The ending of “Breaking Bad,” the beloved prestige-TV masterpiece that wrapped up its five-season run on AMC in 2013, didn’t leave many questions unanswered.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the chemistry teacher-turned crystal meth kingpin, died and took all the bad guys with him.
His secrets were exposed, and he was mythologized as the most prolific drug dealer in American history. His family got his money. His lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), went into hiding. Walt’s sidekick, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), escaped his captivity at the hands of neo-Nazi thugs and regained his freedom.
Well, maybe. Jesse’s final scene saw him breaking out of the compound where he’d been imprisoned as a meth-making slave during the show’s last season, piloting a stolen El Camino into the night, an uncertain future awaiting. This minor ambiguity was one of series creator Vince Gilligan’s few unturned stones. How would Jesse get out of Albuquerque with no money and every law enforcement agency in the southwestern United States looking for him?
“Breaking Bad” fans needn’t wonder anymore. The sequel film “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” written and directed by Gilligan, appeared over the weekend on Netflix. It picks up moments after the action that concluded “Breaking Bad” and follows Jesse as he eludes various pursuers and tries to figure out what kind of life he’s capable of living.
The critical consensus about “El Camino” seems to be that the film, while enjoyable on its merits, is mostly a “getting the band back together” exercise that doesn’t really need to exist. Regardless, “El Camino” is expertly crafted, featuring trademarks from “Breaking Bad” and its well-regarded prequel series “Better Call Saul,” such as stunning time-lapse cinematography, meticulous plot construction and the colorful development of New Mexico’s criminal underbelly.
The acting — particularly by Paul and his former tormentor Todd (Jesse Plemons), seen in flashback — is exemplary, and the film contains more than enough Easter eggs and cameos to satisfy fans of the series. (Poignantly, it features the last performance by Robert Forster in a small but pivotal role; he died the day “El Camino” was released.)
There is enough raw material here for perhaps three B-plus episodes of “Breaking Bad,” which means it’s still quite a bit better than almost anything available at your streaming fingertips.
And while “El Camino” doesn’t ultimately take Pinkman’s story arc anywhere unexpected, it manages to deepen the end run of “Breaking Bad,” which is generally thought to have lost steam once its best villain, the druglord Gus Fring, died at the end of season four.
But a lengthy flashback sequence reveals Todd as an even more menacing and twisted presence than even the banal depravities he committed in “Breaking Bad” would have indicated.
When Jesse sees a fleeting opportunity to escape, their ensuing interaction, a masterclass from both performers, lays bare the full extent of Jesse’s trauma and brokenness. And in classic “Breaking Bad” fashion, this passage snaps like a Rubik’s Cube to connect with Jesse’s present-day predicament.
Admittedly, though, “El Camino” lacks the moral complexity that guided most of the action in “Breaking Bad” and continues to make “Better Call Saul” — which tracks the earlier downfall of Odenkirk’s slimeball-lawyer character — such a rich extension of this storytelling universe.
During the original show, Jesse did plenty of terrible things, but the audience was never unsure what to feel about him.
He was, unlike Walt, the victim of his circumstances rather than the architect.
But, in need of a new villain, “El Camino” settles unconvincingly on a welding company that helped Jesse’s captors keep him confined in their meth lab. That’s bad, but we already know Jesse is directly and indirectly responsible for hundreds of deaths, if not more.
So when his showdown against these unworthy bad guys materializes as a literal Wild West shootout, that moral calculus feels off. The song is familiar, but some of the notes sound wrong.
Sometimes bands do that when they get back together. But in the case of “El Camino,” to extend the metaphor, the reunion album otherwise is just solid enough to justify the greatest-hits tour.