It’s no secret that Breaking Bad is one of the defining television shows of the decade. Throughout all five seasons, it was a massive success with critics and audiences alike. With its brilliant performances, witty dialogue, striking visuals, natural character development, intense action, dark humor, and heartbreaking drama, it’s a 62 episode masterpiece. The series feels cohesive and holistic in a way most shows fail to achieve, especially when it comes to the ending. 99% of shows drop the ball with the finale, but “Felina” landed it with grace and gusto. After that wholly satisfying finale, nobody really needed any more of this show.
But despite that, Vince Gilligan never left ABQ. The spin-off series Better Call Saul is still going strong after four seasons. And although it’s not nearly as popular as its big brother, the show is equally brilliant in a different sense. It’s a much slower, more mature, and introspective series than Breaking Bad. Instead of having shocking violence and plot twists in every episode, the series is a character driven slow burn, with subtle storytelling focused on atmosphere and monologues. It serves as an origin story to the infamous Saul Goodman, while also giving fan favorites like Mike Ehrmantraut and Gustavo Fring more time to shine. The series does a great job enriching its source material, while still being an excellent show in its own right. Some BB fans have been disappointed by Saul, deeming it “boring” and too unlike what came before. But those of us who gave it a proper chance still love it, and can’t wait for Season 5 next year.
Which brings us to El Camino, Vince Gilligan’s new movie in the Breaking Bad universe. Now streaming on Netflix, this film picks up immediately after “Felina,” focusing on what happened to Jesse Pinkman afterward. It’s an interesting premise, if a pointless one. Everyone was satisfied with Jesse’s open-ended happy ending. We didn’t need to know what exactly happened to him, just seeing him saved from the Nazi gang was enough. And that’s kind of how I feel about this whole movie. Don’t get me wrong, it is good. If you’re a Breaking Bad fan it’s worth a watch. But this is not Episode 63 of BB, nor does it complement the series in a meaningful way like Better Call Saul. Instead, this is a solid and emotionally resonating epilogue for Jesse, even if it ultimately didn’t need to be told.
One thing this movie does very well is the connections to its source material. El Camino is thankfully not a reunion special. There’s a lot of surprise cameos from BB alumni, but they don’t feel like pointless fan service. Instead, they’re only here to service this film’s character study of Jesse. Right from the beginning, I found myself a bit misty-eyed, as some of these re-encounters are very poignant. And yes, seeing Jesse back in action is easily the best thing about this movie. Aaron Paul slides right back into the role, and it’s really nice to see some more of Breaking Bad‘s most likable character. This is also a very introspective vehicle for him, since he’s understandably dealing with psychological trauma throughout the film. In a sense, it has more in common with Better Call Saul, due to its relative lack of action and heavy emphasis on character work. I enjoyed that about it, since I doubt trying to emulate BB would have been successful. Those days are over, and so this movie to its credit feels like its own thing.
Though unlike BCS, this movie doesn’t really stand on its own. If you haven’t seen BB, you’re going to get nothing out of this film. While any newcomer could easily jump into Saul and enjoy the ride from there. On the flipside, I recently rewatched all of Breaking Bad, and I was shocked by how much Saul has added to my enjoyment of it. After seeing Jimmy McGill’s downfall and the Salamanca/Fring drug wars, I felt the original series had even more weight than it did before. I’ve only seen El Camino once, and I can already tell it will not complement either series like that. And that’s largely because Jesse doesn’t really have an arc in this film. Sure he goes through some hard times, but he’s ultimately the same person he was when the film started. The movie disappointingly feels like just a few more days in Jesse’s life, which makes it feel a lot more slight than it should.
Going in, one of my concerns would be the direction. This is Vince Gilligan’s first film, and great television directing doesn’t always correlate into great film directing. Just recently, acclaimed FX auteur Noah Hawley, released a flop of a film debut with Lucy in the Sky. But no, thankfully El Camino does make a decent transition into cinema. The production values are a bit better than Gilligan’s shows, and there is a solid sense of pacing that keeps it from feeling like an extended episode. Also, some of the cinematography is very inventive, especially in the mid-film sequence in Todd’s apartment. But at the same time, I’m not sure how this would play in theaters. I wouldn’t be surprised if it feels unnatural on the big screen. Netflix was ultimately the appropriate avenue for this, since it is in a weird halfway point between TV movie and straight up film.
So as far as the entire Breaking Bad universe goes, El Camino is an easy pick for the weakest link. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. If you wanted some more closure for Jesse, this film will offer that in spades. But if you want a more meaty companion piece, Better Call Saul deserves your attention instead. As is, I thought the movie was a nice return for an old friend. Even if it could have been more than that.