Spoilers ahead for “Breaking Bad”
Vince Gilligan’s conclusion to the story of Jesse Pinkman was destined to be satisfying to a large portion of “Breaking Bad” fans.
If the conclusion to Jesse’s story was a depressing slog that ended the blue meth saga with Jesse getting killed or put away, it would mirror the arc of Walter White and fit the overall hard-nosed tone of the series. If the ending was happy and Jesse gets the life that he always wanted, it would create a nice contrast to White’s downer ending. Gilligan found a way to provide the feelings of both potential endings, which I find to be a stroke of genius.
It is clear that Gilligans’ directing talents have only increased since the start of “Better Call Saul.” His eye for the desert landscapes encapsulates the drug ridden towns of the show, and is so perfect that it feels like a distillation of the visual language of the entire show.
The western aspect is also the strongest and most obvious influence in this film. Westerns have been a visual driving force for “Breaking Bad,” but it was always below the surface. However, this film turns Jesse into a full fledged western outlaw on the run. This influence results in one of the more memorable action scenes in the series’ history.
One of the most striking things while watching the film for the first time is how well it works as a standalone film. It is obvious that certain scenes have more emotional depth if you have been following the characters since 2008, but the wonderful structure is there nonetheless. The film provides just enough exposition — because it expects the audience to have seen the show before — and it doesn’t confuse the audience by not telling them some details.
The backstory of the film is mostly shown much not told through background details of the environment and even sometimes through flashbacks. These flashbacks offer some of the only opportunities the film had for fan service, and there is surprisingly not much.
Characters like Mike Ehrmantraut and Walter White show up but none of them overstay their welcome. Most of them serve as metaphorical ghosts that are passing on life advice to Jesse as he tries desperately to create his own.
Yet if there is one Breaking Bad character who does stay around longer it is Ed — the owner of a vacuum shop that specializes in getting people new lives. His performance ended up being my favorite, but that might have been influenced by the great actor’s passing last week.
Aaron Paul’s performance was also engaging, as expected. Jesse is his most revered character and the one he has spent the most time with, and it would seem impossible for Paul turn in a less than stellar performance.
Despite all the praise that “El Camino” will likely receive from film press and fans, there’s something that seems strange about being back in this place. There is a very anti-nostalgia feeling to the entire film that I believe to be intentional. I don’t think that Gilligan is punishing the audience for returning to the “Breaking Bad” world, but I do think he is making a point about the reason for the return.
The film isn’t here to reminisce, it isn’t here to glorify. All that “El Camino” and Jesse want to do is get out. They want to escape from the world of murder and hatred and for the audience to come with them.