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Josh Reviews The New Breaking Bad Netflix Movie: El Camino!

I am thrilled that Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has made such a thrilling return to the world of the series with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Mr. Gilligan wrote and directed!  I loved every minute of this surprisingly deep dive back into this universe and these characters, and the long-awaited and well-deserved focus on Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman.

Breaking Bad is without question one of the great television achievements of all time.  Vince Gilligan and his astoundingly talented team of collaborators were able to craft a magnificent character study of a hugely flawed middle-aged white American man, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), charting his transformation from mild-mannered high school science teacher into a criminal overlord and monster.  (“From Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as goes the phrase often used by the folks behind the show.)  The show was breathtaking in the way it plumbed the worst depths of Walter White (and many of those around him).  The show could mount a viscerally exciting action sequence and also be very funny, but most of all it was heartbreaking.  A carefully structured, serialized show, Breaking Bad ended at a time of Mr. Gilligan’s choosing, and the phenomenal final season brought the show to a nearly perfect ending.

I was completely satisfied with the five seasons of Breaking Bad.  And yet, in the years since the finale, the show’s universe has expanded.  Mr. Gilligan and Peter Gould launched a prequel spin-off series, Better Call Saul.  To my enormous surprise, not only is the show great, I think it has grown to equal and possibly even surpass Breaking Bad!  I am completely captivated and I eagerly await the coming fifth season.

As Better Call Saul has progressed, gradually catching up to the timeline of Breaking Bad, I’ve been wondering whether Saul will ever directly cross over with events from the original show.  Many Breaking Bad characters have appeared on Saul (beyond Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut, the show’s two lead characters, both of whom originated on Breaking Bad).  But would we eventually get to see the events of Breaking Bad from the perspective of Saul’s characters like Jimmy and Mike and Kim?  Might we even actually see Walt or Jesse appear on the show?  Better Call Saul’s post-Breaking Bad “Cinnabon Gene” sequences also have served to hint that the show might eventually move beyond the timeline of the events of Breaking Bad, and perhaps show us more of other Breaking Bad characters’ final fates.

But I never in my wildest dreams expected that Vince Gilligan would one day mount a full-on Breaking Bad sequel.  And yet, here we are with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which picks up the story of Jesse Pinkman immediately following the events of the Breaking Bad series finale!!

I absolutely loved the final run of Breaking Bad episodes.  I thought that was among the best run of episodes in the show’s entire run.  And yet, I had one very small complaint with the Breaking Bad finale: that Jesse, who had been the show’s second lead, was mostly sidelined from the story.  Here’s what I wrote in my (otherwise overwhelmingly positive) original review of the end of Breaking Bad:

But most disappointing for me was the near-complete sidelining of Jesse, who we hardly saw until the final moments and who had very few lines of dialogue in the episode. I didn’t love that whole final story-line of Jesse as slave of the Nazis. All of those scenes with Jesse and Todd/the Nazis in the final run of episodes were gripping and wrenching as I watched them, but when thinking about them afterwards that story-twist felt like a weird digression for Jesse. I’d expected the show’s finale to be about a full-on confrontation between Hank, Jesse, and Walt, with my thinking that each one would be trying to outwit and escape/defeat the other two. When Hank got taken out in “Ozymandias,” I though that was for sure to set up the finale’s focus squarely on Walt versus Jesse. Instead, Jesse had hardly any role in the finale at all. And while that final moment of him screaming triumphantly in the car, while speeding away, was a great fist-pumping moment, I wish that at the end of the show I had a better idea of Jesse’s ultimate fate. Is he going to be able to get his life back together, or did his connection with Walt destroy him completely? That’s a huge hanging question that I’m bummed to be left with.

That was a minor complaint in my review of Breaking Bad’s extraordinary final season.  And yet, to my great delight, here comes El Camino to address this one “hanging question” that I mentioned.  Jesse Pinkman finally steps into the forefront as the lead character, and El Camino brings his story to a hugely satisfying conclusion (while at the same time also filling in the blanks of Jesse’s story during his imprisonment by the Nazis, events which Breaking Bad mostly skipped over in order to focus on Walt).

Does El Camino need to exist?  No.  The finale of Breaking Bad was a terrific ending.  But I am so thankful that El Camino does exist!!  It’s a terrific epilogue and a wonderful gift to all the fans of Breaking Bad.  If you’ve never seen the show, El Camino is not the way to enter this world.  The movie is packed full of references and callbacks for Breaking Bad fans.  I’d imagine that it’d be hard to follow if you’ve never seen the show.  But if you’re a fan?  I can’t imagine your being anything less than delighted by this film.

OK, we’re going to dip into some spoilers as we continue, so please beware if you haven’t yet seen El Camino.

Aaron Paul was always great as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, but wow, he is even better than he’s ever been here in El Camino.  Mr. Paul takes full advantage of being given center stage in this film to deliver a magnificent performance.  We’ve never quite seen a Jesse like this before.  He has been broken by his experiences being enslaved by the Nazis.  Mr. Paul digs deep to show us just how much damage has been done to Jesse.  He also shows us the way Jesse’s tenacity and perseverance allow him to overcome extraordinary hardships and challenges.  I love how we get to see both sides of this post-Breaking Bad Jesse.

I’d wondered where and when El Camino would pick up Jesse’s story.  Would we be catching up to him years after the events of the series?  (Perhaps the same amount of time that’s passed in the real world would have passed in the world of the show?)  Instead, El Camino picks up with Jesse literally at the exact second where we last saw of him in the Breaking Bad finale.  I was surprised at first, but then I thought about it and I realized this was the perfect and inevitable choice.  Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul after it!) always relished exploring the minutia of what other shows would have skipped over.  We always got to see every single hard step that Walt and Jesse had to take as they pursued their drug-dealing enterprises.  And so it’s perfect that El Camino would take exactly the same approach.  One might have thought that Jesse was good-to-go, driving away from the destroyed Nazi compound after having been freed by Walt.  But no, this is the world of Breaking Bad.  And so, El Camino shows us each and every painstaking step Jesse has to face and overcome as he tries to make his escape from Albuquerque, where he has suddenly become a famous criminal on the run from the law.  I love this choice.  And I love that we get a new classic Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul “we’re going to show you every step of the hard work involved” montage — Jesse’s slow disassembly of Todd’s apartment in search of his hidden cash.  Magnificent.

El Camino was delightfully filled with Breaking Bad familiar faces.  I was so happy that Skinny Pete and Badger returned and got significant screen-time in the early going of the movie.  I love those two, and it was great to see Skinny Pete get a couple of hero moments, coming up with a good plan for Jesse and bravely agreeing to take the heat from the cops in Jesse’s place.  (I only wish we got to see more of those two in the rest of the film!!  Those early scenes tricked me into thinking they’d be with Jesse throughout this adventure.  An early ad for the film showed a scene of Skinny Pete getting questioned by the cops.  I wonder whether that was a cut scene, or if that was never intended to be a part of the film and was only shot for use in that trailer?)

I loved the opening prologue scene with Mike (Jonathan Banks).  That was a beautiful scene — and a painful reminder to me, as a huge fan of Mike and his journey on Better Call Saul, of the tragic destination that awaits him, as per Breaking Bad’s final season.

I was not expecting Todd to play such a large part in this film, seeing as he was killed off at the end of Breaking Bad!  It was fascinating to dig into Todd and his bizarre, horrifyingly creepy life in the flashback scenes.  Jesse Plemons was again magnificent as this frighteningly banal, dead-eyed killer.  (The scene of Todd singing joyfully along with the radio, while he drove with a corpse and an enslaved Jesse in his truck, could be one of the greatest things I’ve seen on TV all year.)

I was also quite surprised by the important role of Ed “the disappearer,” the mysterious man played by Robert Forster!  But, again, as with all the other choices Mr. Gilligan made with this film, it made perfect sense.  Why wouldn’t Jesse try again to use this man whose specialty was to give criminals a new life?  Mr. Forster was spectacular as this unflappable, very intelligent part-time vacuum salesman.  How great was that long battle-of-wills scene between him and Jesse in his store?  I was shocked when, the morning after I watched El Camino, I read the news that Mr. Forster had passed away.  What a loss.

We got to see junkyard owner Old Joe (Larry Hankin) again.  We got to see the huge “Man Mountain” dude again.  We got to hear in a radio report that Lydia died (poisoned by Walt) and also get confirmation that Walt himself was dead (closure for those Breaking Bad fans who seemed to feel that maybe Walt could have somehow survived the events of the finale).  We got to Jesse’s parents again.  We got to see discover that Todd had kept the tarantula pet of the boy he shot after the train heist.  We got to hear about Walt and Jesse’s great magnet scheme from the final season.  I loved all of these fun callbacks and connections!!

I was surprised and so happy that, at the end of the film, Krysten Ritter reprised her role as Jesse’s dead girlfriend Jane.  Jane was an important figure in Jesse’s life, and her death (enabled by Walt) was a huge turning point in Jesse’s life (and, eventually, it was an important pivot point in his relationship with Walt).  It was lovely to see Jane again.

And, of course, at the very end, we got to see Walter White again!!  I was hoping that somehow Mr. Gilligan had found a way to bring Bryan Cranston back into this story.  The way he did it was just perfect.  It was thrilling to see Mr. Cranston back as Walt.  I loved that look back at the “better days” between him and Jesse.  (The flashback was set during the events of season two’s “4 Days Out”.)  I smiled seeing the RV again (parked outside the diner) and was filled with joy getting one more great “yeah, bitch!” from Jesse.

The only Breaking Bad character who I’d been hoping to see, but didn’t, was Marie.  I was disappointed that in the final episodes of Breaking Bad we didn’t get to see more of what became of her after Hank’s death, and I was hoping that maybe we’d get a glimpse of her now.  I can understand that she didn’t fit into Jesse’s story, but still, I’d love to someday find out more about what happened to Marie…

In wondering about where the story in El Camino would go, I’d guessed that perhaps we’d see Jesse somehow trying to find Brock (whose mother Andrea was murdered by Todd) and make amends somehow.  We didn’t see Brock in the film (which, in hindsight, makes sense, as the child actor who’d played him on the series would be much older by now), but I was happy that, at the very end, we saw that Jesse’s one letter was to Brock.  That was fitting.

I feel completely satisfied with where we leave Jesse at the end of El Camino.  In some ways, he’s sort of in the same place he was at the end of Breaking Bad — driving a car on the way to freedom.  But the journey that Jesse goes through in El Camino is an important one.  By the time the credits roll, we can feel like there’s a chance that Jesse just might be able to leave all this behind and start anew.  It’s a richly deserved ending for this wonderful character.

Could there still be more stories ahead?  Of course I’d love to see what Jesse’s life in Alaska is like.  Is he truly able to start over, or will the demons of his past continue to haunt him?  There’s potentially plenty of story still to tell there.  I would also be thoroughly delighted if we eventually got to see Walt and Jesse on Better Call Saul (either in the show’s main pre-Breaking Bad timeline, or in the post-Breaking Bad “Cinnabon Gene” timeline).  But if this is the last we see of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, I am completely happy.

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the world of Breaking Bad with El Camino.  Bravo and thank you to Vince Gilligan for this gift.

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