(This review contains no real spoilers for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. A more detailed and spoiler-filled take on the film is coming tomorrow morning at 9.)
Writing the adventures of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman required at least as much improvisation as the criminal escapades themselves entailed. Neither the drug dealers nor their storytellers were particularly good at sticking to plans. Much of what made Breaking Bad one of TV’s greatest series ever was how both the show and its main characters backed themselves into corners, then found a way out — usually involving a very big explosion.
The most important deviation from the blueprint came very early. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had assumed that Jesse would introduce Walt to the drug world, then get killed. Instead, Aaron Paul proved so utterly compelling in the role that Jesse not only survived, but in time was treated as Walt’s narrative equal. When the series ended, Walt was lying dead on a meth lab floor, while it was Jesse who was alive and… not exactly well, after months of imprisonment and torture, but at least free and on the road to somewhere else.
Now, Jesse has outlived his mentor within both the Breaking Bad narrative and the larger Heisenberg-verse that Gilligan and friends have built in the years since Walt breathed his last. (See also the surprisingly — even to Gilligan himself — great prequel series, Better Call Saul.) The movie El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story, written and directed by Gilligan, provides the closure that Jesse didn’t quite get at the end of the original show — when Walt reasserted dominance over the plot — while proving that Paul is more than capable of carrying a story in this world where Jesse is the solo protagonist.
In picking up immediately where the original series left Jesse — driving away from the wrecked Nazi compound in the movie’s titular vehicle — and going step by painful goddamn step through the many problems he has to solve in his attempt to get out of Albuquerque alive, Gilligan has returned to one of the show’s core tenets. Among the best parts of Breaking Bad was its micro-focus on the nightmarish logistics of criminal enterprise that most stories gloss over: disposing of dead bodies, establishing territory and distribution networks, even something as basic as how to load and use a revolver. Fugitive life is no less of a headache than any of those, and Jesse’s travels manage to bring in a number of welcome old faces, starting with his pal Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), who very much rises to this strange occasion.
The Jesse we follow in El Camino is a more seasoned lawbreaker than when he was going by Cap’n Cook and putting chili powder in his meth, but he’s also not the genius Walt was. Many of the film’s pleasures involve him stumbling into one trap after another and having only his own tenacity as a useful weapon. (This includes several scenes where he actually has a gun, amusingly enough.) The show put Paul at the center of plenty of past episodes, so it’s not a surprise how charismatic and effectively haunted he is here. But it’s still a welcome reminder of why he became a star in the first place, beyond the sheer joy with which he always said, “Yeah, bitch!”
As was the case on the original series (and on Saul), some of the action here is thrilling, some of it is horrifying, and some plain hilarious. And in El Camino’s best moments, it’s all of those things at the same time. (It will forever ruin an easy-listening radio staple, among other things.)
Gilligan also uses Jesse’s scramble to freedom as something of a corrective to Breaking Bad’s Walt-centric endgame. Paul is in virtually every scene, and Gilligan constructs the film in a way that fills in a lot of narrative and emotional blanks about periods on Breaking Bad where Jesse’s story again became subordinate to Walt’s. If the BB conclusion had a flaw — beyond the question of whether you think it should have ended with Walt riding away in Ed the disappearer’s van in “Ozymandias,” or continued on to him killing the Nazis and rescuing Jesse in “Felina” — it’s that Jesse got left behind a bit. By the end of El Camino, that’s no longer the case.
And that’s as much a justification for the movie’s existence as the sheer craft on display, as always, by Gilligan and his collaborators. El Camino began life as a short film Gilligan wanted to make for the series’ 10th anniversary. Though it expanded to feature length (and is playing in some movie theaters this weekend, in addition to streaming on Netflix), it still feels like the gift to fans it was originally designed to be, rather than something essential to the larger Breaking Bad experience. But when you have Vince Gilligan operating near the peak of his powers, and taking the time to fix one of the few things the show didn’t get quite right, it makes for one hell of an entertaining gift.