There was something audacious about the way that El Camino was announced. Less than two months before its release, Netflix confirmed what Breaking Bad fans didn’t dare believe; that there would be another chapter and it would hit screens soon. Shot in secret, with cast members ferried in and out of Albuquerque under surprise-protecting security, the hype that blew up was immediate and, for fans of Vince Gilligan’s crime saga, immense.
While some questioned the necessity of a new chapter, anyone who had watched the entirety of the increasingly excellent Better Call Saul was likely comfortable to give Gilligan and his team the benefit of the doubt. They wouldn’t return to this well unless they had something to say.
El Camino, then, achieved event status for certain people and in retrospect, Netflix and Gilligan’s method of announcement looks less like a fun way of garnering impact and more one of mitigating expectations, avoiding a lengthy marketing campaign that would have pumped the anticipation to fever pitch and almost certainly rendered the actual film a disappointment.
That’s not to say El Camino is disappointing; it looks stunning, the performances are fantastic, and it’s frequently nail-biting. However it’s hard not to reach the end without wondering whether it was entirely necessary.
Better Call Saul justifies its own existence by telling an inverse story to its predecessor, turning the comic relief of Breaking Bad into a tragic figure and surrounded him with compelling new characters. It complements what came before without being beholden to it. Picking up exactly where Breaking Bad left off, El Camino often feels somewhere between an extended episode and a collection of deleted scenes, albeit constructed around the glaring absence (until a third act flashback) of Walter White.
It makes for a curious viewing experience whose event status is not entirely justified by its content; yes, it’s great to see Jesse again, yes Aaron Paul gives another Emmy worthy performance, and yes there is a certain giddiness to being back in the throes of a story we all thought was over. Yet the film doesn’t hit home with the same power as the best of Breaking Bad.
Part of this is due to the fact that you can’t achieve in two hours what you can in 10, but beyond that if you had asked anyone, at the end of Breaking Bad, to pitch what they thought Jesse’s logical next steps would be, most probably concluded that he would scrape some money together before going to Ed the disappearer and starting a new life. Which is exactly what happens. There are obstacles and flashbacks along the way, all of which are entertaining, but the conclusion is a foregone one with precious little to surprise us (unless you thought for a second Bryan Cranston wasn’t going to turn up, which, come on).
Coming out of the film, it’s hard to parse what we’ve learned that we didn’t know already. That Jesse is wounded but ultimately a capable survivor. That Todd was beyond deserving of his fate. That Walt’s influence would linger like a cancer. That Badger and Skinny Pete were more than just a pair of bumbling sidekicks. Breaking Bad in its entirety was such a complete work that it would have taken some kind of giant twist or genuinely new perspective to make this addendum a truly crucial part of the tapestry. And that seems to explain the short lead-in to release, because the only thing El Camino could ever really have been was an addendum.
As it stands, the film is an enjoyable epilogue, but only essential if you really needed to know how Jesse got away. Maybe, then, the tinge of disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. But to be fair, Vince Gilligan’s body of work is a pretty damn good reason to let expectations soar.
Look; realistically El Camino didn’t have to be earth shattering. Gilligan and Paul have nothing left to prove and the fact that this film even exists is testament to their lingering passion for this world and its characters. And much of it is excellent. The flashbacks, which could have easily been cheap fan service, largely advance the plot by giving context to Jesse’s actions along with some more immediate insight into the trauma he suffered, with Jesse Plemons reminding us of exactly why the polite, unassuming Todd was one of the all-time great small screen monsters.
His and Paul’s scenes are classic Breaking Bad; alternatingly creepy and darkly hilarious (“Nice lady. Excellent housekeeper”), but never, given how much screen time they take up, providing much that’s new or suspenseful. We know where that dynamic ended up.
The present-day scenes of Jesse’s attempts to steal Todd’s money and the multiple Mexican standoffs that follow as interfering cops turn out to be far from on the side of the angels are gripping and thrilling, demonstrating again Gilligan’s skill with twists and tightening the screws to make everything one step worse for his characters.
It’s never less than extremely entertaining but it’s rarely much more than that either. From anyone else, a film of El Camino’s quality would be an unquestionable triumph. But for Gilligan to pick up where he left off six years after crafting a roundly satisfying conclusion to an all time great suggested that there was something special in the works.
Beyond surface thrills, El Camino seems largely to exist to show us, by contrasting past and present, how much the protagonist has changed; how he is no longer the traumatised wreck or the cocky idiot exasperating his mentor. That does hold some satisfaction; when Jesse drives away at the end he’s his own man, no longer dragged down by the whims of a cruel universe (or former science teacher).
There’s a battered but intact self-assurance to the way he holds himself as he walks into his new life, quietly telling us that he can survive whatever comes and that he will find a better future. It’s not a bad thing to be told. It just feels like something we could have worked out for ourselves.
El Camino is streaming on Netflix. Check out more Netflix original movies available to stream right now.