The question was always: could it be pulled off?
One of the last mega-hit series to enjoy its lifespan before the true dominance of on-demand streaming and binging, Breaking Bad was a show built on careful, meticulous craft – one of a select few capable of justifying not just 13-episode seasons, but 16 episodes of its fifth and final run, which ended in 2013.
It was written with expert hands, narratives woven, deep and never rushed, while keen-eyed viewers were rewarded for solving cryptic clues dangled teasingly in pre-title sequences or spying minuscule details. It was the kind of show with the balls to devote a 47-minute chapter to the pursuit of a fly; the kind of show with such deliberate pacing that not everyone went with it.
The prequel show, Better Call Saul, is no different and arguably exhibits those traits more intensely. There are murmurs from critics and fans alike that Better Call Saul – which releases its episodes weekly on Netflix with a fifth season due next year – has actually outstripped Breaking Bad.
So there was no objective evidence that the creator of both shows, Vince Gilligan, could pull it off again within the parameters of a two-hour film. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie marks Gilligan’s feature-length directorial debut and first film screenwriting credit since co-writing the middling Hancock 11 years ago.
Any such reservations over what could be achieved here centred around the presumption that El Camino would be something of a new whole, a separate arc and crucially a standalone film.
But it is none of those things.
What El Camino is, is much more of an epilogue or an extended 17th episode of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season than anything that attempts to begin again or reach new viewers. Crucially, both it and Gilligan are aware of its limitations and what is, and isn’t, appropriate.
Certainly, it would not be impossible to enjoy without prior viewing of Breaking Bad. The cinematography is at times breathtaking without ever being flashy – it is as if this sort of dexterity and aesthetic vibrancy comes to the film-makers without second thought, often most striking when most mundane. A character’s face illuminated by the contrasting colours of a TV set. The bright interior of a modern apartment. The labyrinthine lines on an ageing man’s face.
But the vast majority of viewers will bring all their anticipation to the film having seen and loved Breaking Bad, knowing where the story leaves off and itching to reunite with those characters. Naturally, that position drives the joy to be found here.
As is by now well-documented, the narrative follows what happens to former crystal meth cook and escaped prisoner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) following the spectacular and violent Breaking Bad finale. The events depicted are, however, split between that timeframe and extended sequences from during the latter moments of Breaking Bad – sequences we presumably did not see previously due to being in the company of Walter White.
That is essentially the plot, and the nature of Jesse’s goal is not unpredictable or a subversion of how you may have imagined him to carry on. Nor is it particularly spectacular – but, in a way fans of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are familiar with, the fireworks do come and are well worth the wait.
Narrative is not the triumph – execution is. The elevation of the apparently mundane is remarkable. Silence is so often deployed with mighty significance; dialogue is economical and never expository. A Dave Porter soundtrack seems to breathe and gasp as tension builds. Some closure is there for those who seek it and the melancholic tone of the original series survives.
Character cameos and easter eggs of course abound and are handled in the only way they could be – with beaming euphoria, yes – but more importantly without great fanfare or spectacle. One scene has the kind of searing poignancy only achieved – in fiction or in real life – by simple conversation.
Fans will rejoice at the way El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie picks up where Breaking Bad left off not only in terms of narrative, but in its expert craft. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it is this good.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is on Netflix now