Here’s the question that dogs every TV sequel, prequel, and revival: Is it necessary? Does the material — in this case, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” — justify revisiting the original narrative? Was it worth undoing the ending of the series — and risking the greatness of its legacy — to deliver yet another chapter?
In terms of “El Camino,” the answer is no — but not a damning no. The new movie, written and directed by “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan and now available on Netflix, is not an essential addition to the intimate epic that’s is one the best TV dramas of all time. When “Breaking Bad” ended with the episode “Felina,” with Walter White dead on the floor and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman on the road to a shaky freedom, it was a perfect end-stop. Walt’s arc was complete, and so was Jesse’s, as far as it is for any character who’s still alive when the final credits fall. Jesse’s last screen moments were thrillingly and precisely ambiguous, leaving us to imagine the future of a man who had, in some ways, been breaking good.
Did you want him to live happily ever after, or get taken down for his deeds? As with the end of “The Sopranos,” we were left to make our own personal choices about justice and forgiveness.
While Walt had broken bad across the series, shedding his heart and his morality, Jesse had been discovering the boundaries of his own conscience. Jesse had done awful things, but when we left him it was clear that the direction of his story line had provided an illuminating contrast to that of Walt’s. He wasn’t suddenly transformed into a good guy; there was a string of punishing events, including the death of his girlfriend and confinement in a cage, that had helped him locate both his heart and his scruples. I can’t say I ever felt cheated not knowing how Jesse fared after “Felina.” The episode provided just exactly the right amount of closure.
That said, “El Camino” is enjoyable as a kind of epilogue to “Breaking Bad.” It’s unnecessary, but it’s good enough to offer two solid hours of pleasure to anyone who loved the mother ship. I felt as though I was watching an extra-long episode of the show, which is less than I’d expect from a movie but still, not bad considering the quality of every hour of “Breaking Bad.” Gilligan gives us enough visual awe (with cinematographer Marshall Adams, not Michael Slovis from the original series) and enough hard-boiled suspense to impress. He also gives fans a long and satisfying list of character cameos and callbacks to “Breaking Bad.”
We jump right into the action in “El Camino,” as Jesse, now a well-known fugitive, desperately begins a dark adventure that, he hopes, will get him out of Albuquerque alive. First up — and I won’t spoil the whole movie, only some small bits — he finds his way back to Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones), for some help getting rid of the titular car. The pair are a welcome sight in the movie; they remind us of who Jesse was when we first met him. Their presence serves as a marker of Jesse’s changes over the course of “Breaking Bad.”
We also get a number of critical flashbacks, which bring back actors whose characters were dead at the end of “Breaking Bad.” The one I’ll mention here involves Todd, played by Jesse Plemons. We get to revisit Todd’s curiously low-key psychopathy, and once again appreciate Plemons’s masterfully strange turn. And the Todd story line involves some of the moment-to-moment tension that was one of the defining elements of “Breaking Bad,” and some of the humor, too.
Will Gilligan continue to follow Jesse over the years to come? The question sounds absurd, but in this era of reboots it’s not beyond the realm. So here’s hoping you enjoy the new movie and that it provides you with the ending you probably weren’t longing for, and here’s hoping there’s no “El Camino 4” in our future.
EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE
Starring: Aaron Paul. On NetflixMatthew Gilbert can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.