Netflix Now: Fan Service, Done Right - El Camino (2019) - Reviewed

Entire volumes could be written on the character development of Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman. While arguably never quite earning the title of a true redemption arc, the character nonetheless has entered the hallowed pantheon of supporting roles often referred to as the "conscience," "heart," or "moral center." Aaron Paul's three-time Emmy-award-winning performance has anchored the character as one of the most endearing and beloved of the 21st century, but this trajectory was largely a footnote in series creator Vince Gilligan's original vision. In season 1, "Cap'n Cook," with his chili powder dreams of mid-level kingpin status and his Insane Clown Posse backup dancer affectations, received a mixed audience reception and was originally written to be killed off. An entire generation would have been robbed of such iconic quotes as, "Yeah, bitch! Magnets!" or "This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed.....bitch!"

Thanks to Paul's brilliant, heart-wrenching performance, however, Gilligan wisely chose to continue the tragic dance of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman for four more seasons. Whereas Walt willingly descended further and further into the dark side of the methamphetamine "empire business", only Jesse was capable of breaking wracked by guilt, remorse, and self-hatred for his actions. The audience recognized that Jesse was indeed the most tragic figure on the series, and accordingly shifted their sympathies. Mind you, Breaking Bad is not Schindler's List and Jesse Pinkman is no Itzhak Stern. There are caveats to deeming him the "moral center" of a series with few moral characters. Nonetheless, there was something universally relatable in his pathos--the self-awareness to suffer the emotional consequences of his behavior, coupled with a seeming inability to stop making the wrong choices. Audiences were left wanting more. And with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Jesse Pinkman is finally given the proper sendoff he deserves. 

It's been six years since Jesse crashed through a chain-link fence in a stolen El Camino, finally free from Neo-Nazi captivity, his victory whoop piercing the black New Mexico night. The narrative picks up almost immediately where it left off, as the police and feds descend on the carnage left behind from Walter White's last stand, and Albuquerque is consumed by a manhunt for Jesse's "person of interest." Yet Breaking Bad fans know better than to expect a straightforward, linear narrative of car chases and revenge. More than a third of the film's two-hour run time is artfully spent on flashbacks, and Vince Gilligan spends plenty of time revisiting the rogue's gallery of the ABQ's seedy underbelly. The most rewarding of these moments are spent on A Tale of Two Jesses--Pinkman and Plemons--in a sequence where the most cordially psychopathic of arch-nemeses, Todd Alquist, recruits a captive Jesse for a series of increasingly macabre house chores. It may surprise no one that Todd is a fan of 1970's singer-songwriter ballads such as "Spending the Night Together," but wisely we are spared any Tarantino-esque torture sequences set to "These Eyes" by The Guess Who. 

Gilligan, who both helmed the direction and penned the script, brilliantly chooses this narrative flow of tense action sequences and dreamy flashbacks in order to allow Paul to truly flex his range. One of his singular gifts as an actor is his guileless ability to simultaneously convey dozens of conflicting emotions, in his face and eyes alone, without speaking a word. Many of the high points in El Camino hearken back to his greatest performances on the series. During the flashbacks, when he portrays a wounded, frightened animal in captivity, we're reminded of the silent ticking timebomb we witnessed in "Box Cutter" and "Problem Dog." His moments with the late great Robert Forster (as of this writing, only two days deceased) in a vacuum cleaner store, trying to negotiate his escape, are simultaneously urgent, nerve-wracking, and hilarious, and remind the viewer of his making-this-up-as-I-go grit from "Peekaboo" and "ABQ."  El Camino is full of such moments, and in its best moments it keeps the audience riveted to what unfolds in real-time, while sprinkling in just enough fan service to make them remember what made Breaking Bad one of the greatest series of all time.

There are a few moments that don't quite work, however. When demonstrating his ice-cold steely resolve during a Wild-West standoff in a welding workshop, Paul never quite reaches the Greek tragedy fever pitch he so skillfully portrayed in either "Full Measure" or "Ozymandias." Similarly, it's somewhat difficult to believe that a mere shower and a shave is enough to transform him from the PTSD of recent captivity into a man of action. And the looming question over the entire production remains: why? While El Camino works well as both an extended episode of Breaking Bad and a standalone feature, the elephant in the room remains that it's almost completely unnecessary. Nonetheless, you can do a lot worse than completely unnecessary when it's this satisfying. And that's science, Mr. White. 

- Eugene Kelly