The streaming wars are here, and every week seems to bring a new show of one-upmanship as one company or another proudly announces the revival, follow-up or sequel to a beloved intellectual property. Netflix had its moment of pride with the surprise reveal of “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” this summer, a “Breaking Bad” sequel delivered in the format of a movie that had been filmed in secret only one year earlier.
Netflix labelling “El Camino” a movie is more of a formality, one that allows writer and creator Vince Gilligan and his creative team to direct what feels like a two hour extended-length episode of “Breaking Bad.” And that is not a bad thing. While “El Camino” is playing in select theaters — including the Charlottesville area — the vast majority of viewers will be happy watching it on a reasonably sized screen at home.
Nothing about “El Camino” is paced like a Hollywood blockbuster, as Gilligan and his writers are masters at portraying the meticulous, convincing details of the craft in their stories. Characters are slow and methodical in their actions, and the plot is never hurried. Some of the best moments of “Breaking Bad” and the also-excellent prequel series “Better Call Saul” are sequences that stylishly follow characters engrossed in their work, be it Jimmy McGill hustling cases as a shopping center lawyer, Gustavo Fring tending to the minutiae of his industrial drug empire, or Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) rigorously excavating an apartment to find hidden cash in “El Camino”.
The sequel follows the immediate aftermath of the end of “Breaking Bad”, with Jesse on the run from the law after having escaped imprisonment at the hands of a group of Neo-Nazis. What follows is a series of final tribulations and moral choices Jesse must make before he can truly find his freedom. Along the way, flashback sequences fill in the details of what exactly happened to Jesse while he was forced to cook meth in captivity, including a chilling performance from Jesse Plemons as Fat Todd — one of Jesse’s more sympathetic but equally disturbed captors.
Fan-favorite characters like Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) make a return to help Jesse escape. The duo successfully reprise their role as dark comic relief in an otherwise intensely dramatic two hours of extended television. Performances like these may not be breaking new ground, but seemingly effortless reintroductions like this build viewer comfort and make watching “El Camino” feel like visiting an old friend. Gilligan and his team are already used to recreating the dark underbelly of New Mexico in “Better Call Saul”, so it is of little surprise that they expand that tonal success in this slightly more modern setting.
“El Camino” is powerful as a character showcase of Jesse Pinkman, reminding audiences the arc he went through in “Breaking Bad.” A notable flashback presents an exchange between Jesse and “Breaking Bad” lead Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in a diner during the earlier events of that series. “You know you are lucky Jesse,” Walt says. “You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
The irony in that statement — Jesse actually being the one to move on while Walt descends down the moral ladder — sharply defines the vast, ideological differences between Jesse and Walt. “El Camino” puts the events of “Breaking Bad” into perspective, with news report sequences describing law enforcement's investigation into “the biggest meth operation in the history of the United States.” It is not just the victims of Walt’s criminal empire that suffer, but also his network of friends and helpers who have to forego their entire lives in the wake of his hubris-powered, privileged quest to be a badass.
That network extends beyond major characters like Jesse, with a significant performance from Robert Forster’s Ed, who goes from being a supporting character in one episode of the original series to practically a co-star in “El Camino.” The late Forster, who passed the day the film was released on Netflix, does an excellent job playing as an identity forger moonlighting a vacuum repair store. His character in both “Breaking Bad” and “El Camino” plays a dismal role in the criminal underworld, serving as a passage-master of sorts who relocates desperate souls to barren Alaska should they need to start their lives over, as Jesse does with the Fed on his tail. Forster conveys so much expression with practically no lines of dialogue, and is an excellent inclusion in the “Breaking Bad” universe.
When all is said and done and the credits roll, the sentiment is bittersweet. “El Camino” has no shocking twists or developments, but it serves as an excellently executed tribute to Jesse’s character, another opportunity to revisit compelling supporting characters like Ed and Fat Todd, and a nostalgia-laden trip down memory lane recalling one of the best television drama series ever made.
Thank goodness Gilligan and his team are so generous to the “Breaking Bad” audience in providing standalone work like “El Camino” alongside the spin-off “Better Call Saul.” Neither of these complementary works are necessary, but they give the creative team behind the original series a chance to still produce great work without feeling bogged down by the same story. Keep it coming, Gilligan.