It’s littered with masterfully crafted cinematography, tense action sequences, firey set-pieces, phenomenal acting, jokes that land, and yet, it is completely forgettable. With El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Vince Gilligan sets out to answer a question that has been nagging fans for some time: “What happens to Jesse after he speeds away from the dead Nazis and leaves his former partner, Walter White, to die?”
It’s a fair question, one everyone who has seen the show has likely pondered. The issue with El Camino is that Gilligan gives us the obvious answer and says little to nothing else.
Over the years since its conclusion, Breaking Bad has been indoctrinated into a God-tier of shows, renowned by both critics and fans. The final handful of episodes, climaxing with “Ozymandias” in particular, is considered some of the best television ever made. Popular shows since (Game of Thrones) are faced with a pop-culture bestowed challenge: “Is it as good as Breaking Bad?” Having survived a succinct five seasons fully intact and boasting a successful spin-off show, releasing a follow-up film inherently risks tainting one of pop-culture’s favorite modern shows. Luckily for us, El Camino doesn’t actually ruin Breaking Bad, but it tries so hard not to, that is has nothing interesting to add.
Take the flashback with Walt for instance. This is an obvious opportunity to add supplemental intertextual context and change the way we reflect on his character or Breaking Bad as a whole. All we get from the scene is a foreshadow that Walt becoming a drug lord was a selfish decision because it made him feel “special.” That’s something he admits by the end of the original show anyway, so what good does it do here?
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While Walt’s cameo feels meaningless, the sight of Skinny Pete and Badger is a welcome one. They drop in for their usual comic relief, but surprisingly, add a level of emotional depth to their return. Skinny Pete presenting his iconic beanie to Jesse unexpectedly tugs at some heartstrings and makes for a solid send-off. Who would’ve thought the inclusion of these two would make for better scenes than Walter White?
Another primary issue with El Camino is the character, Neil. He’s the welder who constructed the chain that held Jesse in place while he cooked meth, but here, he’s the main antagonist. If his role in the original story seems undeserving of a “main antagonist” spot, it’s because it is. There’s even an entire scene where Jesse interacts with Neil, completely forgetting who he is. It’s as if Gilligan realized he did such a good job wrapping up the ending of Breaking Bad, there were no bad guys left so he shoehorned one in. His insignificance makes Jesse’s revenge climax fall completely flat.
Neil’s not that the only thing that falls flat either. At multiple points throughout the film, the obstacles that stand in Jesse’s way feel completely pointless. For example, Ed being stingy about the last $1,800 owed for helping Jesse may fit his character, but it feels like a generic RPG video game quest consisting of “go here, get trivial object, turn in.” It’s an obvious plot device to give Jesse his chance for revenge but since that revenge is unrewarding, the plot mechanic is ever the more painful.
For all it’s flaws– more accurately, lack of positives, El Camino still does a lot right. The overall cinematography is impressive, Aaron Paul’s performance is stellar, and the appearance of most returning side-characters never feels forced. It’s genuinely enjoyable returning to fictional New Mexico to watch Jesse battle with trauma and escape from the law, but in the end, it’s never earned.
What’s most important, is that it isn’t bad, but perhaps it tries too hard not to be. There’s an ominous feeling that Walt’s character came to Gilligan in a dream to perform his iconic “tread lightly” line before writing this script. El Camino takes no risks and provides no new interesting context. Before Walt’s cameo appearance ends, he concludes with a quote that sums up El Camino, “I don’t have a point. I’m just making conversation.”