El Camino gambles that nostalgia for that 2013 feeling is just as good as propulsive plotting for attracting viewers.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who never want Vince Gilligan’s creative interests to stray very far from the New Mexico desert and boring, uninteresting folks. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie does not have the same manic energy of “Breaking Bad” at its best, nor does it have the insane attention to arcane detail of spin-off “Better Call Saul.” Instead, the film combines fan service, Easter eggs and Gilligan’s characteristic tension-plus-puzzle set pieces with enough plot to advance the “Breaking Bad” story forward. For fans of the series, the film is a return to the Albuquerque of Heisenberg and Jesse Pinkman and that is all that really matters.
El Camino picks up right where the series left off back in 2013: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has wiped out the neo-Nazis, liberated Jesse (Aaron Paul) from his slavery and then gone down in a blaze of gunfire. Jesse is trying to escape, and after a brief prologue with Mike (Jonathan Banks) suggesting he would go to Alaska if he had Jesse’s money, the film opens to Jesse shouting in dismay behind the steering wheel of an El Camino in the middle of the night, police sirens painting the horizon blue and red. He has just left the neo-Nazi compound—we soon learn that the El Camino belongs to the now-dead creepy sociopath Todd (Jesse Plemons)—and Pinkman knows he is bound to be the subject of a massive international manhunt. To get out of this situation, he turns to old friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), who hatch a plan to buy him time to escape.
Over the next two hours, El Camino switches from Jesse’s challenging escape attempt to flashbacks of his time in neo-Nazi internment. The flashbacks fill in gaps in the narrative of the TV series, each taking place between “Ozymandias” and “Felina” and are classic Gilligan: part character study, part depraved humanity and part absurdist action. There is no reason to spoil anything here, but each of the situations that Jesse is plunged into are direct callbacks to the series: stilted, unusual standoffs, fruitless scavenger hunts, desert panoramas and the returns of multiple beloved characters from the show. The Easter eggs are among the greatest pleasures in watching El Camino. There are crawlspaces, junkyards, night-camouflaged break-ins to compounds and even some knocking on doors.
Gilligan does manage to expand the film beyond pure fan service, even if it ultimately feels more like three new episodes of “Breaking Bad” than it does a work of cinema. It would be interesting to see how non-show viewers respond to El Camino, but it is likely that it barely works independently of its TV legacy, not that it is trying to do so. If it does have appeal for the not-already-converted, it is through offering an exploration of the idea of a man being held in a cage in the desert by neo-Nazis; what seemed like a far-fetched plot device in 2013 is now just part of the basic fabric of everyday life in the hellscape of 2019, and it is doubtful whether even someone with Heisenberg’s titanic intellect could have foreseen something like that.
When “Breaking Bad” was violently crashing towards its finale back in 2013, observers wondered whether the show was even more addictive than the blue meth at the center of its storyline. El Camino gambles that nostalgia for that 2013 feeling is just as good as propulsive plotting for attracting viewers.