El Camino gives Breaking Bad fans closure, but it's a mostly pointless detour
In which Jesse Pinkman runs out of road.
Did Breaking Bad need a fifth season?
Hear me out.
Yes, this writer was there, with just about everyone else, beckoning the fall of crime kingpin Walter White. You can't raise him up and not bring him down, right?
And yet, you could reasonably make the argument that Breaking Bad peaked with the thrilling conclusion to season four, and that ending the show with White standing victorious would have been one hell of a way to bring down the curtain.
Season five, as it happens, boasts two of the very best episodes in the whole run - Dead Freight and Ozymandias - but, as with the final chapters of The Wire, you could see the cracks beginning to show.
One issue was that creator Vince Gilligan was clearly way too enamoured with White by the end, arguably reducing his villainy a touch - just a touch, he did still arrange the murders of many people, after all - and giving him something of a redemptive anti-hero easy way out.
Another problem was that Jesse Pinkman, for so long the show's bruised beating heart, was rendered a plot device once captured by antagonists who couldn't hold a candle to Gus Fring.
Don't get me wrong; Breaking Bad concluded in strong fashion, it just didn't feel as essential as what came before.
You may well disagree. You may well have closed this article and are already giving out in the Facebook comments. If so, you'll likely adore each and every slow-burning second of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
And hey, that's perfectly fine. The surprise Netflix production exists to give fans the chance to step back into this difficult world for two hours and two minutes, and to hang out, once more, with Aaron Paul's brutalised Jesse Pinkman.
For some, that will be enough. For others who want a more challenging and justifiable reason to exist on its own terms, El Camino will likely disappoint.
First, the good. El Camino is beautifully presented by Gilligan - who writes and directs - and cinematographer Marshall Adams. Gilligan also uses returning faces well, smartly restricting bigger names to minor cameos, some of which hold more weight than others.
El Camino is clearly modelled on old westerns, and at times it hits high genre marks in that regard, offering up tense standoffs and patient, protracted dialogue exchanges. Tension is well realised, even in flashback sequences where you know the payoff can't go beyond a certain point.
The film is guilty of looking back a little bit too much, slowing the pace and stopping the story from moving forward, likely because there really isn't that much of a story to tell. We knew that Jesse escaped and drove off into an uncertain future. We never really needed a follow-up. And yet, here we are.
Clip via Netflix
As for those flashbacks, Jesse Plemons pretty much steals the entire picture, slipping back into the role of Todd Alquist and all of his horrible, strange, sociopathic spoilt childlike behaviour with ease.
He also brings much of El Camino's dark humour to the fore, and his dynamic with the broken Jesse is both deeply upsetting and bizarrely tender at times.
Credit goes to the film, too, for giving Robert Forster a terrific final role to bow out on, with the actor sadly passing away shortly after El Camino's release on Friday.
Paul, meanwhile, gives it his all, reminding us of how good he can be in the right role.
Jesse Pinkman feels like the career high for him, with some failed attempts at being a Hollywood leading man falling out of Breaking Bad's finish. To no surprise, he skilfully imbues his former charge with post-traumatic pain and survivor's guilt, as scarred on the inside as he is on the out.
Trouble is, Jesse Pinkman isn't compelling enough to hold the screen and attention by himself for two hours and two minutes.
You feel the lack of a Walter White, a Mike Ehrmantraut, a Saul Goodman. Jesse's arc is quite standard issue, with little in the way of twists and turns. There's no new ground to cover in this epilogue, no real statements to make, and in the end it feels all too neat.
How much you enjoy El Camino will depend entirely on how devoted you are going in. There's closure here, if you really need it, but, ultimately, this is undercooked fan service that spends much too much time staring into the rear-view mirror.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is out now on Netflix