot-beat deprives the movie of the ability to settle down and give Jesse some space. There’s not enough time to wrestle with the emotional trauma because Gilligan doesn’t want to lose the tension of Jesse’s mission, so the character stuff gets put on the backburner.
The upside of this approach is we get a very different performance from Paul, but one that’s no less rewarding. While Jesse became beloved for his “Yeah, bitch!” and putting “Yo” at the end of every other sentence, in El Camino he’s largely silent. Part of that comes from dealing with his trauma, and the other part is that there aren’t many people for Jesse to interact with. As opposed to the goofy kid that we saw at the beginning of the show, this Jesse is the taciturn, tortured soul we see at the end, and Paul remains stellar in the role. Nevertheless, it feels like El Camino is missing a scene that provides some moment of personal reckoning or exploration, and instead we’re left with just an internal performance that hints at Jesse’s mental state but never provides any catharsis.
At its best, El Camino provides a way to return to the world of Breaking Bad even if it’s not quite up to the level of the TV series. We get to drop in with characters like Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker, who steals the show with his big-hearted performance) and get a little taste of the tension and drama that Breaking Bad provided. It’s not as sublime as the acclaimed show, and it was never going to recapture what made Breaking Bad special without the Walter White of it all, but El Camino doesn’t diminish the towering legacy of Gilligan’s series. Instead, it’s a neat addendum that could have gone a bit further in exploring Jesse’s character, but thankfully takes him where he needs to go.