Breaking Bad, widely considered to be one of the greatest box set dramas of all time, came to a bleak and brilliant end in 2013. The darling of TV critics (including myself), Vince Gilligan’s dark and moody story of a high school Chemistry teacher (Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston) turned drug kingpin alongside his former pupil (Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul), was largely unknown to British audiences until Netflix exploded into the British market with the UK rights to the show at the front and centre of its launch offering. It immediately drew a cult following and as the final series played out weekly was one of the most talked-about TV shows of its time, so much so that it also became the show that the most people admitted to lying about having watched.
The original show’s finale, Felina, was a thing of brilliance – leaving Walt lying dead in a chemistry lab and fugitive Jesse escaping his enslavement by Nazi drug lords in, you guessed it, a Chevrolet El Camino.
In a prelude to the film, we see Jesse standing with Mike Ehrmantraut, the fixer and muscle of the Heisenberg era, by a tranquil lake.
Mike asks what Jesse will do with “all that money”.
“Put things right.”
“That’s the one thing you can never do…” Mike reminds him, and us, the viewer. A lot of terrible things have happened since Walt and Jesse both broke bad, and this show ain’t no fairytale. In a short but incredibly poignant moment as you look into Jesse’s broken eyes, the bleak events of the finale season hit you like a ton of bricks.
The main story joins Jesse on the run from not just the law, but the looming threat of the various criminal movements with which he and Walt became entwined during their meth-cooking empire days.
His immediate instinct is to visit the only people he has left – his old junkie pals Skinny Pete and Badger, who in their own chaotic ways prepare to help Jesse elude capture. But these are no normal times, and as the news quickly spreads across the news of Walter White’s unravelled criminal operation, and a “person of interest” on the run – it soon becomes unclear whether Jesse can trust anyone anymore.
These early exchanges serve not only to please the super fans with some comic relief from Jesse’s old pals, but more starkly to show just how much his life has changed during the events of Breaking Bad compared to them, whose lives appear to have been stuck on pause.
But soon this film becomes as much a story about what happened to Jesse while he was captive of Jack’s white supremacists as it is about him going forward. We see the twisted relationship with his captor Todd unfold in flashbacks, and the psychological and physical breakdown and torture of Jesse – but even more importantly, the lessons he learns about where the skeletons (and the money) are buried that will inform what he does next, and how he will seek to find some sort of redemption.
This is certainly a movie for Breaking Bad fans, filled with references to the past as Jesse is haunted by people and places that have contributed to where he is today. It’s a lonely and moody adventure, characterised by the trademark Albuquerque low sun, and Jesse Pinkman’s equally often non-verbal relationship with this world.
Aaron Paul delivers a fabulous performance as a broken Jesse – a breathless, and at times desperate shadow of his former bravado-filled street punk. Gone are the catchphrases, “b***”, as he explores the deeper and more vulnerable sides of his young character who seems to have lived a thousand lives already. As the film goes on, an emboldened Jesse seeks redemption as the screw begins to turn – and the story unfolds.
And as the film enters its final third, it becomes at times more of an action thriller, the gears change and we begin to see the explosive energy of the finale back in 2013. Creator Vince Gilligan can’t resist but give the crowd what it wants with a very big cameo, which helps move the film into its natural endgame.
El Camino works where many movie adaptations and spin-offs of TV shows fail because it captures the essence of the original programme. It isn’t afraid to keep the warmth, the dark humour and the long slow scenes that made Breaking Bad a hit – but also it hasn’t fallen back on an unlikely one-off “device” to excuse the cinematic return to the universe. This is a continuation of a story that feels natural and has a satisfactory conclusion – though potentially there could be more.
Although the concentration on Jesse, and the lack of the ensemble cast that characterised the original show, could leave you with the feeling that there’s something missing (akin to the feeling you sometimes get from Better Call Saul) the consistent use of flashback and forward devices give enough opportunities to bring the best of Breaking Bad to everyone.
If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, you’ll enjoy this return to a familiar world. Jesse, perhaps the most troubled and complicated character of the original series, is a worthy subject of this story. His plight to escape his old life at his very lowest point means he needs to find a strength that we have never seen from him before, and for 120 minutes of well-thought-out storytelling this film brings that struggle alive.