By Darren Franich
October 11, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Ben Rothstein/Netflix
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Aaron Paul looks so old in El Camino, but only because he was so young on Breaking Bad. Rewatch the 2008 premiere, see the inaugural Jesse Pinkman: haircut like some boy band’s token skatepunk, fashion sense out of Malibu’s Most Wanted, Paul’s kindergarten eyes aging his twentysomething meth cook teenward. In the sequel film El Camino (streaming now on Netflix), Paul’s drowning in a beard, wrinkled with dirt-dust. A shower doesn’t help. The scars on his cheek suggest a grizzly bear mauling. He’s haunted by flashbacks, a TV character outracing his own dead show.

It’s been six actual years since the series finale of AMC’s mesmerizing drug-empire drama sent Jesse screaming into the night. El Camino picks up that same millisecond, after a cameo-ghost prologue. (This review will reveal everything, be warned.) Faces are rounder, and one famously bald head has an unfamiliar prosthetic quality. In its last season, Bad revealed that its first 50 episodes took place in one year, between birthdays. That storytelling decision was secretly baffling, retroactively accelerating seismic, character-shifting rehab visits and marital separations into, like, weeklong events.

So technically, El Camino takes place just a couple years after the original series premiere. (Jesse’s brother, a teen in 2008, disappears on “a band trip to London.”) But time flows sideways in Breaking Bad’s ever-sizzling Albuquerque, a sun-blasted desert deco underland of meticulous criminality. Creator Vince Gilligan and his collaborators already spun off with the frequently wonderful origin tale Better Call Saul. And now Gilligan has written and directed El Camino, which sequel-prequels freely between past and present.

Paul impressively juggles multiple eras of Pinkmania: “Yeah, bitch!”-ing meth student, wuvvy romantic, wrecking ball of soul-scabbed vengeance. And god, Gilligan loves this milieu: paranoid pastel catalog apartments, plain-sight master criminals sincerely dedicated to their shell-company chicken shacks and vacuum dens. The most tense sequence in El Camino depends on the gabby old kook from down the hall ever-so-slowly watering plants with a plastic spray bottle.

Bad was already a stylish thriller, trending toward Luciferian chromatic extremes. In El Camino, Gilligan directs energetically, with a bigger-looking budget (that fleet of police cars!) deployed more for high anxiety than flashy pyrotechnics. Taut close-ups cut out to ultra-wide shots. A gun showdown rapid-edits between faces, firearms, and one sucker holding his cocaine straw for dear life. And the desert! At one point, in the middle of a body-disposal setpiece, Gilligan montages marvelous landscape images, cinematically drunk on the arid expanse, daring you to guess how many other poor saps are buried out there.

El Camino is a playful project, very fun, not always necessary. It’s an alternate series finale, a reunion special — and, maybe, an elaborate make-good. I love a lot of Breaking Bad, and I still think the show whiffed when it mostly banished Jesse in the last few episodes. His central role became a sidelong ramification, one more piece of collateral damage in the fallrise of Walter White (Bryan Cranston).

Not a big deal, maybe; Paul won his third Emmy for that season. Did Gilligan feel, deep down, like he owed the character something more? With Walt left for dead in the Bad finale, El Camino becomes Jesse’s story, through and through. Flashbacks let deceased favorites like mentor Mike (Jonathan Banks), girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter), and Walt himself prod Jesse toward a lifestyle change: “Only you can decide what’s best for you,” they’ll say, and “What about you, Jesse?”

Walt’s appearance is quietly sorrowful, poignantly resurrecting the lost promise of their surrogate father-son dynamic. The other cameos are a tad interchangeable, but there is a great lost Breaking Bad episode in El Camino, hiding like a cash pile in a fridge door.

It’s an extended B-plot sidekicking Jesse to Todd (Jesse Plemons), the way-too-diligent Heisenberglet who gateway-drugged the blue methlords into Uncle Jack’s clutches. Plemons turned into one of this decade’s most exciting performers, carrying the most murder-y traits of his lovable Friday Night Lights nerd into Breaking Bad, Fargo, an all-time Black Mirror, and a magnetic comic performance (robbed of an Oscar, robbed!!!) in Game Night.

El Camino prequelizes Todd into a freaky two-hander with the imprisoned Jesse. He’s introduced shadow-first, talking amiably about the weather. (The report predicted rainclouds, but he can only see “regular cloudclouds.”) Then he takes Jesse to his apartment for some afternoon corpse disposal, then out to the desert, then (maybe) out for pepperoni.

Todd was always an only-half-knowable grotesque, one of those Jim Thompson-y fellas who could be a lucky simpleton or an evil genius. (God, imagine Plemons in a Pop. 1280 adaptation, directed by Gilligan!) El Camino deepens his man-child mystique. Todd apologetically removes his belt from his dead maid’s strangled neck… and puts it right back on his waist. Driving, he sings Dr. Hook’s “Sharing the Night Together” with the window down, and little kid-ishly begs a big-rig trucker to honk-honk going by.

The Todd sequences are hallucinatory, and Paul finds new notes of terror-comedy in his reactions. Meanwhile, in the present-day scenes, Paul whittles his natural exuberance down to season 5’s traumatized exhaustion. Jesse’s plan is B-movie simple — get enough money, get out of town — and it’s a kick to see Paul play off Robert Forster, as New Mexico’s latest and greatest mom-and-pop-businessman-slash-underworld-deity.

The doofuses at Kandy Welding Co. are believably loathsome enemy parasites. And the final showdown lets Gilligan indulge himself as a Western filmmaker. It’s an example of the pinpoint technical proficiency that runs through El Camino: the cathartic crash of one henchbum’s body through a vending machine, the casual flames rising out of Jesse’s jacket. Still, “Oh, there was another gun in his jacket pocket!” is a step down from the Rube Goldberg-taking-AP-chemistry cleverness of Heisenberg’s best heists.

What’s lacking in this entertaining pulp quest, I think, is some essential surprise. The serene Alaskan ending can’t compare with the unpindownable madness of Jesse’s series-finale scream. Back then, Paul’s bruised face exploded with every emotion every human has ever felt. At the close of El Camino, he just looks happy to be here: A good vibe, but I prefer to feel bad. B+

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