Jesse Pinkman grafted his way into the pop culture pantheon through a combination of innocence (soon lost), idiocy (largely maintained) and a politically incorrect tendency to append every sentence with the word “bitch”. Now in El Camino – the movie follow-up to hit antihero drama Breaking Bad – he gets a chance to wrap up his story. He’s back, but the story’s moved on, his catchphrase now notable by its absence.
El Camino begins where Breaking Bad ended. Pinkman (Aaron Paul) has been liberated from the hellish prison in which he had been confined by neo-Nazis, forced to cook industrial-grade crystal meth. The man doing the liberating was Walter White, Pinkman’s mentor–turned–nemesis and chemistry teacher–turned–drug kingpin. White is dead now though, killed during the rescue mission. Pinkman meanwhile is speeding away in a muscle car (the 1978 Chevrolet El Camino), heading, creator Vince Gilligan previously claimed, to ‘something better’.
Except, it turns out, he isn’t. The first scene shows Pinkman putting his foot on the floor, lowering his gaze as the police pass by en route to the crime scene. From there, he goes to the home of his friends Badger and Skinny Pete, where he eats noodles and falls asleep. After a brief reunion in which his friends go above and beyond to help him out – “dude, you’re my hero and shit”, says Skinny Pete – he drives off again, but only to another block in Albuquerque, his home town, and another moment of tension.
The title of this ‘Breaking Bad movie’, then, is something of a misdirection. El Camino (Spanish for “road” or “way”) is not the story of a man skipping town. Rather it’s about someone who is trapped – not just in New Mexico, but in his head, bound by the trauma he has just experienced and the memories that help him, finally, to work out where to go next.
There has been much speculation among Breaking Bad enthusiasts – of which there are many – over which characters from the original show would return here. The answer is several, including big hitters, even though most of them are dead. El Camino cuts continuously between the 48 hours that follow Jesse’s escape, and a number of flashbacks, some from his time in captivity and some from earlier than that. Most of the cameos should come as a surprise, but it doesn’t feel like spoiling things too much to note that there is a standout turn from Jesse Plemons as Todd, a child-like sociopath who plays good captor to Jesse during his time in the cage.
The film follows an interesting structure, and one that contradicts the impression given by some of the pre-release marketing. Gilligan – who reprises his own role as writer and director – has always been good at keeping his audience on their toes. His penchant for bravura cinematography is on display once again, with one time-lapse sequence featuring eight Jesses creeping around a house proving a standout moment. But while it has both style and content, El Camino feels more like a feature-length TV episode than an actual movie. It is too compact and fragmented to truly stand on its own, and viewers who have not seen the preceding 62 hours of Breaking Bad will likely struggle to enjoy it. That El Camino is a Netflix production – set to be released on the streaming giant today with only a smattering of cinema screenings (and none in the UK) – might explain this construction.
However, where it excels is in giving the character of Jesse some closure. Paul told the Guardian this week that Breaking Bad “changed my life”. It won him three Emmys for a start and, like a meth kingpin who had successfully hidden his money in the desert, it likely set him up for life. But it’s also true that Paul has since struggled to find a role that allowed him to put Pinkman behind him. It’s the project he continues to be best known for – a privilege but also a tether. Here, he is allowed to move on and leave both the clowning criminal – and the haunted victim – of the series behind.
El Camino shows Pinkman become an adult, someone dressed not in bright yellow hoodies but cable knit jumpers. He achieves this metamorphosis gradually, through unlocking the various challenges that are laid in his path. Some of them are technical – like the great magnet–inspired conceits of the TV series – but others are emotional, even moral. The path of El Camino is not a literal one – and it’s completed without a single ‘bitch’.