There are plenty of TV shows with lackluster finales. Seinfeld threw its main characters in jail, How I Met Your Mother contorted its way into disappointment and criticizing Game of Thrones became a cultural rallying point just a few months ago.
But Breaking Bad was never one of those shows. Its final half-season is legendary for its quality, and its sendoff episode “Felina” is widely regarded as one of the medium’s finest swan songs.
Following up on a beloved ending like is in some ways a tougher task than retconning a whimper of a final episode. But it’s a task series creator Vince Gilligan and the rest of the people behind El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the Netflix-exclusive feature-length sequel to the acclaimed TV drama, were well qualified to accomplish.
El Camino follows fan-favorite character Jesse Pinkman, who was last seen speeding away from a gaggle of dead neonazis in the titular vehicle, as he struggles to escape his past in both a metaphorical and a very literal sense.
True to the show’s reputation as a visual novel, El Camino picks up right where Pinkman’s story left off in “Felina.” The film takes periodic detours through parts of his past we haven’t yet seen to help illuminate some of the decisions we see him make, but mostly the movie plays like a two-hour Breaking Bad episode.
That has a mixed effect on the quality of the product here. Breaking Bad was always known for its pacing, but it seems like Gilligan and company used the extra runtime as an excuse to tell their story a little more loosely. The hyper focus the film puts on Pinkman’s immediate attempts to leave Albuquerque keeps the tension high throughout, and at most times El Camino feels more like a thriller than a straight-up drama, but the movie could have probably been boiled down to two episodes of the show. It’s not that any of that extra content is bad, it’s just not as lean a cut as viewers are used to.
As anyone could have guessed, Aaron Paul’s return to his most famous role is the highlight here. For some actors (Jesse Plemons’ coldly sociopathic Todd Alquist in particular) the five-year gap following left them looking a little too plump and wrinkled, but what changes Paul underwent are used to great advantage. The Jessie in El Camino is damaged and traumatized, reeling from a year of life in a cage, and the changes in Paul’s face and performance make you feel that pain. By the end of the two hours, some of old Jessie returns, but like one character says at the outset, putting things completely right is “the one thing you can never do.” The old Jessie is gone for good.
Overall, El Camino delivers mostly the same high fans have come to expect. The film presents compelling new characters, fleshes out beloved series mainstays and provides plenty of twists to make the ride exciting. Jessie’s arc continues in a way that fits the show’s logic, with plenty of openings left for future projects should Gilligan choose to keep the story going.