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‘El Camino’ is a worthy follow-up to ‘Breaking Bad’

| Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

At the end of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” in 2013, the show’s two main characters ended the series reaping what they sowed. Teacher-turned-kingpin Walter White died caressing equipment in a meth lab, while his former student Jesse Pinkman rode off into the night screaming and smiling after being freed from his neo-Nazi captors. It should be noted that the show, while it aired, appeared much more grounded than that sentence makes it out to be.

Where Walt’s series-long “Mr. Chips to Scarface” arc wrapped up in a definitive way, Jesse’s left itself more open-ended, likely purposefully. Fans could be forgiven for wondering exactly what happened to Jesse after the show rather ambiguously ended. Such patience and likely frustration, however, saw its reward in the form of Netflix’s release of “El Camino,” writer-director Vince Gilligan’s latest entry in his “Breaking Bad” universe.

“El Camino” quite literally picks up where “Breaking Bad” left off, with Jesse riding the titular stolen car away from his former life of meth manufacturing — or so he hopes. Immediately after leaving the compound, Jesse has to hide from an arriving police convoy, forcing him towards the single goal of the entire movie: an escape from Albuquerque.

I am reticent to list any of the cameos in “El Camino” fulfilled by “Breaking Bad” characters or flashbacks to the show. But, that being said, the trailers for the movie already alerted viewers to the presence of two fan favorites. Matt Jones and Charles Baker return as Jesse’s burned-out friends Badger and Skinny Pete, and the early rapport between the two is what settles “El Camino” back into the instantly-recognizable “Breaking Bad” groove. For better and worse, “El Camino” exists in the well-established comfort zone established by the series.

The peaks of “Breaking Bad” exemplified the show’s one-of-a-kind tone, while its gritty depiction of the violence associated with drug dealing belied a darkly hilarious streak running beneath. “El Camino” flashes brief glimpses of that unique collaboration between pathos and comedy. Gilligan populates the edges of his story with instantly recognizable weirdos designed to worm their way into the audience’s hearts while keeping it all the same grounded in realism. As in the original show and the prequel series “Better Call Saul,” the dialogue in “El Camino” straddles the line between funny and horrifying; the laughs seem to get caught in your throat and dragged down to the pit of your stomach.

Gilligan has always been one of the most gifted visual artists in television, with individual shots that deserve to be framed in an art museum. “El Camino” is no different. One scene with a whiplash rack-focus from a gun barrel to the face of its wielder made me excitedly gesticulate to no one in particular during my first watch. All of these cinematic flourishes in the Gilligan’s world, however, fail to distract from the film’s potential redundancy.

I don’t mean to say that “El Camino” is superfluous as a piece of art. There is far too much craftsmanship on display for that to be the case — from the aforementioned script to Aaron Paul’s stellar performance. Rather, I mean to suggest that the movie cannot exist without “Breaking Bad,” and unlike “Better Call Saul,” it doesn’t quite add anything to the storyline of the show. The original series is one of the best programs in television history, if not the best outright. The 60-odd hours we got from “Breaking Bad” don’t need an addendum, no matter how impressive it may be. Anyone who loved “Breaking Bad” will find something to enjoy in “El Camino” — everybody else, however, would be better off returning to the show from which its plot derives itself.

Title: “El Camino”

Director: Vince Gilligan

Starring: Aaron Paul, Charles Baker

If You Like: “Breaking Bad”

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5

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