This review contains light spoilers for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and major spoilers for the Breaking Bad series.
In an era of controversial series finales, Breaking Bad was the rare show to stick the landing. The AMC drama set in New Mexico about Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher who decays into a morally bankrupt drug kingpin, tied up every loose end in its last hour. “We knew we needed to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s,” explained the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, moments after the finale aired in 2013. “Sometimes unanswered questions are good, but in this case, this being such a finite and closed-ended show, we needed resolution.”
Yet six years, 16 Emmys, and one spin-off prequel later, Netflix announced it would release El Camino, a film sequel written and directed by Gilligan that would follow the journey of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt’s meth-cooking, bitch-uttering partner in crime. The news raised an obvious question: Is it worth continuing a story that already had such a definitive ending?
The answer, as it turns out: absolutely. El Camino, out today, lives up to Breaking Bad’s legacy of propulsive storytelling. The film is a visceral, ruminative, and emotionally satisfying epilogue in which the broken Jesse reconciles with his past and searches for the hope and humanity he’d lost—or, rather, been denied by Walt.
In the final stretch of episodes, Walt abandoned Jesse to be abducted by a drug-dealing neo-Nazi gang, who kept him in a cage and enslaved him as a meth cook. When Jesse drove out of his captors’ compound during the series finale, he screamed with relief and joy, an image that implied a happy ending. It’s an image that El Camino promptly rejects: In the immediate aftermath of his exit, Jesse, as the only survivor of Walt’s massacre, has merely waded into more danger. Wanted by the authorities and plagued by PTSD, Jesse attempts to dispose of the titular vehicle he’d used to escape and, after a brief meet-up with his old cronies Badger (Matthew Lee Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), concocts a plan to leave Albuquerque for good. That plan leads him into a nesting doll of precarious situations—one problem begets another, and as he deals with every new threat, Jesse begins to question whether he deserves a second chance at all.
This is bleak emotional territory for a character who once served as the series’ moral center and comic relief. Thankfully, the film is interested in observing Jesse’s journey as a whole, splicing his new circumstances as a fugitive with extensive flashbacks. These peeks into Jesse’s past inform his present-day decisions—and give Breaking Bad fans a chance to catch up with a litany of familiar faces. (One particularly sinister figure I’d hoped never to see again resurfaces to surprisingly hilarious effect—hilarious in the grisly-gallows-humor sense.) To that end, El Camino feels episodic, with each character taking Jesse on a short-story-like detour before leading him onto the next step of his journey. These chapters deliver the signature Breaking Bad tension, slow burning before the twist is revealed, the stakes are established, and the (often bloody) pieces fall into place.
Aaron Paul is phenomenal, deftly toggling between Jesse’s youthful playfulness and his older, emotionally shattered world-weariness from scene to scene. (It also helps that Paul, with minimal makeup and clever costuming, looks like he’s barely aged since Breaking Bad went off-air.) The film, for all its guest stars, relies on Paul to carry it—and the actor proves himself more than up to the challenge. He vibrates with intensity, a frayed nerve conveying Jesse’s trauma in practically every scene. Credit, too, to Gilligan, who settles back into his filmmaking rhythm (he directed the series’ finale and pilot, along with three other essential episodes) and recaptures the Breaking Bad look: Sun-baked frames of New Mexico. Tight zooms straight into the barrel of a gun. Topsy-turvy point-of-view shots emphasizing Jesse’s new world without overwhelming the story’s precise plotting.
As unexpected and unnecessary as it may have been for Gilligan and company to sequelize Breaking Bad, El Camino does help scratch a narrative itch. As Paul told Vulture, the question of whether Jesse truly ended up okay has penetrated every discussion of Breaking Bad he had over the years; sooner or later, someone had to answer the question. But the film isn’t really about giving Jesse a happy ending. It’s about examining whether or not he can create one for himself.
El Camino works best when it attempts to right the Breaking Bad finale’s moral wrongs. Gilligan gave Walt’s tale a tidy ending, one in which he died on his own terms after defeating his enemies. But Walt—a monster who destroyed his family, poisoned children, and ordered Jesse’s death—was never brought to justice.
Jesse, on the other hand, was compassionate, but always uncertain of his decency. He’s haunted by the question of whether he’s good: Unlike Walt, he never sought to build an empire, but he still cooked crystal meth for criminals and cartels. He’d been manipulated into killing a man in cold blood, but he still pulled the trigger. He didn’t murder Jane (Krysten Ritter) or Andrea (Emily Clara Rios), but he caused their deaths all the same by simply entering their lives. Though others may see him as a victim, he sees himself as a screwup who’s done just as much bad as Walt did. It’s no wonder, while fleeing during an early scene in El Camino, Jesse is perturbed about why Skinny Pete would even help him out. “You’re my hero and shit,” an abashed Pete replies. Jesse is taken aback by the response.
If the Breaking Bad finale was about a monster getting what he wanted, El Camino is about a conflicted man who once thought he had no future learning to build one again. The former made for a neat closure; the latter provides a more open, pensive end. What does it mean to atone for a past full of mistakes and situations that spiraled out of control? How does anybody learn to move on—and what’s more, start over?
In the flashbacks that bookend the film, Jesse considers those questions. Both find Jesse wondering whether he can “put things right”: In the first, the character he’s talking to tells him that’s impossible; the latter, however, argues against that notion and encourages him to make his own call. El Camino succeeds by taking the time to ponder that reset button for Jesse, and in thrilling, riveting, and fine-tuned fashion, manages to find a satisfying answer.
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