Writer-director Vince Gilligan brings an underlying confidence to nearly every moment of El Camino, the Breaking Bad sequel movie he made for Netflix. The carefully choreographed cinematography, Aaron Paul’s raw and committed performance, Gilligan’s faith that those who tune in will have keen memories for the details of his AMC series Breaking Bad — the Netflix original film successfully makes the case for its existence, even though it’s two hours of content that didn’t necessarily need to be made.
It’s not that audiences and critics are tired of revisiting Gilligan’s nuanced examination of morality and corruption, as seen through the prism of Albuquerque’s best and worst people. The spinoff series Better Call Saul has drawn a faithful audience, with a fifth season on the way in 2020. But Breaking Bad’s final episode regularly appears on lists of the greatest finales of all time, so there was always the risk that a sequel story focused on the show’s key characters might somehow damage the finale’s reputation, and reflect badly on the series as a whole.
Instead, the low-frills character study El Camino is a strong companion piece to the series. To be clear, it’s deliberately designed to be enjoyed only by viewers with top-notch recollection of Breaking Bad. Gilligan’s script makes no effort to remind viewers what happened to lead up to El Camino’s opening moments. (Fortunately, there are plenty of recaps online — Paul even went on Jimmy Kimmel Live to summarize the entire series.)
Picking up right after Breaking Bad’s dramatic ending, El Camino has a comparatively anticlimatic plot, largely focused around former meth cook Jesse (Paul) attempting to get the cash he needs to make a clean escape from Albuquerque, where he’s a wanted man. That means ducking the authorities and dealing with Neil (Scott MacArthur) and Casey (Scott Shepherd), another set of operators thriving in the local criminal underworld. They have a loose connection to the drug dealers who kept Jesse prisoner for months, and they’re after the same cash Jesse’s tracking, but they’re otherwise new to the series.
Jesse’s confrontations with Neil and Casey push El Camino into its most violent moments, complete with specific references to a familiar classic Western trope. But Gilligan doesn’t entirely have enough plot for a two-hour movie, which is where the extended flashbacks to both important and mundane points in Breaking Bad history come in. The newly shot scenes fit between past events from the show, though only super-fans and Reddit TV detective types will be able to pinpoint exactly when some of these sequences take place. The flashbacks bring in many familiar faces for cameos, which range from vital to “Well, I guess it’s nice to see that person again.”
El Camino occasionally ventures into fan service, both via those cameos and by filling in possible low-key questions from the series. Did Breaking Bad fans need to know whether Jesse ever graduated from high school, or how his captors built the rig they used to keep him chained up? Probably not. But Gilligan’s shows have always thrived on their keen attention to detail, and these nuggets of information do keep building on viewers’ understanding of this setting.
Paul already has a pile of awards acknowledging his acting talents, but his work in El Camino is staggering, given the high difficulty factor that comes with having to play so many variations of this character. Seen both in flashbacks and the present, Jesse ranges from a still-optimistic young cook to a man in love to a man permanently damaged by captivity. While Gilligan’s hair and makeup departments deserve all the praise in the world for making Jesse’s various buzzcuts distinct and accurate to their timeframes, the real distinctions all come from Paul’s performance, which keep Jesse’s trauma, anger and despair as subtext rather than a shout. Jesse began the series as a tough-talking wannabe thug, and part of what makes El Camino so compelling is the way it engages with how he’s changed since those early days. When a spark of his original swagger comes out in a modern-day moment, it only enhances that evolution.
As a director, Gilligan is self-assured to a degree that belies his relative lack of experience. While he directed the pilots for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, plus Breaking Bad’s finale, his credits include fewer than a dozen other TV episodes, and El Camino is his first feature film. But as a director, he really commits. Every shot in El Camino, from the most ordinary setup to the fanciest trick shot, feels deliberately chosen to skew just a bit away from conventional choices. Whether it’s a devastating phone conversation, shot with Jesse’s entire body in silhouette, or a wide shot of two people having an intimate moment, each choice ensures that Jesse’s uneasy state of mind echoes in every frame.
One odd aspect of the film is that even though Breaking Bad never lacked well-developed female characters, El Camino is extremely male-focused. Aside from strippers, Jesse’s mom, and one significant cameo, it’s all about Jesse vs. the men of the remaining Albuquerque criminal underworld. That face-off boils down to a more personal struggle, though: Jesse vs. his own darkness.
Early in El Camino, Jesse flashes back to a time when he thought there was a chance he might one day “put things right.” But sometimes, redemption is impossible after a certain point. As a familiar face reminds Jesse, fixing the past is “the one thing you can never do.” Over the course of five seasons of Breaking Bad, Jesse made a lot of terrible choices, and was responsible for a lot of suffering, either actively or accidentally. El Camino withholds its judgment of his actions, never musing on whether he deserves a happy ending. But Gilligan is keenly aware of how a person’s decisions are a major personal defining factor, both in the eyes of the world, and in their own esteem.
Jesse might not be able to look at himself in the mirror without remembering all the things he’s done. But there’s a beauty in hoping that even someone with Jesse’s past might be able to turn his future around. In El Camino, Gilligan lets this idea be spoken subtly. It’s a very specific story, about a young man who went down the wrong path. But the message is universal.
El Camino debuts on Netflix on October 11th, 2019.