“Nothing beats cash on-hand”
Obviously contains “Breaking Bad” spoilers.
I’m neither alone in this thinking nor objectively correct, but “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor “Breaking Bad”. I didn’t even really get into the latter until the season three finale and even then it was tough to stay invested in its cast of monsters doing monstrous things to each other ad nauseam. I say that because they used to be good people—or at least innocent of murder. The intrigue was therefore rooted in how deep they’d fall. Since Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) endgame is already known, his prequel series is allowed to be tragic insofar as showing how the world forces his hand. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) don’t have that opportunity. They’re the ones causing the tragedy.
I get it. People adore the show because of its anti-hero sentiments. I found it too redundant and over-the-top to truly remain dialed-in throughout. I did, however, enjoy the ending and how it more or less erased a lot of that darkness we were asked to accept on faith. Creator Vince Gilligan didn’t redeem White as much as allow him to win the chance at redemption for the protégé he doomed to a life of PTSD, heartache, and enslavement at the hands of white supremacists. He realized that beyond the meth, money, and empire lay a teenager who followed his lead and was destroyed in the process at a much younger age and better health than he was. He set the only real family he had left free.
And that leads us to El Camino, a feature-length sequel set directly after the last “Breaking Bad” episode despite being filmed six years later. So right off the bat things are wonky since teenage Jesse was portrayed by a thirty-year old actor back then and now continues to be a teenager portrayed by the same actor at forty. While the suspension of disbelief for Odenkirk playing a younger Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill is one thing, Paul talking about Jesse’s youth and opportunities after walking away from White is another. But that’s a product of the narrative constraints set forth and the decision (which I’ll admit never crossed my mind back then) that the entire original show takes place over just two years. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.
I say all this because the film is ostensibly an expanded episode of the show. It doesn’t make sense if you hadn’t seen the hit series first (the fan service callbacks and cameos demand your familiarity). Judging this chapter without those facts does the whole a disservice because El Camino will always be an extension of what came before it rather than a standalone journey removed from that legacy. I wish that weren’t the case, but it’s impossible not to cringe at moments shared with Jesse’s parents talking about their troubled son or White and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) asking what he’ll do next like he’s still a kid. There’s this strange thematic uncanny valley that gets created and it’s hard to ignore. I did genuinely try, though.
Even then it’s difficult to understand Gilligan’s goal besides a desire to revisit one of the few characters left to revisit. Because at the end of the day, letting Jesse ride off into that sunset with a maniacal laugh after killing the man (Jesse Plemons‘ Todd) who killed his girlfriend is more attuned to what we had been given. This hope for a happy end seems less like a necessary extension than an attempt to give Pinkman the introspective drama Saul earned, but that only works with five well-crafted seasons built upon stakes. To force the conclusion of this character’s arc into two hours doesn’t allow it to be more than a revenge flick undertaken by a man we can’t just blindly forgive because he was abused too.
So here he is the aftermath of Walter White’s demise—scarred, terrified, and helpless. All he has is the late Todd’s car and the hope that his former friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) will give him refuge to figure out the next step. From there Gilligan creates convenient memories to moments that will supply him the chance at quickly culling together the money he needs to buy a fresh start (the one coming courtesy of Robert Forster‘s Ed that he rejected many episodes ago). This entry point allows for some nice nostalgia by reuniting with the old crew, some awkwardly comedic flashbacks with the always-wonderful Plemons, and a manufactured quasi villain in welder Neil Kandy (Scott MacArthur). What more will Jesse have to do?
The answer is simultaneously too much for one movie and not enough to satisfy. Give us a season of television to spread the memories out and not just exploit his PTSD once for shock value before ignoring it completely. Give us the time to re-familiarize ourselves with Pinkman and remember why it is we want him to succeed. Throwing us right back into the action and letting him move as though fate is driving (esoterically metaphorical explanation courtesy of Krysten Ritter‘s Jane talking about how she went where the universe took her aside) isn’t enough. Yes it’s fun to see these characters again and be back in this world, but “Better Call Saul” does exactly that in a substantive manner. El Camino is saddled with a hollow center.
courtesy of Ben Rothstein / Netflix