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The Low-Stakes Pleasures of ‘El Camino’ Don’t Hurt—or Help—the Legacy of ‘Breaking Bad’

The new Netflix film puts a bow on Jesse Pinkman’s story, but doesn’t add layers to the overall narrative

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Just as the Eskimo have dozens of words for snow, our IP-saturated culture has an infinite supply of terms for expansions to a pre-existing narrative universe. There’s the sequel. Also, the spin-off. And the reboot. Or just the follow-up. Each carries a slightly different connotation about the creative and financial purposes of the project at hand, though the sheer mass of them is a statement in itself about the kinds of stories that tend to make it to screen and where they’re sourced from.

El Camino, the Netflix film released on Friday and subtitled A Breaking Bad Movie, is best described as a coda, or maybe an addendum. A two-hour saga centered on Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), erstwhile mentee to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and escaped prisoner of a gang of white supremacists, the movie has about it a persistent air of the supplemental. Its events are not just simple, but easily surmised. Had someone asked a focus group of Breaking Bad viewers what they thought happened after Jesse’s exhilarating final shot, tearing away from a massacre in that namesake Chevrolet, the median answer would have settled somewhere around overcoming a few more obstacles before getting the blank slate he arguably deserved and Walter very much did not. Indeed, that’s exactly what happens in El Camino. Jesse gets help from some friends, hassled by some enemies, and assisted by a stone-cold expert. His final arrival in Alaska is less a revelation than a confirmation.

This seeming inevitability makes El Camino a very different viewing experience from the show it extends, and whose continued popularity on streaming explains the film’s existence. Of the foundational series that opened the floodgates to our current moment of TV saturation, Breaking Bad is by far the most plot-focused, pushing viewers forward with the urgency of what happens next? (Compare the final-season suspense of “What’s that gun doing in Walt’s trunk?” to “Will SCDP land this campaign?” or “Can a few lucky individuals buck Baltimore’s institutional decay?”) Apart from the details, El Camino largely sheds this hook in favor of other Breaking Bad strengths, if not its central one: the pleasure of familiar faces like Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker); the surprising beauty of Albuquerque’s criminal underworld; above all, the charm and pathos of Jesse, a less complicated protagonist and more pure tragedy than his deceased colleague.

Written and directed by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, El Camino’s stakes are thus lower than its predecessor’s, narratively and existentially. As Gilligan himself has acknowledged, El Camino’s relationship to Breaking Bad is an asymmetrical one; you can experience all of Walter White’s rise and fall without knowing the particulars of Jesse’s escape, but you can’t—or rather, shouldn’t—watch El Camino without five seasons of Breaking Bad to give it weight and context. Seen one way, this means El Camino’s downside is limited, unable to tarnish a legacy it’s largely content to operate inside of. Seen another, “do no harm” may be too low a standard for lingering on such hallowed ground. Vanishingly rare is the show that neither goes too soon nor overstays its welcome. Why jeopardize that status?

Ironically, El Camino seems to pose a problem Gilligan and his collaborators have already solved. Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel series on AMC cocreated by Gilligan and Peter Gould, follows the mid-aughts misadventures of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the man who will one day become Walt and Jesse’s lawyer Saul Goodman. In terms of story, Better Call Saul can’t impinge on Breaking Bad, because it takes place well before Walter receives his fateful diagnosis. More importantly, and ingeniously, Better Call Saul has its own, independent set of themes, swapping futility and self-fulfilling prophecy for pride and ego. Both shows may be centered on a middle-aged man’s spiritual decline, but Breaking Bad worked because audiences weren’t yet accustomed to an out-and-out villain in the narrative driver’s seat, allowing them to be shocked anew at each one of Walt’s many points of no return. Better Call Saul is a near-perfect inverse, leveraging our knowledge of Jimmy’s fate instead of our ignorance of Walt’s. It’s an evolution and a complement where El Camino is a grace note.

El Camino adds relatively little to the great moral statement that has become Gilligan’s magnum opus. A few lines of dialogue address questions of blame and responsibility: “From where I sit, you made your own luck,” says Ed Galbraith, the vacuum salesman and covert extraction expert played by Robert Forster, whose passing was announced mere hours after El Camino’s release. Later, while luring his parents out of the house so he can make off with their vintage firearms, Jesse reassures them: “Whatever happened to me, it’s on me. Nobody else.” His words don’t quite land with the force of another phone call whose contents belied its true purpose, or Walt’s overdue, still-necessary admission that “I did it for me.” For one thing, El Camino doesn’t quite seem to believe them; the very fact Jesse readily admits his role in his current circumstance suggests his repentance is less badly needed. Nor does his successful relocation inspire the same profound ambivalence Walt’s eleventh-hour vindication brought out in some critics. Jesse’s not a good person, but he’s certainly a better one, and Lord knows he’s paid his dues. Let him have this.

Instead of a replica, El Camino is almost a reprieve. After five harrowing seasons of Walt digging his literal and metaphorical grave, future Netflix users will be able to decompress with a simpler tale of a man finding safe harbor, plus fragments of Breaking Bad’s essence freed from the burden of a larger saga. Both ends of its rogue’s gallery are well represented: bone-chilling masterminds like Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons), the banality of whose evil is all the more perfect given he’s a literal Nazi, and small-time clowns like Neil Kandy (Scott MacArthur, having a good month between this and The Righteous Gemstones), the bumbling welder after Jesse’s cash windfall. Same goes for the full spectrum of the underworld’s scenery, every corner of which Gilligan makes strangely alluring: the alien moonscape where Todd leaves his cleaning lady’s body, but also the drab apartment where he killed her. (I would happily watch two straight hours of a Vince Gilligan–directed screensaver.) Through it all, Jesse goes from hollow shell unable to shower without a gun to something like his old self, bargaining and blustering with Ed like the cocksure teenager he used to be.

It’s all pleasurable; what it’s not is very purposeful. Early reviews of El Camino seem to be damning with faint praise: adjectives like “enjoyable” and “lovely” are hardly negative, but they pale in comparison to the praise, however hyperbolic, heaped on its mothership. At the level of craft, Gilligan far outstrips recent reunion events like the Veronica Mars and Downton Abbey movies, infusing a methodical search and Western-homage shoot-out with a trademark sense of meticulous tension. As a concept, however, there’s an undeniable kinship. Whether in the American Southwest or the English countryside, a gang brought back together is a gang brought back together.

Where El Camino does toy with Breaking Bad’s footprint, rather than maneuver within its boundaries, is in the figure of Jesse himself. Infamously, his story was auxiliary in its very conception; Gilligan and his collaborators had originally planned on dispatching him in Season 1, before Paul’s performance and chemistry (get it?) with Cranston elevated him to true colead. Breaking Bad nonetheless remained a journey “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” with Jesse ultimately a witness. His arc, while rich and tremendously moving, was never quite as thought out as Walt’s, making him a good fit for this relatively ad hoc conclusion. El Camino may be an isolated footnote to Breaking Bad, but it’s a footnote that finally allows Jesse to be a full-fledged protagonist who outlives his corruptor, an outcome we already knew but whose depiction underscores the cosmic justice. When Skinny Pete calls Jesse “my hero and shit,” it’s half a joke—but only half.