A Breaking Bad sequel was always a dicey proposition. On the one hand, Breaking Bad was a borderline perfect show that ended exactly how it needed to, with just the right balance between ambiguity and closure. On the other hand, Vince Gilligan is one the most remarkable writing and directing talents in the industry, so if he wanted to give this enterprise another shot six years after its ending, it was understandable to assume that he had something special up his sleeve.
El Camino picks up right after the events of “Felina,” with Jesse Pinkman as a fugitive, figuring out how to avoid the police and maybe finding a way to start from zero. Following up Breaking Bad with an authority escape/evasion thriller makes sense considering the state of Jesse Pinkman at the end of the show, as well as its genre trappings. The problem with that setting is there’s not enough meat to justify the two hour runtime. Much of the plot consists of Jesse sneaking into places, only to find himself in a dead end that forces him to go to a different location and repeat the process. There are a few moments of tension every now and then, but their payoffs are rarely all that satisfying.
To compensate for the light plotting, El Camino includes flashbacks to Jesse’s traumatizing days as a prisoner of Jack Welker’s Nazi gang. These scenes mostly serve to set up a plot device in the present-day story, but also to point out that Jesse lost his hope and that he had the worst time of his life during that period. Considering that this aspect was left abundantly clear in Breaking Bad, the flashbacks can’t help but come off as redundant; especially since they stop the movie dead in its tracks and make you want to go back to seeing the part of Jesse’s saga we don’t know. There are other flashbacks that feature Jesse bonding with characters that were dead when we left the show. Even though it’s endearing to see these actors play their characters again, their presence exists primarily as nostalgic fanservice to remind the audience how much they liked spending time with them, adding little in terms of character, theme or plot. Not to mention that you’ll require some suspension of disbelief to embrace that the actors look considerably aged compared to when the show was airing.
Aaron Paul returns to play Jesse Pinkman with enough commitment and confidence to make for a compelling turn. Unfortunately, he’s not provided a lot to do here. Without giving too much away, the Jesse we see at the beginning remains very much the same by the end. The script is more concerned with putting him in a tight location to escape or infiltrate than in giving him conflict with other characters, emotional challenges or any worldbuilding elements that make his life richer.
Breaking Bad stood out for making the most out of its relatively modest Albuquerque setting, and that quality remains in the movie. Vince Gilligan’s ability to generate an eerie sense of unease in otherwise mundane locations is this film’s biggest strength. It’s a vibe that will make the fans of the show feel right at home.
While El Camino doesn’t taint Breaking Bad in any way, it doesn’t really build on it either. It’s a reasonably well made exercise about a scenario that could be easily deduced after watching the show, providing no major surprises or revelations in the proceedings. If it wasn’t tied to one of the best projects in the history of television, it would be barely a blip in the radar.