El Camino: A Beautiful Coda To Breaking Bad

There’s a particular pleasure in seeing an old friend after a long time apart and discovering that, although there are so many new stories they have to share and new things to tell you, sitting with them and talking is still the easiest thing in the world, like they were never apart from you. At the end of the conversation, of course, the two of you get up, hug, and go your separate ways once more. Sometimes, never necessarily knowing when or if you’ll meet again.

If you were to take that feeling and boil it down into two hours, I think you might just arrive at El Camino, Vince Gilligan’s follow-up to the acclaimed series Breaking Bad. And even though it’s been six years since we’ve seen these characters (longer, for some of them) and they’ve visibly aged, it was like sitting down to coffee with an old friend. A fitting coda to Gilligan’s tragic masterpiece.

Without spoiling too much of the film’s plot, El Camino follows the adventures of Jesse Pinkman immediately following “Felina”, the final episode of Breaking Bad (as in, after a short flashback sequence, the movie picks up that very same night). Given the subject matter, in many ways El Camino feels like an extended episode of the show, rather than a film in its own right. For fans of the series, this is probably a good thing, and contributes to the feeling of slipping right back into an old friendship.

That said, I imagine that at times this could be a hard movie to enjoy if you’ve spent the last decade living under a rock and have somehow never watched Breaking Bad (this is not a smear on rock-dwellers, who may be pleased to know count my own husband in their number).

As a coda, El Camino performs very well. It adds to Breaking Bad, giving us some insight into the fates of a few characters who have thus far been loose ends, and also through an extensive series of flashbacks that serve to illuminate or build on many things we did not see during the course of the show. The story is well-written, both giving and denying us closure; what it truly offers us is the release of our emotions regarding Jesse Pinkman and his portion of the the story.

What “Felina” did for us with Walter White’s ending, El Camino has done with our other main character. Aristotle wrote in the Poetics that this release, κάθαρσις [catharsis], is a function of all tragedy. The word is defined in Liddell & Scott’s lexicon as “cleansing from guilt or defilement, purification”. Jesse Pinkman spends the course of the film pursued by trauma and the ghosts of his past, things that haunt him like the Furies chasing Orestes, and he comes out of it at the end ready to start fresh, cleansed and able to leave behind the life he’d known. Through the empathy the audience feels toward the character and his journey, we, too, end the film with a sense of release, at peace with ourselves.

On a technical note, El Camino is very well done. While some viewers may find its pacing a bit slow, even to the point of being navel-gazey, I think the pacing is exactly what it needs to be. El Camino is a movie about an emotional journey just as much as it is about a physical one, and it moves exactly as quickly as it needs to, spending time lovingly studying the character of Jesse Pinkman and who he has become as a result of his experiences with Walter White.

Too many movies feel the need to be frenetic, action-packed blockbusters, and I like that Gilligan doesn’t try to shoehorn El Camino into being one (something I’ve also loved about the spin-off series, Better Call Saul). Sometimes, it’s better to take your time.

The acting is also superb, with special mentions needed both for Aaron Paul and Jesse Plemons. This may be Paul’s most raw and breathtaking performance in anything yet, and Plemons’ chilling performance as Todd is a true stand-out despite being confined entirely to flashback sequences (which should hopefully not be too much of a spoiler to fans of Breaking Bad, given that Jesse kills his character in “Felina”). And as always, the cinematography is as incredible as we have come to expect from Gilligan’s work, right down to the signature timelapse shots of Albuquerque that should make any fan of Breaking Bad smile.

All-in-all, El Camino is a wonderful epilogue to Breaking Bad. It’s probably a somewhat weak movie on its own merits because of how good an epilogue it is — if you lack the context of having seen the show, I can’t imagine that it has nearly the impact that it had for me, and I can’t imagine that it necessarily makes much sense, either. For those who have seen the show, it’s a well-justified dip back into these characters’ world that offers catharsis for viewer and character alike. And regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the show, it remains a beautiful and well-acted masterpiece. I happily give it 4/5 stars and recommend it to anyone who has seen Breaking Bad. And if you haven’t, the full series is streaming whenever you like for anyone with a Netflix subscription.


Cover image courtesy of Netflix.
All images utilized under Fair Use.

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