When Better Call Saul was announced, I had reservations about watching the Breaking Bad universe expand. Surely, I thought, Vince Gilligan had said what he needed to say after five seasons of chronicling the escalating, legendary villainy of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Ultimately, I was wrong to worry; Better Call Saul turned out to be a distinctly different series, which has so far has proven itself every bit Breaking Bad’s equal, if not superior.
I wish I could say the same about El Camino, a diverting two-hour Netflix film that explores the further adventures of Walter’s assistant chemist, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Jesse, the erratic young ne’er-do-well with whom White collaborated and later fell out, spent the final moments of Breaking Bad liberated from ruthless criminals who had enslaved him in a meth-cooking racket. Jesse drove off into the night, and an uncertain future, in a stolen El Camino. Whatever happened to him?
El Camino answers that question, picking up where Breaking Bad left off. Fleeing the scene of the climactic confrontation, Jesse frantically eludes the police, becoming a fugitive from justice. With the assistance of his old running buddies Skinny (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones), Jesse gets the head start he needs to steer clear of the law, then mines his knowledge of his former captors’ business to hatch a desperate plan to flee the country and start a new life.
If Better Call Saul is an impressive prequel and a more-than-worthy series in its own right, El Camino merely plays out as an entertaining sequel, a welcome, flashy, but thin return to the Breaking Bad universe. It’s through no fault of Paul, who is still is great in this role, bringing intensity to Jesse’s PTSD and his crafty but flawed street smarts. There are a number of urgent, suspenseful, well executed sequences, and the story flows logically and briskly to a satisfying conclusion, ricocheting back and forth through time to give many familiar Breaking Bad faces — Cranston, Baker, Jones, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter, and Robert Forster, among others — one last spin on the dance floor.
Where the film fails, I think, is that it doesn’t add much to Jesse’s story. His journey from reprehensible problem child to resourceful, borderline sympathetic cautionary tale had already landed in a solid place by series end. Is El Camino a well-crafted and entertaining return to this world? Yes. Was it cool to catch a glimpse of Jesse Pinkman’s future? Sure. But ultimately it doesn’t feel like much more than a solid reunion tour: enjoyable, but inessential.