In “El Camino,” Will Jesse Pinkman Break Good?

In “El Camino,” Will Jesse Pinkman Break Good? October 11, 2019

This year has brought us sequels to a pair of the best TV dramas to grace the small screen this century.  In May, HBO gifted us with a conclusion to its revisionist Western Deadwood.  Today, Netflix dropped El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

Deadwood: The Movie felt almost necessary, given the abrupt halt to that series in 2006.  And the characterizations and linguistic beauty of the film are on a par with this most wonderful of shows.

By contrast, El Camino seems superfluous and falls short of the best Breaking Bad episodes.  Still, for its generous cameos and return to Jesse Pinkman’s character, fans of the show will undoubtedly want to watch.

Aaron Paul is back as Jesse Pinkman, in “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie”

Following a helpful, briskly edited recap, El Camino picks up exactly where the series left off.  (Need I say, if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, you may want to stop reading here?)  Thanks to Walter White’s rescue, Jesse (Aaron Paul) has been liberated from the Neo-Nazis who were holding him in meth-making captivity.  Behind the wheel of a stolen El Camino, he busts through a fence, laugh-crying his way to freedom.

With no one else to turn to, Jesse skulks to the home of his drug-using buddies Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker).  As he lays low, news programs make clear that Jesse is a “person of interest,” actively sought by the feds and Albuquerque police.  On one broadcast, his parents plead for his surrender to the authorities.

After this peppy opening, El Camino’s pace slows markedly.  In the first of many flashbacks – the better for all those cameos, besides helping us comprehend Jesse’s motivations – we see a conversation between him and dead-eyed killer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).  In their chat, Mike recommends running far away from White’s doomed machinations.  With this advice reverberating in his brain, it only becomes gradually evident why Jesse is choosing to stay in New Mexico, rather than making a fast escape to Alaska.

With its leisurely pacing, El Camino lacks the taut suspense or jaw-dropping twists of the best Breaking Bad episodes.  Though the series showrunner Vince Gilligan is back as writer and director, in this way the movie reminds me more of Breaking Bad’s inferior prequel, Better Call Saul.

The absence of Breaking Bad’s principal director of photography, Michael Slovis, is also felt acutely.  Marshall Adams (DP on one Breaking Bad episode) still incorporates some of the trademarked time lapse shots of Albuquerque and the surrounding desert, as well as an oddball point of view shot or two, but they’re missing the same wow factor as the series.

Aaron Paul is a pleasure to watch, in this frequently nonverbal performance.  His facial scars in El Camino match his psychological wounds.  His subtle changes in expression and posture reveal the clash of vulnerability and hesitation with wile and determination.  This shows up especially in his unwillingness to resort to violence, seen first in the recap, then in the main movie, as over and over again, he has access to other characters’ guns.

In the series, besides serving as sidekick to Walter White (Bryan Cranston), his guilty conscience made him a moral opposite to Walter’s rationalizations and mounting willingness to strike out without remorse, even if countless innocent bystanders will be harmed.  In El Camino, Jesse’s primary foil is Todd (Jesse Plemons), whose easygoing temperament and ordinary handsomeness mask a sociopath.

Across its five seasons, Breaking Bad was not only supremely inventive and entertaining, but in Walter White, we observed the corrosive power of envy and entitlement, present in kernel form in S1E1, then metastasizing opportunistically.  By comparison, the lessons of El Camino – owning your mistakes as you actively choose your own path – are not as substantial.  And ultimately, we really don’t learn anything new or surprising about these characters, though it’s mildly diverting to pay them another visit.


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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