Or is he better off if we find out just a little more, as we do in creator Vince Gilligan’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” a two-hour Netflix coda that mostly serves to remind fans that there will never be another show quite like “Breaking Bad”?
Satisfying in almost every way that matters, “El Camino” picks up exactly where that finale left off. Jesse (Aaron Paul, in the role he was born to play) escapes the attack on the meth compound that was engineered by a vengeful Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Rather than drive off into the New Mexico sunrise, Jesse flees to the Albuquerque home of Skinny Pete and Badger (Charles Baker and Matt Jones), who help him hide the El Camino, give him food and shelter and, the next morning, devise Jesse’s run for the border in a far less cool mode of transport: a Pontiac Fiero.
When Jesse tries to stammer out his gratitude, Skinny Pete won’t have it: “Dude,” he says, “You’re my hero and s---.”
Suffice to say that Jesse is very much that to all of us who loved the original show, serving as “Breaking Bad’s” unlikely moral center — a key piece in a prolonged saga about the darkness within. Paul’s Emmy-winning performance remains a singular, heartbreaking achievement; Jesse was and still is the unluckiest lucky one, destined to pay the biggest price for his own transgressions as well as the sins of others.
As such, Gilligan, who always loved to trap his characters in the most desperate situations, isn’t about to let Jesse have an easy escape from Albuquerque. First of all, he’s a broken man, after months of torture and slave labor. “El Camino” opens with the ominous idea that this PTSD-
ridden Jesse might be all that’s left, a shell of what he was.
But Jesse comes through, as he always has. If there’s any prevailing theme here, it’s not redemption so much as resilience.
Amid a massive citywide manhunt (one snippet of the wall-to-wall news coverage notes that Jesse Pinkman is believed to have been part of the largest-ever methamphetamine operation in the United States), Gilligan has written and directed one more of his superbly reverse-engineered scripts, where separate tracks of tension and anxiety are micromanaged to a degree of precision that anyone should expect from a project with “Breaking Bad” in the title.
Knowing that he lacks the skill to elude federal authorities, Jesse turns to another shadow figure in the “Breaking Bad” universe, Ed Galbraith (Robert Forster), the vacuum-repair shop owner also known as the Disappearer, whose services don’t come cheap. Ed is none too pleased to see Jesse and offers little in the way of help or sympathy.
“If you believe that you can pull on people’s heartstrings, you should take your chances with the police,” Ed tells Jesse. “From where I sit, you made your own luck. As did your former partner. As did your lawyer. You said it yourself, a deal’s a deal.”
Most of “El Camino’s” meaty middle hinges on how Jesse will scrape up the sort of cash (hundreds of thousands of dollars) it will take to purchase Ed’s help. While flashbacks have become a narrative crutch in the peak-TV era, Gilligan reminds us that he’s a master of them, conjuring up a long sequence from the past that brings back the polite, ginger-haired demon known as Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons, another of “Breaking Bad’s” standouts). Together, Paul and Plemons return us to that pit-of-the-stomach greatness we so fondly remember. It seems Gilligan got this project just in the nick of time, as both actors have aged and thickened in expected, yet anachronistic, ways.
“El Camino” isn’t sparing with the “Breaking Bad” cameos and connectivity, including a brief flashback in which Cranston briefly reprises his role as the late Walter, who once remarked on Jesse’s good luck: “You don’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
The film also delivers a good dose of dark humor, such as when Plemons’s Todd casually sings along to Dr. Hook’s 1978 hit “Sharing the Night Together” while driving on a gruesome errand. “Breaking Bad” superfans whose ears perk up at stray references and who jot down peripheral information (phone numbers, license plates, street names) in hopes of extracting extra meaning and significance are welcome to knock themselves out. And as far as conclusions go, “El Camino” certainly has one — bullets flying, a big explosion, and a whiff of catharsis.
All “El Camino” lacks, really, is just a little more about Jesse himself — so beloved for his “yos” yet so often mute on his deepest feelings. We need a scene that better conveys the man’s essence; not a grand “I am the one who knocks”-style monologue, perhaps, but more than just his fear and angst.
Mostly, this film — Netflix calls it “a television event” but has also released it in some theaters, blurring the notion that there’s a difference — reminds us that a lot of TV shows and movies reach for what “Breaking Bad” was so good at doing and still come up short. Not to pick fights, but I include in that group Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” prequel series on AMC, “Better Call Saul,” which squandered its early seasons on a slower pace and a redundantly evolving story line. It’s a good show, but never as great as the acclaim it has received.
In a similar way, nothing about “El Camino” makes a case that we are necessarily better off with it than without it, or that some great hole has now been filled. It turns out we were fine with the idea of not knowing exactly what happened to Jesse; that way, we could always hope the best. Now that we know, dare we ask for a little more? Or leave it be?
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (122 minutes) is available for streaming on Netflix and showing at some area theaters.