The end of Breaking Bad felt like the end of an era. The Golden Age of Television, marked by writer/creator-driven dramas focused on male anti-hero protagonists, arguably kicked off when Tony Soprano carried out a hit while on a college visit with his daughter, and ended when chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White took his last breath. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had perfected the male anti-hero, and therefore television could move into the Peak TV era and shift its focus to genre-storytelling, catering to every niche.
The end of Breaking Bad also felt like the start of something. Peak TV, with every network vying for viewer attention with original programing, debatably came about because of Breaking Bad’s success. The series was one of the first to see its viewership significantly increase due to the Netflix bump. With the streaming service rising in popularity, fledgling AMC made a deal with Netflix to host seasons of Breaking Bad shortly after they aired, and positive word of mouth led to binge-watches en masse. The series’ final season had almost eight times as many viewers as when the show started. It proved to other cable networks that anyone could manufacture a hit as long as audiences could find the shows on their own time.
Whether starting something or ending something, Breaking Bad and Gilligan were paradigm shifters, and that’s why the announcement of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie felt bittersweet. No doubt would fans of the original series want to return to Gilligan’s version of New Mexico, but Better Call Saul, which also felt like a risky proposition at the time, is currently scratching that itch. Also, film continuations of hit series are en vogue: David Milch has already returned to Deadwood, David Chase is set to release a feature-length Sopranos prequel, and Downtown Abbey was a recent hit at the box office. In a media landscape already saturated with familiar IP, did we really need to revisit the well? Instead of setting the tempo, adding a coda to Breaking Bad felt like falling in line.
And make no mistake, El Camino is a coda. The two-hour film, following Jesse Pinkman after his exhilarating escape from the neo-Nazi hideout, plays almost exactly like two episodes of Breaking Bad edited together. Fortunately, Breaking Bad was an exemplary show and Gilligan is still a masterful writer and director. Many of his old tricks that made the series the most cinematic thing on television remain. Revisiting a fan-favorite character is somehow less enticing than being reacquainted with the visual language of the show, with its wide shots of barren desert landscapes, time-lapse showcases, and exacting montages. Further, Gilligan is still adept at cutting the tension with well-placed comedy or an idiosyncratic needle-drop. The question isn’t whether El Camino is well-made, because it most certainly is, it’s whether it’s necessary, and that’s harder to parse.
Part of the fun of Jesse’s ending was its ambiguity. Viewers were left to imagine where the physically and psychologically scarred sidekick would end up after his triumphant escape, and odds are El Camino’s answer is exactly what many people had in mind. Gilligan didn’t necessarily have to surprise us, but he could have charted a destination that was different to the one he was hypothesizing on late night talk shows after Breaking Bad’s end. Even the flashbacks to unseen moments in the old timeline feel a bit superfluous. There are two or three cameos, which we won’t spoil here, that pack the intended emotional punch, but one is left to wonder whether the novelty of the moment is doing most of the heavy lifting. As for some of the other cameos, physical changes to the actors or slight mischaracterizing make them feel more like impressions.
That all being said, Aaron Paul is fantastic in his return to his most famous role. He’s perfectly able to show the audience that the old Jesse is still lurking inside of him, but too many layers of shame, guilt, and trauma are holding him back. Gilligan refashions Jesse as an old outlaw hero, like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and it works remarkably well due to Paul’s grip on the character’s history. The pacing of the film is also superb, and Gilligan is able to deliver two wonderfully tense standoffs in the film’s second and third acts. When El Camino stays grounded in the present, it captures some of the edge-of-your-seat intensity that made the final season of Breaking Bad must-watch TV.
Still, El Camino is merely just playing the hits. Granted, those hits are absolute bangers, but as a continuation of a series this monumental, this groundbreaking, some new tricks would have been appreciated among the old wrinkles. There are some truly thought-provoking meditative moments that hinted at a more soul-searching approach to this story, but Breaking Bad die-hards won’t begrudge Gilligan for giving them another joy ride. It’s just too bad memory lane doesn’t have more twists or turns.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.