Netflix incorporated intensity and humor into the “Breaking Bad” sequel, following the story of Jesse Pinkman.
Before moving into a spoiler-filled discussion, I’ll provide a brief spoiler-free review for anyone who has not seen “El Camino” or “Breaking Bad.”
“El Camino,” released on Netflix in early October, follows “Breaking Bad” deuteragonist Jesse Pinkman as he struggles to come to terms with the events that occurred during the series. Vince Gilligan once again delivers a thrilling exploration of the rich and intricate “Breaking Bad”/”Better Call Saul” universe and works as an excellent sendoff to one of the show’s most important characters as he begins his journey towards reconciliation with the past and attempts to survive on the lam. Despite this, the film suffers from the fact that it was not entirely necessary and at times prioritizes fanservice over substance.
To quote “Breaking Bad,” “If you really don’t know who I am, maybe your best course of action would be to tread lightly.” That’s my way of saying that the rest of this article contains spoilers for “El Camino” (and therefore for “Breaking Bad” as well).
The film begins immediately after Pinkman’s escape from the neo-Nazi meth lab at the end of the series, and he seeks respite with Badger and Skinny Pete. As he showers off months’ worth of dirt, it is evident that he endured trauma both psychological and physical, as the shower triggers a stressful flashback to one of the occasions where the neo-Nazis used a fire hose to torture him. He shaves the scraggly and matted beard that he grew in captivity, revealing a somber and scarred complexion. This isn’t the same Jesse Pinkman who thought that wire was an element.
Throughout the course of “Breaking Bad,” Pinkman gradually lost his innocence and naivety as he struggled to make a living in New Mexico’s underbelly. The ugliest dregs of humanity confront Jessie, from waking up to find Jane dead, to being forced to kill Gale, to watching Andrea die, to being sold out by Walt and enslaved by the vicious neo-Nazis.
The movie continues this motif, as Jesse engages in an old west-style gunfight with a cocaine junkie to reclaim the money that Jesse had rightfully stolen. Yes, a gunfight – complete with the twitching fingers hovering over the holstered revolvers and the close-up shots of slowly narrowing eyes. While enjoyable, this sequence in particular revealed a certain lack of substance which permeated the entire experience.
It’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to have fun making this; it is, after all, a “last hurrah” of sorts for these characters. Jesse was always the strongest comic relief element. Naturally, then, the movie centered on that character is substantially more humorous than “Breaking Bad.” Whereas “Breaking Bad” has a distinctly Walter White-esque grittiness, and “Better Call Saul” is deftly laced with the shadow of Jimmy McGill’s conniving and crooked nature, “El Camino” shows us not only the mature, somber Jesse Pinkman transformed by his tenure with Heisenberg, but also his innate sardonicism and bluntness, which contribute to several humorous scenarios throughout.
“El Camino” is rife with cameos from the series; these serve not only as fanservice but drive the plot forward by revealing crucial information and Jesse’s state of mind. Mike Ehrmantraut introduces viewers to the motif of escape to Alaska; Todd Alquist and his series of flashbacks reveal just how harshly Jesse was treated as a meth slave for the neo-Nazi gang, along with revealing the location of the stash of money Jesse needs to escape.
Walter White’s cameo shows viewers just how far Jesse has come from the knuckleheaded scumbag viewers are introduced to. Jane’s appearance informs the viewers that Jesse has matured to the point where he will no longer follow those who seem to be more successful than he is, instead forging his own destiny. In stark contrast to Walter White, who lived as a mild-mannered chemist and died as a sociopathic criminal menace, Jesse was dead as a lowlife criminal and is finally alive now that he is free.
Despite the ultimate realization of what is perhaps some of the most nuanced and dynamic characterization ever put to television, this film is fundamentally flawed inasmuch as it did not need to exist. This movie answers questions that nobody was asking. Jesse Pinkman’s triumphant race from the neo–Nazi compound was in and of itself enough closure to his story, and it is ultimately a joyride through the rich tapestry that is the “Breaking Bad” universe which is enjoyable, but has very little substance.