Picking up directly where Breaking Bad’s finale left off, with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) speeding off having escaped his captors in the titular El Camino. We follow a newly liberated Jesse’s first foray into freedom.
Jesse’s first port of call is to lean on old buddies Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) but dialogue that was once effortlessly daft between the pair is now forced and rigid. There’s initially a sense of rust on the part of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as he returns to write and direct characters six years on from the show’s ending.
As Jesse continues to evade the law, the film settles into a familiar rhythm and is padded out with flashbacks that provide guidance from beyond the grave. These snippets of advice piece together a map for Jesse to finally find peace and take control of his life.
Having been a cog in the ugly machine of the drug trade, manipulated and saved in equal measure by his partner Walter (Bryan Cranston) and later used by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), Hank (Dean Norris) and his neo-nazi captors (led by Michael Bowen’s Uncle Jack) over the course of Breaking Bad’s run. Experiencing Jesse surviving in the wilderness feels somewhat new, cinematic and not an additional couple of episodes tacked on.
Having nothing left to lose breeds bold behaviour that results in mixed fortunes. While Jesse’s thicker skin does get him far, some plunges garner more humorous outcomes. Jesse was never cut out to be a hardened criminal, which is part of what makes him such an endearing character. Paul hasn’t missed a beat and adds traumatised layers to his career-defining role.
Initial reservations that surrounded Gilligan and Peter Gould’s prequel series Better Call Saul were soon abandoned as it had the luxury of going backwards. Thoroughly fleshing out Bob Odenkirk’s bombastic titular lawyer and fascinating side characters such as Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and complemented by rich, new additions including Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Sharing the intricate writing that made Breaking Bad the phenomenon is was, Better Call Saul stands on its own two feet as a must-see detour.
El Camino on the other hand ultimately fails to justify its own existence as Jesse’s original ending is more striking and ambiguous, with the belief that his life could only get better. The film also ties up other loose ends too neatly with overheard news bulletins that provide yet more unwanted clarity. That’s not to say there’s not plenty to enjoy, as Gilligan regains a firm grip on his characters, well-crafted drama reminiscent of the original series ensues.
Set after a rare series conclusion that lived up to expectations, El Camino thankfully doesn’t attempt to rewrite history with resurrections and instead primarily revisits the complex character of Todd, played by Jesse Plemons (who looks distractingly different). Cold but oddly compassionate, Todd’s temperament is intriguing but was already well-covered ground.
Boxed in by what’s left to explore, we ultimately arrive back at the same junction as Breaking Bad’s finale, but with a clearer road ahead. Unshakably unnecessary but extremely watchable, El Camino is a truly optional component in the Breaking Bad saga.