When we were in the throes of Breaking Bad roughly six years ago, Sunday night couldn’t come soon enough. Each episode—even that one spent maniacally hunting a fly—left you desperately wanting more. Maybe Mad Men or The Wire were in some critical way better, but it would be hard to find a show that was more edge-of-your-seat addictive (only early 24 comes to mind). And like its meticulous protagonist, Breaking Bad tied every knot, killed every Nazi, and for better or worse, provided complete closure. At this point, the habit’s surely been kicked.
So you probably didn’t want—let alone crave—a movie sequel. With so many bodies headed for the morgue, there was only one route a sequel could even take: a coda for Jesse (Aaron Paul). When the show concluded, he’d been rescued by Walt and was speeding (and screaming) into the New Mexico night. That was enough. You could picture what came next: the psychological harm he’d carry from being chained, caged, and forced to watch his girlfriend be murdered; where he might go; and what he might do. In fiction, it’s usually best to leave some things to the viewer’s imagination. As it turns out, though, Vince Gilligan’s imagination goes to bat with most viewers’. All these years later, adventures within the world of Breaking Bad still produce a pretty awesome buzz.
El Camino, the two hour Breaking Bad movie that hit Netflix on Friday, is the rare film sequel to a popular television show that’s satisfying without being craven. That it’s also completely unnecessary is hard to ignore but easy to forget. After a flashback to a serene conversation with Mike (Jonathan Banks), Gilligan puts Jesse back behind the wheel of the Nazis’ El Camino, and things quickly rev up.
Breaking Bad always used music sparingly, and other than a flashback in which Todd (Jesse Plemons) joyously sings along to Dr. Hook’s groovy ‘70s love song “Sharing The Night Together" as he takes Jesse to bury a body, El Camino holds scant. Music is mostly in the background to set the beat and carry the rhythm—each quick and propulsive, but also deliberate and painstaking. Netflix may be marketing El Camino as a movie, but at its core it’s a detailed procedural—a step by step guide to safely getting out of Dodge without being apprehended by the police.
As Jesse moves forward, we learn more about his captivity. The torture he was subjected to. The full extent of Todd’s sociopathy. What he witnessed that’s now useful. It’s hard not to truly feel for the guy, but the flashbacks are more clinical than emotional. Jesse is on a mission, and he doesn’t do any grappling with his inevitable PTSD. El Camino is a restrained thriller, not a heavy drama.
In this (likely) final journey, Jesse faces natural setbacks, but there are no big twists or show-altering revelations. If El Camino exists to say one thing, it’s that a thorough, systematic approach to life’s problems can be learned. Despite some inevitable psychological scarring, Jesse, once a volatile meth-addict, operates with the methodical diligence of his old teacher. He naps, showers, and shaves at Skinny Pete’s (Charles Baker), and then—looking a little too fresh, really—is on his way. First step, ditch car. Second step, find Todd’s stash of money. Third step, hire Ed (the late Robert Forster, great as ever) to help him disappear. Whenever his plan breaks down, Jesse improvises swiftly and smartly. Walter would be proud. So should Gilligan. The movie’s a reminder that no TV showrunner, past or present, is better at solving problems of their own creation, and he does so in a way that’s somewhere between art and sport.
Between this and Better Call Saul, the still-running Breaking Bad prequel, Gilligan has completely filled in the details of a single universe. The only problem is what to do next. When each of these characters’ arcs are exhausted, will Gilligan be the last one stuck in the desert? Will he write a spin-off for Saul’s bodyguard Huell (Lavell Crawford)? Flynn (R.J. Mitte)? Skinny Pete? I'm sure he'd somehow make any of them compelling. But while it’s fun to watch a master veteran take his old car for another spin, after El Camino, it’s no longer what I’m jonesing for. The market is ready for a new track.
Originally Appeared on GQ