NOTE: Some major spoilers for AMC’s, “Breaking Bad” series, particularly its final season, are present in this review
AMC’s excellent crime drama series, Breaking Bad continues to stand as one of the most celebrated original series offerings that the cable network has ever delivered. After a thoroughly superb five-season run, beginning in 2008, and ending in 2013, with one of the most talked-about and satisfying conclusions in television history, the legacy of Breaking Bad is still standing strong today, particularly with its popularity as a continually watched and re-watched series on Netflix. AMC has continued their own expansion of the Breaking Bad universe with the ongoing prequel/spin-off series, Better Call Saul as well (which is sitting out 2019 entirely, and instead debuting its next season in 2020), but outside of that, it’s tough to argue that Breaking Bad ended very definitively, leaving very few unresolved story threads in the wake of series protagonist, Walter White’s tragic demise at the end of the series finale.
Among the small handful of unanswered questions following Breaking Bad’s conclusion however is the fate of Jesse Pinkman, Walter White’s former student and partner-in-crime. Jesse was last seen in Breaking Bad’s final episode furiously speeding off in a stolen El Camino, after Walter used a remote-controlled machine gun to murder all of the Neo-Nazi’s that were keeping Jesse captive, and forcing him to cook meth for them. We never found out what happened with Jesse, despite most of the series’ other criminal characters, including the ones currently featured on Better Call Saul, ultimately perishing through direct or indirect means by Walter’s influence as New Mexico drug kingpin, Heisenberg. This was indeed an effectively ambiguous conclusion for Jesse’s own tragic story, as a young man who had every advantage in life, and seemingly squandered every chance he had to do better. It is however also difficult to argue that if any Breaking Bad character was denied proper closure, it was probably Jesse, whose fate deserved at least a little more fleshing out than it ultimately got.
It seems that Breaking Bad creator and showrunner, Vince Gilligan agrees with this short-changing of Jesse’s conclusion too. Thus, after seemingly years of whispers, rumours and speculation from both Breaking Bad veterans, AMC and Breaking Bad rights holder, Sony Pictures Television, it was eventually announced just this year that Sony would be collaborating with Netflix, to release a Netflix Original Film that would continue the story where Jesse’s character left off at the conclusion of Breaking Bad! This Netflix Original Film is El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, a production directed by Vince Gilligan himself, and one that returns Aaron Paul to his breakout role as Jesse Pinkman. That alone should be a big draw for Breaking Bad fans, and while this movie is certainly quite dependent on viewers already being Breaking Bad fans to get the most out of it, it is nonetheless a superb offering for those fans, who will find an appropriately dramatic, engaging and satisfying epilogue that finally provides more satisfactory closure for Jesse.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie unfolds pretty much entirely from Jesse’s perspective, picking up immediately after his dramatic fleeing from the site of Walter’s body, following the conclusion of Breaking Bad’s series finale. With the police hunting him down, Jesse thus has to try and formulate a plan to flee his criminal life for good, lest he spend the rest of his literal life behind bars. It’s a simple, but wonderfully executed premise that keeps building off of the conclusion of Breaking Bad, now that pretty much every single one of Walter’s criminal associates is dead, and Jesse is left as one of the only true scapegoats from a far-reaching and incredibly powerful meth trade.
Aaron Paul returns to the role of Jesse with incredible ease as well, embodying both Jesse’s past and present, and occasionally calling back to a simpler, more engaged and energetic criminal bend with Jesse’s character, which has now given way to the broken and desperate survivor that has seen his years with Walter begin to catch up with him. This further exploration of Jesse’s character is also nicely developed with a few quick cameos from dead Breaking Bad characters in flashback, which are best left unspoiled, even if fans can probably anticipate most of them in advance. Even in the present, we get to see what’s come of Badger, Skinny Pete and the Pinkman family as well, as Jesse has no choice but to turn to whatever allies he left behind during his time in the meth business, at various junctures that prove essential to securing his hopeful escape from the cops.
I have to emphasize that El Camino definitely works best when Breaking Bad fans know as little about its storyline and character arcs as possible, so I’d be remiss to spoil the many cool surprises and turns that are in this movie. I will say however that an extended flashback presence, and the one that definitely has the most bearing on developing Jesse’s moral ambiguity, while further fleshing out where he stands in the fallout of Water’s death and Breaking Bad’s conclusion, is Jesse Plemons’ Todd Alquist, who is by far the biggest subject of El Camino’s filling of the blanks regarding off-screen moments that Jesse had during Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season. Considering that Todd murdered Jesse’s second girlfriend, Andrea Cantillo in cold blood after Jesse tried to escape captivity, this naturally lends itself to a complicated dynamic between the two men, albeit one that El Camino adds a lot of really great layers to.
Seeing as Todd genuinely cares for Jesse, in his own twisted, sociopathic way, an extended ‘subplot’ in the movie, which takes place entirely in flashback, before Andrea was killed, shows a sort of eccentric bonding effort between the two, as Todd essentially grants Jesse ‘furlough’ to hang out with him, and help him deal with a few ‘chores’. Plemons is a big highlight in El Camino, alongside Paul, giving us a taste of some of the darkest struggles that Jesse had to endure during his time with the Neo-Nazi’s that he was trapped under during Breaking Bad’s final episodes. Featuring such heavy emphasis around Todd’s character is a bit of a risk for El Camino, which could have easily sustained itself on Jesse’s efforts to escape and start a new life alone, but it’s a risk that nonetheless pays off well, constantly keeping viewers rooting for Jesse after his many terrible experiences, while also adding lots of interesting new shades to the twisted working relationship that Jesse and Todd once had, before Jesse finally killed Todd during the events of Breaking Bad’s final episode.
Like I said though, it is nonetheless true that El Camino is designed pretty much exclusively for Breaking Bad fans, so if you don’t already know these characters, then a lot of their otherwise excellent story material here will be lost on you. Even the Netflix recap that plays before this movie ends up spoiling most of the big twists and developments from Breaking Bad, so you’d best do yourself a favour by watching that series before watching this movie, especially since Breaking Bad already stands as one of the best cable dramas in television history anyway. Once you’ve cleared the prerequisite of watching Breaking Bad in its entirety though, you’ll get a near-perfect follow-up to that standout AMC series in El Camino, presenting a strong showcase for Jesse’s character and what he’s gone through, as well as just the right amount of interactions between classic Breaking Bad characters and some new antagonists, all of whom play their own parts in whether or not Jesse ultimately makes it out of his predicament.
El Camino springs from a very simple premise, as I mentioned. The movie is set up as more or less a two-hour episode of Breaking Bad when it comes down to it, but that’s perfectly fine, since that’s no doubt what Breaking Bad fans would want anyway. The entire movie is essentially one prolonged escape effort by Jesse, never really breaking from his perspective, and only interrupting the ongoing effort to flee with flashbacks that further flesh out Jesse’s character and situation. This includes establishing some new antagonists, who mostly exist to prolong the movie by going after an important cash stash that Jesse needs to flee New Mexico, but these new villains do nonetheless anchor some truly standout scenes, eventually culminating with one last push to conquer Jesse’s dark side, so he can hopefully move on to something better.
Like I said, if you’re not already a fan of Breaking Bad who’s seen that entire series, then several of these story developments will be lost on you. Non-fans of Breaking Bad will still get a tight, well-executed escape drama here, but it’s clearly meant as an epilogue and a treat for people who have already spent five seasons investing heavily in Jesse’s development as a character, both the best and worst of him. For those people, El Camino is a simple, but well-crafted dramatic thriller that manages to maintain a crackling pace and an engaging ticking clock, even with its otherwise deliberately slow pacing. Like Breaking Bad before it, El Camino does all the right things when it comes to keeping viewers glued to the edge of their seat, never once letting up with the tension or the drama, while still doing everything in its power to soak in as much character and atmosphere as possible.
Director, Vince Gilligan brings a wonderfully authentic touch to El Camino, which fits right in with the sensibilities and style of Breaking Bad, without missing a beat. If you binge the entire run of Breaking Bad, and then jump immediately into El Camino (and you might as well, since Netflix has both!), you won’t get a sense of being jarred after the shift from series to movie. Again, the caveat to this is that El Camino feels less like a proper standalone cinematic effort and more like a two-hour episode of the AMC series that inspired it, but I doubt that there will be complaints about this, least of all from the longstanding Breaking Bad fanbase who will savour any chance to return to this world, especially with Better Call Saul taking an extra year off before its upcoming season.
Naturally, Gilligan’s directing touches are sublime throughout, always keeping the stakes high, while also presenting a clear focus on character over action. El Camino could have very easily been presented as a white-knuckle thriller or an intricate heist movie, but that certainly wouldn’t feel like Breaking Bad, would it? Authenticity is key here, and Gilligan continues to prevent Jesse’s epilogue from descending into cheap shocks or thrills. That’s not to say that El Camino can’t be thrilling or shocking in its own right, but like Breaking Bad before it, El Camino always earns those moments with a wonderful slow burn presentation, and a continued commitment to maximizing those metaphorical money shots with a persistent soak in grime and seediness, which always threatens to pull Jesse down for good, even as the tangible threat of the law simultaneously barks at his heels.
The brilliantly-crafted modern tragedy of Breaking Bad is revived without compromise in the similarly excellent El Camino, a movie that presents one final protracted test for Jesse and his character, before he has a chance of finding the happy ending that ultimately eluded the late Walter White. It’s a fleeting and short-lived return to the world of Breaking Bad, and a well-paced showcase of how Albuquerque has been changed by the death of Heisenberg and his enormous meth operation, and what that means for the remaining survivor of Walter’s fatal descent into moral decay.
If you’ve somehow avoided Breaking Bad to this day, despite its incredible levels of popularity and acclaim, then jumping feet-first into El Camino is likely unwise, since this is a movie very clearly designed for established Breaking Bad fans, who are already well familiar with Jesse’s character and this setting. You can still enjoy El Camino well enough if you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, since it’s still ultimately functional for non-fans as a satisfying crime thriller, but even so, all of the many detailed nuances and character turns are best appreciated by those who have already fallen in love with the world of Breaking Bad. With Netflix also hosting all five seasons of that stellar series, you have no excuse to skip out on it either, since, if you’re interested in El Camino in the first place, then you’re no doubt already a Netflix subscriber. Thus, what do you have to lose by finally catching up on such a fantastic TV series?
Regardless, El Camino is the perfect epilogue for Jesse, and for Breaking Bad as a whole, providing that extra bit of necessary closure that effectively adds to the satisfaction of Breaking Bad’s conclusion, rather than taking away from it. As enjoyably as Better Call Saul has fleshed out formerly unseen corners of the Breaking Bad universe, El Camino gives us a fleeting peek ahead at what could come next in the wake of Jesse’s escape and Walter’s death, without necessarily inviting more sequels that it doesn’t need. Perhaps Vince Gilligan will eventually find another way to revisit Breaking Bad’s direct fallout someday, but even if this is the only follow-up movie that Breaking Bad ever gets, it’s also the only one it truly needs, and that alone is enough to make it required viewing for those who remain invested in the tragic life of Jesse Pinkman.
- Tense, satisfying storyline that provides more closure for Jesse
- Tight, engaging direction that perfectly recaptures the appeal of Breaking Bad
- Lots of fun Breaking Bad cameos throughout
- You have to be a Breaking Bad fan to fully get into the story