Netflix’s new Jesse Pinkman movie, El Camino, has its moments but is missing a key element that allowed Breaking Bad to burrow under your skin, the very thing that made it so compelling, addicting, and unforgettable.
In the brilliant series finale of the equally brilliant Breaking Bad, we left Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as he howled with traumatic joy after being freed from his harrowing ordeal as a meth-making slave for a sadistic gang of white supremacists. We knew Jesse had no money, we knew he had nowhere to go, we knew he had literal and psychological scars, and that’s all we knew.
It was better that way.
As much as anyone, I was excited over El Camino, over two more hours of Breaking Bad, one of the best television shows ever. There was no reason not to be excited. After all, when the series ended, creator Vince Gilligan did something almost no one in television or movies has ever done before: he charged back into that world and came up with something worthy of his original masterpiece, the prequel series Better Call Saul. Unfortunately, the third time is not the charm.
El Camino (which Netflix released Friday) picks up Jesse’s story from the iconic moment of his escape, and then spends the next 122 minutes removing all the fun that came with wondering what might have happened to him.
***There are minor spoilers, so you might want to watch the movie and then come back…
Things open beautifully. In a flashback (there are a lot of flashbacks, all of them filmed exclusively for El Camino), Jesse and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) enjoy a contemplative moment in their unlikely friendship we were not privy to during the series. Those familiar with the show will place it as that time when Jesse and Mike thought they had gotten out, believed they were scot-free, were certain they had secured a second chance filled with a pile of money. Looking towards that future, a regret-filled Jesse talks about setting things right. The seasoned Mike sets him straight: You can never set things right, kid, you can only start over.
And while Mike is right, while Mike understands that setting things right is essentially a selfish act that intrudes on the lives of those who want to move on without you, this sentiment also betrays one of the most compelling themes that drove the show: people justifying their own abhorrent behavior as altruism. That was Walter White’s whole reason for being, and that was what delivered the series to the heights of tragedy no one ever saw coming.
If you’re living in the real world, Mike’s advice is a legitimate piece of wisdom. But because Jesse takes that advice, what it does to El Camino is turn Breaking Bad into something it never was: utilitarian and one-note, devoid of the emotional u-turns that made those characters unforgettable. Will Jesse escape? That’s the only question the series asks, that’s as deep as it gets.
Thankfully, because Gilligan is a master storyteller, and Paul a superb actor, that’s enough to hold your attention (for the most part). But at its best, Breaking Bad churned your guts, filled you with dread, and piled on the anxiety and suspense to where you considered pausing the show to take a few deep breaths.
Using his complicated, well-defined, and unpredictable characters, Breaking Bad never stopped flooring you with brilliant turning points you never saw coming, even as they ended up making perfect sense.
El Camino offers none of that. At times, it’s clever, and always well-acted and beautifully shot, but it’s too long, draggy in spots, and never shocks or surprises. What you have here is plot-plot-plot-plot as a now-matured Jesse makes the necessary moves to buy his way out of town. And eventually, all of those mostly-unnecessary flashbacks end up feeling like fan service, where you’re simply waiting to see if You Know Who shows up.
Which is not to say there are not some pretty wonderful Breaking Bad moments. I loved the flashbacks with blank-slated psychopath Todd (a superb Jesse Plemmons), and both scenes with “The Disappearer” (the great Robert Forster, who died Friday at age 78) are highlights, thanks primarily to Forster’s second-to-none ability to inhabit men genetically incapable of bullshit.
What Gilligan is primarily interested in, though, is completing Jesse’s arc, from the glorious Yay-Science-Wannabe-Gangsta — the typical spoiled, selfish, precision-crafted American teenager who (had Mr. White not re-entered his life) probably would have grown up to clerk at a mini-mart when not smoking weed in front of the TV — to El Camino’s tortured, mature, and surprisingly-competent (and therefore predictable and never surprising) adult who just wants a second chance.
What’s more, I just don’t buy that this is where Jesse ends up, that he became a man, and if El Camino actually did exist in the TRUE Breaking Bad universe, that would never have been allowed to happen. The fact that it does, though, removes all the potential fun (and delightful anguish) that could have come from a more mature but still misguided Jesse rationalizing that he’s doing the right thing as he lays waste to everyone and everything he touches.
In the wrong way, El Camino is the ultimate piece of fan service in how it fulfills our hope to see Jesse grow up and mature, which is the last thing it should have done. Breaking Bad was all about investing in characters who disappointed us over and over and over again. We kept waiting for Walt to come to his senses. We kept waiting for Walt to say he had enough money. We kept praying for these characters to stop dancing on a ledge, and then watched in slacked-jaw horror as they went over the side and failed to learn anything on the way down to the next ledge. The human wreckage this wrought… My god, it was magnificent.
El Camino betrays that. What little tension there is never rises above the average 1970’s detective show: Will Barnaby Jones get caught searching the house! Emotionally, it is a big zero. There are no stakes beyond wondering if Jesse gets his second chance. Sure, we root for him, just like we always did, and that’s where it ends. Now that Jesse’s a good guy, all the conflicted emotions that come with the complicity of empathizing with an immoral anti-hero are gone, as is the off-balance anxiety that came with such an erratic protagonist.
Jesse’s all grown up now. He’s capable and decent and honorable.
Where’s the fun in that?