El Camino began as a simple short film that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wanted to make for the series’ 10th anniversary. Plans changed, and over time that simple concept expanded into a feature-length film designed for viewers who wondered what happened to Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) after he escaped the Nazi compound driving Todd’s titular vehicle.
The question I had before watching El Camino was if any closure was needed, and whether El Camino would have anything to add to one of the greatest shows ever made. The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. El Camino might not be essential viewing for the phenomenally popular AMC show, but it does provide a proper ending for arguably the fans’ favourite character. And thanks to Aaron Paul’s raw and committed performance, as well as Vince Gilligan’s talent behind the camera, the Netflix original film is one of the best things the streaming giant has produced thus far.
Breaking Bad‘s final episode is regarded as one of the greatest series finales of all time, and so many fans were naturally worried that El Camino could in some way damage the finale’s conclusion. The last time we saw Jesse Pinkman, he had escaped an underground prison where he was held prisoner and forced to cook industrial-grade crystal meth. His final moments at the end of Breaking Bad were powerful indeed, as we watched him speed into the distance, seemingly leaving all of his problems behind. It was just ambiguous enough to imagine a happy ending for Jesse, but it also didn’t seem like the ending the character deserved. Even as he escapes the worst experience of his life, it was hard not to think that Jesse’s problems were far from over. And knowing how things unfold in Breaking Bad, chances are that any plans Jesse may have would soon be derailed by a series of unfortunate events.
El Camino Has No Major Plot Twists
Picking up immediately where the hit drama left off, Netflix’s follow-up film tells the story of what happens to Jesse after he is freed with the help of his mentor–turned–nemesis, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Taking place over the course of a few days, Jessie now attempts to evade the police manhunt and escape New Mexico with the help of some old friends. Complicating matters are Neil (Scott MacArthur) and Casey (Scott Shepherd), two small-time criminals who are after the same missing cash that Jesse is tracking. Apart from that, there are no major twists or new story developments, and there’s really no need to give a full plot synopsis (since I assume anyone reading this has already seen El Camino). Nevertheless, it is worth commenting on the structure of the film, since it pretty much plays like an extended episode of Breaking Bad, and in no way reflects badly on the series as a whole. El Camino exhibits a respectable level of restraint; there are no story beats that undo any of the revelations from the series, there are no scenes that try to shoehorn some ridiculous plot twist, and there are no characters coming back from the dead. Instead, El Camino is a mostly quiet character study, and a strong companion piece to one of the most beloved shows ever made.
El Camino’s Flashbacks and Cameos
There was much speculation on which characters from the original series would return, and thankfully the answer is several — including a few who died (they appear in a number of flashbacks that put a clever spin on the proceedings). In the present timeline, we get a touching sequence with Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones), who provide some much-needed levity. Later, there is also a wonderfully written scene featuring Robert Forster as Ed, the proprietor of a vacuum-repair shop, and his sweet customer played by Marla Gibbs. Todd (Jesse Plemons) also returns as Pinkman’s affable white-supremacist imprisoner, and fans are treated to a poignant scene between Jesse and Mike (Jonathan Banks), which unfolds roughly around “Buyout” (season five’s sixth episode), where Mike and Jesse decide to break away from Walt’s business, and Mike recommends Jesse relocate to Alaska. Fans will remember that Jesse originally said that he wanted to move to Alaska in season five, episode 11’s “Confessions,” and now we know why. Putting aside those clever connections to previous episodes, it is scenes like this that remind us that the show’s biggest strength is in the quality performances of every player, no matter how big or small their role — and more importantly, they demonstrate why Jesse became the fan favourite.
Jesse is the Beating Heart of Breaking Bad
It’s worth remembering that Aaron Paul was initially cast to play a small part, with the initial plan to kill his character at the end of season one. Instead, Paul proved so utterly compelling in the role that Jesse not only survived, but in time was seen as Walt’s narrative equal. If Walter White is the brains of the show, Jesse is the beating heart, and his relationships with everyone he meets not only strengthens his character, but also the performances of those who surround him. Late in the third act, El Camino flashes back to a time before Walter White was known by his clandestine alias, Heisenberg. The scene takes place within the space of season two’s “4 Days Out,” in which both men formed a close bond. It was a simpler time when Walt was trying to make some fast cash to leave for his family before cancer got the best of him. And it was a time when Jesse was a simple naïve high school graduate trying to figure out what to do with his life. Through the beauty of the flashback, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston share one final scene, and thanks to their onscreen chemistry, we are reminded that the best moments in Breaking Bad revolved around the interplay between Walter and Jesse — and despite everything that has happened to Jesse, he’s still the same guy, deep down inside. It is with this scene that El Camino successfully makes the case for its existence, and reminds us of why we all fell in love with Jesse, to begin with.
When creator Vince Gilligan first pitched Breaking Bad, he described it as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” The show began as a story about Walter White — a chemistry teacher–turned–drug kingpin who, after discovering he has terminal lung cancer, decides to cook meth to provide money for his family after he’s gone. Even though Walt had the brains, he didn’t know squat about the drug business, and so he recruited former student Jesse Pinkman to help him sell his first batch. From that moment on, Jesse became a victim of Walt’s bad decisions, and when Walter let Jesse’s drugged and unconscious girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), die from choking on her vomit, the series narrative truly shifted to have Jesse serve as the series’ moral center and comic relief. Walter White may have been the driving force for the biggest scenes, but it’s Jesse who keeps viewers caring. Walter White gets his conclusion, but Jesse is left with the short end of the stick.
Vince Gilligan’s Direction
As a director, Vince Gilligan does some of his best work here. In fact, his work here is so good that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the man only directed a handful of Breaking Bad‘s episodes (not to mention this is his first feature film). Working alongside series editor Skip Macdonald and cinematographer Marshall Adams, Gilligan composes some truly unforgettable images, such as a stunning bird’s eye view of Jesse tearing apart a
home crime scene in time-lapse photography. Much like the show, El Camino evokes the iconic imagery seen in classic Westerns, and even features a good old’ fashioned Western standoff as Jesse arms himself with his granddad’s antique semi-automatic pistol — a .22 caliber. Every shot in El Camino is meticulously crafted, whether it’s an ordinary setup, a long tracking shot, or a devastating phone conversation, Vince Gilligan ensures that Jesse is as front and center as he should be, since this is his story and he appears in every scene.
The Ending of El Camino
As good as the cinematography, score, art direction, and supporting cast are, what makes El Camino great is Jesse Pinkman/Aaron Paul. Paul hasn’t missed a beat in his portrayal of Jesse, and here he carries every scene (nearly every frame) of the movie on the weight of his shoulders. His work in El Camino is impressive considering that he has to play so many variations of his character, as Jesse goes through a roller coaster of emotions. That means the good, the bad, and everything in between.
El Camino (Spanish for “road”) gives Jesse his road to recovery. In the end, Jesse takes Jane’s advice and chooses Alaska as the “last frontier” — the place he would escape to. Before he leaves, Jesse provides Ed with a letter for Brock (Ian Posada), the contents of which are kept hidden from the viewer, but which we can only assume informs Brock that Jesse has left a large pile of money behind for the young boy. The film’s final image is clearly similar to Jesse’s final Breaking Bad appearance, only this time he’s driving away peacefully. We can always wonder what happens next to Jesse, but chances are that he’ll be okay, and Jesse finally gets the closure he deserves.
Six years and one spin-off prequel later, the obvious question was if it was worth continuing a story that already had a satisfying ending? Not only does the El Camino’s 125-minute runtime pay tribute to the show that helped give it birth, but it also finds a reason to exist beyond making the studio a boatload of money. If the Breaking Bad finale was about Walter White getting what he wanted, El Camino is about Jesse reconciling with his past and searching for humanity he’d lost. It succeeds by giving Jesse a fresh start; he’s finally able to move on and decide what he wants to do with his life without anyone else interfering with his plans. Now that he truly is free, the question is whether or not he can create a happy ending for himself.
- Ricky D
‘El Camino’ is a Mostly Satisfying ‘Breaking Bad’ Sequel
**This review contains light spoilers**
Breaking Bad, one of the top prestige series of the Peak TV era, went off the air more than six years ago, in September of 2013, with one of the more satisfying, close-ended conclusions of any great TV show.
The series’ mythology has continued in the years since, mostly through the spinoff series Better Call Saul, which is set mostly in the events prior to Breaking Bad but occasionally incorporates flash-forwards. There was also Bryan Cranston, reprising the Walter White character in an unfortunate SNL sketch that was based on that show’s current, mistaken ethos that if they stick a recognizable actor or character in a political sketch, the recognition will carry the idea to humor on its own.
Through Better Call Saul‘s run – which, with its fifth season next year, will equal the length of its parent show- the quality control has mostly been kept up, largely because Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has developed and run that series himself, rather than farm it out to underlings.
That’s also the case with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, a sequel movie which debuted on Netflix (in addition to a small, one-weekend-only theatrical release), and which Gilligan both wrote and directed himself.
Though it isn’t quite up to the very best of the quality of Breaking Bad, either from a plotting or suspense standpoint, El Camino is a worthy follow-up, both thematically and aesthetically in line with the series that spawned it. It’s much closer to the tone and style of Breaking Bad than Better Call Saul is, and also offers fan service, although not a tiresome amount.
El Camino is debuting on Netflix rather than AMC, which was where Breaking Bad was broadcast for its run, although the move to streaming is somewhat apropos; it was Netflix, early on in its streaming era, where a great many fans first discovered Breaking Bad between seasons and helped make it the phenomenon that it was.
If you’ve forgotten Breaking Bad’s conclusion, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) died, although not before making piece with his wife, Skyler, confessing that “I did it for me” in plotting revenge against all of his enemies and ensuring a financial future for his children. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) ended the series by speeding away from the scene of the final shootout, which claimed the lives of the Nazi drug trafficking gang that had kept him captive for much of the final season.
The El Camino movie shows us the further adventures of Jesse, still wracked with PTSD from his captivity, as he seeks to elude the law following the exposure of his and Walt’s massive drug operation. On top of Jesse’s quest to get back the remaining money he left behind, we’re also treated to multiple flashbacks in order to provide closure to Jesse’s relationships with certain characters who died during the life of the show.
We also see Jesse doing battle with a new group of bad guys, leading to some of the nerve-wracking moments of suspense that we’ve come to expect from Breaking Bad. No, we don’t get any moments or scenes that are up there with the iconic heights of the original series, but El Camino provides a bit of closure for the Pinkman character — more satisfying than we got the first time around.
At the heart of El Camino is an outstanding performance from Aaron Paul, who has had a mixed record of success as a movie and TV actor in the years since Breaking Bad, although he does do fine work as a voice actor on Bojack Horseman.
Also, as we saw in the New Hampshire-set penultimate episode of the original series, Breaking Bad is pretty jarring when it moves from Albuquerque to a climate of snow.
Could we have lived without a conclusion to the Jesse arc on Breaking Bad? Probably. But El Camino is certainly satisfying.
Breaking Bad, Ep. 5.16: “Felina” is a Definitive Punctuation Mark
“I did it for me.”
After Walter White utters these words, the rest of “Felina,” the final episode of Breaking Bad, almost doesn’t matter. It’s a definitive punctuation mark, the ultimate silencer to the creepy paternalistic Walter fans who have grown so vocal over the last few months, and a genuine turning point for a character who long ago gave away any possibility of anything approaching redemption/ Those words, spoken to Skyler in their last moment together, are the closest thing to kind words he can offer. After two years of betrayal, abuse, and lies, he finally admits what anyone with eyes has always known, and it may actually help Skyler attain some level of peace to hear him acknowledge it. It’s a far more significant character moment than leaving the remaining money behind in secret.
After “Ozymandias” aired, Vince Gilligan stated that it was the best episode they’d done – or would ever do. He wasn’t being falsely modest about the remaining episodes, as it turns out; a rewatch is necessary to assess the former claim, but it’s certainly true that neither “Granite State” nor “Felina” can match that episode for intensity or wrenching drama. Instead, “Felina” opts for a series of payoffs that favor symmetry and logic over shock value, and the result is satisfying but surprisingly safe, especially for a series as prone to risk-taking as this one. While that may disappoint the easter-egg / trainspotting contingent of the fanbase, there’s no denying that “Felina” delivers more or less every character and plot beat needed to bring the series to a fitting, rewarding conclusion.
The major downfall of the last two seasons has been the lack of focus on Jesse, who before then was the series’ beating heart and (relative) conscience, a role that has since shifted to Skyler, much to the dismay of misogynists everywhere. “Felina” doesn’t do a lot to correct this, but Jesse’s final moments on the series might well be the most powerful of the episode. After taking his sweet, brutal revenge on Todd, a profoundly broken, physically unrecognizable Jesse speeds off into the night, laughing and crying and screaming, with no discernible future to speak of. The door was theoretically left open for Jesse to find Brock and start anew, but given what he’s been through and the things he’s done, that sort of rosy outcome would have been a cop-out; The only path that makes sense for him now is a quick one towards oblivion.
If anything is surprising about “Felina,” it’s the degree to which Walt is able to go out on his exact terms; it’s tempting to imagine a scenario that truly humbled Walt, thereby amplifying the series’ function as a tragedy. None of that, as it turns out: Walt is able to dispatch his enemies (with one last crazy handful of nothin’, of course), get one last moment with Holly, terrify his former business partners, poison Lydia, and generally underline that he was a true artist of criminality, all perfectly according to plan. That element that used to drive Breaking Bad to its most crystalline moments of brilliance – chaos – is entirely absent here. Gilligan even lets the final moments play out as a kind of triumph – a word Gilligan used to describe the finale back when the season began – by setting the last scene to Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” (If you want real tragedy, incidentally, look up their story sometime.) “Guess I got what I deserved,” the song goes, and it’s all at once cornily on-the-nose, clever, and poignant. The full picture has only just been revealed to us, and only a consideration of the series as a whole will answer whether or not the series holds together as cohesively as one would hope, but “Felina” gets the broad strokes right, and that’s a fair sight better than most. At the very least, it was a generous wellspring of incredible characters, performances, and moments, all rendered with cinematic precision and daring. There has never been and never will be such a thing as a perfect TV series; there are simply too many variables at play. We must simply make do with plain old greatness, and Gilligan and his remarkable writing and directing staff achieved it with astonishing regularity. In the light of their accomplishments, the impulse to poke holes falls away feebly. All hail Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad, Ep. 5.15: “Granite State” is a Relentlessly Bleak Hour of TV
Breaking Bad is not a series generally noted for its lightness of tone, but Vince Gilligan and his collaborators have always managed to wring humor and quirk out of what would seem to be a hopelessly grim set of story beats. That’s what makes “Granite State,” the series’ super-sized penultimate episode, so hard to watch. Save for a few passing moments of sewer-downhill-from-the-gallows “humour,” “Granite State” is a relentlessly bleak hour of TV, wherein even the glimpses of “hope” are really just (in all likelihood) presaging more carnage.
With misery as our starting point, the first topic has to be poor, poor Jesse, whose ordeal goes from miserable to quite literally hellish in the span of one fateful evening. After making a serviceable attempt at an escape from the clutches of his grinning neo-Nazi captors, they make clear that no matter how hopeless he may be, they can always make things worse – by shooting Andrea, for instance. (They spare Brock, though. Just in case they feel like killing him later to make Jesse’s life even more unbearable.) If “Granite State” makes one thing clear, it’s that if “Felina,” the series finale, doesn’t pull off some truly impressive narrative justification, Jesse must survive Breaking Bad. We’ve seen him undergo too much just to perish.
In the midst of all this misery is the ever-present Todd. “Granite State” is a kind of showcase for Jesse Plemons; over the course of the hour, we get Todd at his most terrifying (balaclava’d in the White House) and his most bumbling (attempting to woo Lydia), and he’s never less than utterly convincing, despite his barely-moving features. Plemons is the real deal, able to stand toe-to-toe with the cast’s heavyweights, which helps to make up for the fact that his neo-Nazi cohorts err a little too far on the side of mustache-twirling. Their chortling brand of evil – most prominent in the scene when Uncle Jack embraces his nephew just for being so damned greedy and awful – is laid on thickly compared to past Bad baddies.
Of course, the true meat of the episode, which takes place over about a month, is devoted to the disassembling of Walter White, who finally meets Saul’s mystery man – and it’s Robert Forster! The veteran character actor’s appearance is one of the few pure joys of a very dark episode, as Forster’s patented world-weary, seen-it-all delivery is beyond perfect both for the character and for the heightened universe of the series itself. That sense of joy wears off, of course, the longer Forster sticks around. “Granite State” threatens to make some viewers who wouldn’t normally be inclined to do so begin to kind of sympathize with Walt, not because he does anything virtuous (he doesn’t, unless you count conning his way into a phone call with Walt Jr., which you shouldn’t), but because his circumstances are so dire that it’s difficult not to feel anything for him on a basic human level. Cranston is always amazing, but he’s even better than usual here, if only by virtue of the fact that he gets so many notes to play, all of which are, well, depressing: rage, frailty, despair, spite, desperation, loneliness.
As expected, “Granite State” mostly exists to set up the series’ final hour and get us to the point of the season’s initial flashforward, and it does so admirably, but a few key moments don’t land with the usual panache. Skyler’s interrogation sequence is hampered by a tired cliché – her disassociation is made clear through down-pitched voices and blurred vision, a too-familiar visual shorthand from a series that’s been consistently innovative elsewhere. Walt’s phone call to Walt Jr. should be devastating, but RJ Mitte’s performance isn’t quite up to the task. More troubling are the closing moments of the episode, which feature a rare scoring misstep and an even rarer groanworthy final shot. The reappearance of the series there, albeit in remixed form, while Walt gathers his wits (and rage) in order to (presumably) charge on Jack’s crew, is a strained attempt to get a rousing moment out of a thoroughly downcast episode, undercut by the fact that we already knew where this was all going.
Peter Gould wrote and directed this episode; that’s noteworthy because he’s also being put in charge of Better Call Saul, the apparently-forthcoming Saul Goodman spinoff series that’s meant to be a prequel. Bob Odenkirk gets what we can safely assume are his last scenes of the series this week, assuming a new identity and getting himself as far away from Walt as possible. (Ever the shrewd tactician.) I’ll be surprised if Gould and Gilligan only announced Better Call Saul as a prequel in order to tease fans who might read into that news as a hint towards Saul’s fate on Breaking Bad; now that it’s clear he makes it out relatively unharmed, barring some truly insane plot contortions next week, I see no reason for it not to take place after Breaking Bad, with Saul continuing his dirty work on the sly. It’s something to consider, anyway, as we wait for the end. I, for one, am done speculating. Let’s just take in a little TV history, shall we?
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