Blogging ‘Bad’: ‘El Camino’ (2019) puts Jesse in the spotlight for a grace note to ‘Breaking Bad’ (Movie review)

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ver six Sundays, we’re looking back at the five seasons (and one movie) of one of the last decade’s elite TV series: AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Wrapping it up is “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” (October 2019, Netflix):

“Breaking Bad” Season 5, which wrapped in 2013, nicely balances multiple storylines and points of view while keeping the focus on Walter (Bryan Cranston). I wouldn’t change a thing about those final few episodes. Yet they do leave room for more of the arc of Jesse (Aaron Paul). When last we see him, he’s screaming in rage after killing Todd (Jesse Plemons) and escaping from his captors in an El Camino.

But as we find out early in “El Camino,” writer-director Vince Gilligan’s 2-hour gift to fans, Jesse is still a person of interest for law enforcement. Plus – and I didn’t think about this much because those final episodes have such high stakes for Walter – Jesse was being held in a cage, forced to make meth for Todd and his gang. This leaves an emotional scar in addition to the physical ones from when Todd beats him into compliance off-screen.

“El Camino” lets us in to Jesse’s trauma as it works toward a happy(ish) ending for this young man who, yes, got himself into the drug trade, but really didn’t deserve to be punished this much. And it answers the question of how a “Breaking Bad” story plays without Walter as the focal point. It loses something for sure, yet this movie is worth doing, and Gilligan does it smartly – focusing on Jesse while also giving us humor and action.

Jesse eats lunch with Walt in a diner after a successful cook and reminds him: “I totally graduated high school, dick.” Ah, the good old days.

The film is leisurely paced (by “BB” standards), meditative and packed with flashbacks as Jesse works his way toward a quiet and safe life, starting with a peaceful riverside scene where Mike (Jonathan Banks) mentions that Alaska would be a nice place to start fresh. It never feels like fan service, yet “El Camino” does touch the memory-lane bases with cameos from Cranston, Banks and Krysten Ritter (as the love of Jesse’s life, Jane).

There’s bittersweet nostalgia here as we’re reminded of the utter carnage that was “BB” (Jesse is the most major character who is still alive). He eats lunch with Walt in a diner after a successful cook and reminds him: “I totally graduated high school, dick.” Ah, the good old days.

Without Hank (R.I.P.) around to lead the charge, there’s less of a sense that Jesse will get caught. That might not make logical sense, but it feels right for this story about Walt’s second-in-command. It’s not personal for anyone now tasked with reining in Jesse – well, except for maybe Mr. and Mrs. Pinkman (Michael Bofshever and Tess Harper), who go on the news and ask their son to turn himself in. When Jesse encounters two “cops” while searching for money in Todd’s pad, they aren’t really cops; Jesse’s danger zone is street-level thievery, not the “nationwide manhunt” variety that is Walt’s M.O.

In other words, if you were satisfied with the end of Season 5, thinking “Jesse will get away now” you were right to feel that way. It’s not totally lacking in tension, but this movie is more about character than plot. Jesse has to want to get away from Albuquerque in addition to achieving the steps of getting away.

The best stuff happens early in the movie, when Charles Baker and Matt Jones shine as Skinny Pete and Badger, respectively. They’ve always brought a delightful idiot brand of humor to “BB” (Badger’s idea for a “Star Trek” episode in Season 5 is arguably the series’ most laugh-out-loud moment), and Gilligan must’ve loved writing the opening sequence where they totally come through for the on-the-run Jesse. Skinny Pete is on his game as a host, providing a “mostly” clean towel and a fresh bar of Irish Spring for his guest, who he ultimately tells: “Dude, you’re my hero ’n’ shit.”

Then “El Camino” shifts its brand of humor to the pitch-black variety served up by Todd. In the film’s longest flashback, Todd takes Jesse out of his cage for a day because he needs help moving the body of his cleaning lady, who made the mistake of finding money stashed in his apartment. (And also so they can grab a pizza. Rather chillingly, Jesse qualifies as a friend in Todd’s world.) Todd killed the lady on the spot because that’s his solution for these situations. But as stone-cold sociopathic killers go, Todd’s a good one: He aims to bury her “someplace pretty” in the desert.

At the same time, we get a greater sense of Jesse’s horrific captivity under Todd and his uncle’s gang, something that was a side note in Season 5. Todd is oddly likeable moment by moment, yet out of all the people killed off in “BB’s” run, he might be the one who most needs to die for the betterment of the world.

Giving immediacy – and a not-yet-dead villain — to “El Camino” is Scott MacArthur’s welder/crook Neil. In flashbacks, he constructs the chain system that holds Jesse while he cooks meth for Todd’s gang. We immediately hate Neil, so the core of the present-day story becomes Jesse hunting him down. As always with Jesse, it’s not for revenge – it’s because he needs $1,800 more to pay Ed (Robert Forster) in order to disappear to Alaska – yet Gilligan gives us the catharsis of Jesse squaring off with a pure slimeball.

As for that titular car? Badger leads the cops on a wild goose chase, totally off-screen. Jesse may be a person of interest for police detectives, but Walter was a person of interest for his own brother-in-law and rival drug dealers. Jesse has stayed comparatively under the radar, content with $1,800 when Walter might’ve seen the possibility of $180 million. So when he gets that fresh start, we’re glad for him, and for one last blast of the “Breaking Bad” story.