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'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie' review: Massively enjoyable wrap to Jesse Pinkman's story

Aaron Paul in "El Camino: A Breaking Bad

Aaron Paul in "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie." Credit: Netflix/Ben Rothstein

MOVIE "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie"

WHEN|WHERE Now streaming on Netflix and also screening at Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Jesse (Aaron Paul) has escaped his ordeal from the compound in the desert, where he was holed up until Walter White (Bryan Cranston) sprang one last, ingenious trap. (The finale to this classic series aired in 2013). But as he drives off into the desert, half weeping, half laughing, he has a decision to make. In a phrase, where to now? It shouldn't be too much of a shocker to reveal (the promo already did) that old pals Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) come immediately to his mind. Jesse finds his way back to Albuquerque, and there more decisions loom: What will he do about money? What will he do about the car? 

This two-hour movie — written and directed by "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, with assists from "Bad" braintrustees Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein — includes lots of callbacks, and to say which ones other than Pete and Badger would be giving away too much. 


 

MY SAY If for some crazy reason, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were angels, then Walter would have fallen completely, while Jesse would have tumbled only halfway to hell. Therefore for Jesse, there was always still time — time to find a new way forward, or perhaps the way forward, whatever way that would be. His past would be his past. That would be inescapable. But maybe, just maybe, a new Jesse would emerge from the ash heap of the old Jesse: Still resourceful, smart, and in some small but essential way, still good. The angel would stop falling. The angel would then go … where?

Jesse is no angel, but that's still the essential throughline of this excellent addition to the "Breaking Bad" canon, which unfolds over just a few days after his escape from Uncle Jack's compound. There was always much more story to that canon, even if much of it has already unfolded in the prequel world of "Better Call Saul." But what about Jesse? He needed completion. He gets that here.

As you probably already suspect, "El Camino" of the title refers to the Spanish phrase — "the way" — and to the car. The glorious old gas hog was introduced in 1959 as a "coupe utility," an unbeautiful combination of muscle car and pickup truck. Jesse escapes in Todd's (Jesse Plemons) El Camino, and then later switches to Skinny Pete's  1987 Pontiac Fiero GT. Countless columns and perhaps an unreadable book or two have been written about the symbolism of cars in "Breaking Bad," so just to quickly condense all those for you: Cars are people in the "Breaking Bad" universe. At first they are new, then slowly age, break down, and are finally abandoned as rusted skeletons under the desert sun, home for a murder of crows and a scorpion or two. Ashes to ashes, rust to rust. 

Cars are the perfect symbol for the entropy of that "Breaking Bad"universe, and the perfect metaphor for the "Breaking Bad" show and movie too, which are also about transformation: How one chemical can be rendered into something entirely new, how one person can as well. "El Camino" gets straight to that particular point when Jesse finally shaves after his wild ride through the desert night. He's about to become someone new, while for the first time in his life, Jesse also has agency: There is no Walter or Mike to tell him what to do or where to go, no Gus or Uncle Jack or Todd either. They are all dead. It's now up to Jesse to find his way forward, to find out who Jesse really is.

Over these two taut, brilliantly directed hours, he does. "El Camino" has a pair of interrelated timelines. The first (in present time) is directly tied to the second (which unfolds  in the not-too-distant past). Neither timeline can exist independently of the other, and consequently, neither could this movie exist. Their plot points are what make it all work, what helps Jesse find that way.

He's fallen. He gets up. "El Camino" shows how, in a deeply satisfying way.

 BOTTOM LINE Massively enjoyable wrap to the Jesse Pinkman story, and better still, the right one. 

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