[Review] 'El Camino': Jesse Pinkman's Swan Song [Spoilers]
"Is it necessary?"
This is the question asked every time a story or franchise is continued after a well received ending. A good example posed this year would be the doubters of Pixar's latest sequel: "Is Toy Story 4 necessary? Or is it just a guaranteed money making machine for the corporation behind it?" I mean, come on, who didn't cry at the end of Toy Story 3? Is there more story that needs to be told, and if not, will a corporate grasp at more income, from a beloved property, potentially ruin the ending we all loved?
All these questions were also asked when Vince Gilligan's EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE was officially announced earlier this year. Fans hold the ending of its predecessor, Breaking Bad, close to their hearts; it's considered one of the best series finales of all time.
At the end of Season 5, Episode 16, "Felina," our hero Jesse Pinkman is seen driving off into a metaphorical sunset in a 1978 Chevy El Camino. He drives away from the neo-nazi meth-slave prison that has kept him in captivity for six months, as his twisted former partner bleeds from a bullet wound. The only closure Vince Gilligan gave us all those six years ago is Jesse's hysterical laughter at his newfound emancipation, and Walter White bleeding out on the floor of a meth lab. It doesn't get more poetic than that. As far as we know, Jesse has finally escaped the pain Walt caused him, and Walt dies, not from his cancer, but from his own actions. It's easy to understand why fans remained cautiously optimistic when Vince Gilligan said he wanted to expand on such an iconic ending.
So to answer the question, is El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie a story that absolutely had to be told? Is the ending of Breaking Bad lacking something without the existence of El Camino?
It isn’t. There is nothing that El Camino provides that was absolutely essential to close the book on Jesse Pinkman's story. That being said, this movie could not be farther from a cash-grab. Vince Gilligan has pondered what happened to Jesse for a long time.
When the cast and crew reunited in the summer of 2018 for Breaking Bad’s 10th anniversary, Vince Gilligan asked Aaron Paul, the 40 year old actor whose career was made by playing Jesse, what he thought about returning to Albuquerque. The film then shot very secretly that fall. Aaron Paul said, "You've got to give the fans what they want," about the film, and I couldn't agree more on what the purpose of this film is. It's not wrapping up any loose ends from the show, it's not completing unfinished character arcs, nor would the Felina ending be lacking without it. It exists for closure. Vince Gilligan knows fans care deeply about Jesse and want him to be happier than Gilligan, in all his sadism, most likely ever plans on him being. So he made a film definitively telling us what happened after the cliffhanger.
The film opens on a flashback. The first scene is Jesse and Mike (Jonathan Banks) standing at a river talking about where they will go and what they will do when they are no longer in the meth business. Fans of the series may recognize that this scene takes place during season 5, episode 6, "Buyout," where Jesse and Mike make an off-screen decision to leave Walt's empire after being overwhelmed by the violence surrounding them. Jesse asks Mike where he would go if he were Jesse, in an attempt to make conversation. Mike says he'd go to Alaska. With it being a secluded place, the final frontier, it would offer the chance to start fresh. Jesse agrees, saying it would "put things right." Mike tells him no... Unfortunately, that's something you can never do.
With an abrupt cut to Jesse, back in the El Camino, with a disheveled Felina haircut, the action begins. And it rarely lets go. Jesse goes to his old friends, Badger and Skinny Pete, who are shocked at the condition of their long lost third musketeer. Jesse is covered in as many mental and emotional scars as he is physical ones, constantly having flashbacks to his time in the meth prison. His pals help as much as they can, but Jesse is now a man on the run - he'll stop at nothing for his freedom but it won't come easily at all.
It's here where Mike's words to Jesse at the start of the film come into play. The audience wants nothing but the best for Jesse - especially a happy ending - and if you've watched the show, you know he's hurting for one. Between dead girlfriends, cunning and manipulative chemistry teachers, and whatever Todd is, we so desperately want him to be happy and safe. But Jesse can't have a happy ending. He can't just waltz into a DEA office with drug money and exchange names for a normal life. He can't right all his wrongs, nor can he right the wrongs that occurred around him. He's going to continue to suffer the consequences of his and everyone else's actions. He's fighting for his freedom, but he's still in a prison.
El Camino is just as entertaining as one would expect, being a fast-paced, small-scale adventure between new and familiar locations with new and familiar faces. Gilligan's brilliant writing is in full force here - clever and emotional in the best of ways. Jesse faces multiple retrospective flashbacks that show just how much of a wounded and caged animal he is, as he desperately tries to evade the powers that be. And without giving anything away, the ending is as poetic as they come.
El Camino also flawlessly puts you right back into the world of Breaking Bad. The cinematography by Better Call Saul director of photography, Marshall Adams, instantly puts viewers back into the world of the series. While the cinematic widescreen aspect ratio, which Gilligan unsuccessfully pushed for Breaking Bad to be shot in, and digital photography is new, everything else about the look feels delightfully familiar; exactly how a cinematic continuation of Breaking Bad should look. There is also plenty of landscape time-lapses - something fans of the show will appreciate.
EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE may not be an essential epilogue, but it's an extremely satisfying one: an impressive and emotional film that can engage fans of the show and otherwise. Melancholic, fun, exciting, and extremely rewatchable, it further includes incredible performances, from Aaron Paul and Jesse Plemons in particular. I'm so happy this crowd-pleasing final chapter exists, if only to give closure to one of the most tortured and beloved characters of all time.