Vince Gilligan returns to the fate of Jesse Pinkman in a thrilling, meditative neo-Western epilogue made strictly for Breaking Bad devotees.
It’s been six years since we last saw Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), tormented protege of Bryan Cranston‘s unlikely criminal mastermind Walter White, escaping his months of torture and captivity at the hands of Nazi meth dealers in the final episode of Breaking Bad. For fans of Vince Gilligan‘s serialized opus, undoubtedly one of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of Peak TV, one question has rested on our lips since Jesse’s frenzied dash from the scene in a stolen El Camino, wide-eyed and screaming in agonized joy: what happens to him now? With El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, we get those answers, and it’s a fittingly downbeat epilogue to one of the greatest characters of the 2010s.
From the get, Gilligan (who writes and directs) had an uphill battle to climb: telling a final chapter of a story in which most of the characters ended up dead or disappeared somewhere. Walt’s dead, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is gone, sociopathic monster Todd (Jesse Plemons) is strangled by Jesse’s own handcuffs; the story of Heisenberg is closed. But Gilligan smartly turns the days following Jesse’s liberation — a mad scramble to stay away from the cops, say his goodbyes, and gather enough money to start a new life — into a meditation on the long journey this character has gone through. It’s important to remember that, while Breaking Bad was the Walter White story, one could argue that the events of the show simply brought out the Heisenberg that was in him all along: Jesse, on the other hand, truly transforms as a character, turning from naive, underachieving drug dealer to a haunted, traumatized survivor.
El Camino fills its two-hour runtime by examining this journey in depth, flitting between the immediate days following his escape and his time in Todd’s captivity, with a few brief detours to some of Jesse’s more poignant early moments. Rest assured that there are plenty of cameos and Easter eggs for Breaking Bad fans to enjoy; the show has long prided itself on its interconnectivity, and El Camino is uniquely interested in plugging into the vast tapestry of the story at numerous points. It’s certainly not a standalone feature, nor can it be consumed as such. It’s Breaking Bad supplementary material, in the best possible way.
While six years have passed, Gilligan and co. smartly avoid pretending that the actors haven’t aged a bit. Plemons, in particular, looks substantially different than his peak Breaking Bad days, but flashbacks detailing the torment he put Jesse through are just as potent thanks to Plemons’ particularly passive-aggressive brand of menace. And then, of course, there’s Paul, absolutely carrying El Camino on his slumped, wearied shoulders. Scarred, beaten and bleary-eyed, Paul infuses post-captivity Jesse with a grim resolve that feels organic to the struggles he’s been through. He’s no longer second fiddle, the innocent contrast to his co-star’s immense gravitational pull: he’s a wiry action-thriller star in his own right. As the climax nears, and Jesse’s own chase for freedom makes him collide with one last loose end for revenge, El Camino morphs into the kind of neo-Western we’ve come to appreciate in films like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water. It’s a genius move to slot Jesse into that Man With No Name role, especially with a darker, more mature Paul in front of the camera.
From a formal perspective, El Camino feels like an upgrade to the already-impressive cinematic feel of the original show, which was one of the rare modern television series to still shoot on 35mm film. Trading that out for digital video and a wider, more cinematic aspect ratio, Gilligan leans hard into evocations of Leone and John Ford the story takes on. From capturing the desolate plains of the Arizona desert or the grimy textures of the run-down apartments and warehouses Jesse must navigate to secure his freedom, this new look feels both grander in scope and inescapably tied to the show’s arid aesthetic.
Breaking Bad‘s innovative sonic landscape also returns, from Dave Porter‘s stripped-down, tensely ambient industrial scoring to cheeky needle drops like “Sharing the Night Together.” Amid all that, Gilligan still knows how to put together a tense setpiece, from old West duels in warehouses to a time-lapsed god’s eye view of Jesse tearing through an apartment for much-needed cash. The world of Breaking Bad has a very particular filmmaking vocabulary, and it’s a joy to see it return for a couple hours, with a few new bells and whistles.
The world of Breaking Bad has a very particular filmmaking vocabulary, and it’s a joy to see it return for a couple hours, with a few new bells and whistles.
But make no mistake, newbies to the Bad-iverse need not apply to El Camino. Don’t expect to walk in with your hand held; there are no recaps, no blots of exposition apart from the occasional news report showing how the outside world reacted to the events of the finale. (This isn’t Downton Abbey: The Movie.) Gilligan said as much in interviews (“We don’t slow down to explain things to a non-Breaking Bad audience”), and it certainly rings true here. You’ll be expected to recognize Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), or Ed the Disappearer (Robert Forster), or why reprised phrases like “Magnets!” are so funny to certain characters.
But El Camino feels like Gilligan and Paul exorcising some much-needed demons: the fate of Jesse Pinkman clearly nagged in their head for half a decade, and Netflix gratefully gave them the resources to close out that leg of the Breaking Bad saga. This isn’t the end of our trip to Albuquerque — there’s still plenty of Better Call Saul to go, after all. But as a poignant, meditative closer to Jesse Pinkman’s story, it’s hard to ask for more.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story is currently available on Netflix.