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Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

October 16, 2019

‘El Camino’: A Spinoff That Works

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Breaking Bad has always been ahead of the curve. The neo-western crime television drama aired on AMC, establishing itself as one of the most popular shows of its time. While most contemporary dramas fizzle out and struggle to neatly tie up the complex worlds and characters they have created (think Game of Thrones), what made Breaking Bad a truly great television show was its ability to maintain the gold standard in terms of quality and consistency throughout its run. Rare is it to find a conclusion to a story as satisfactory and as universally accepted as what the show was able to achieve through its final episode “Felina.” To top that off, the creators have managed to create a successful (and perhaps better?) prequel in Better Call Saul. In many ways, it truly has been a unique and special franchise. However, when it was announced that the show will have a spin-off movie, set hours after the events of “Felina,”  I was initially very skeptical. What more is there left to be said about the characters whose arcs were so expertly ended by the show creators? More importantly, and as is so often the case with sequels and spin-offs, will the creators be disloyal to the themes and characters that made the show what it is?

As is the case with its predecessor, El Camino is a story about transformation, this time of its lovable but grief-stricken Jesse Pinkman (to all the conspiracy theorists out there: Walter White is not alive). Jesse (Aaron Paul) is dealing with the severe trauma of the events of the show that saw him kicked out of his own home, have his face severely disfigured by a cop, witness the death of two of his lovers, commit murder and, last and most recent, being captured and tortured at the hands of a neo-Nazi group. It has been a rough ride for him and he is understandably looking for a fresh start to his life.

However, as Breaking Bad has always reminded us, in the opening flashback deceased character Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathon Banks) tells Jesse that the one thing he cannot do is run away from the past and avoid the consequences of the actions that got him where he is. The movie is about Jesse’s struggle to leave his old, wretched life behind. This journey is literally and symbolically achieved in the El Camino, the car in which Jesse drove away in the events of “Felina.” Jesse’s struggle to deal with his past is achieved through flashbacks, most of them revolving around his time as prisoner of the neo-Nazi group. As expected, these flashbacks are gruesome and painful to watch; one particularly impactful scene occurs when Jesse, having received the opportunity to finally free himself by acquiring a gun, completely loses his inner fight and hands back the gun to his heartless and much-hated captor Todd (Jesse Plemons). Present-day Jesse is still very much dealing with these mental scars as the situation almost completely repeats itself when Jesse surrenders himself to the thugs from the welding company, after having almost acquired the cash necessary for his identity change.

Through these flashbacks, we see a lot more of Todd too, and as much as I despise the character, it speaks volumes of Plemons’ ability as an actor to once again portray the cold-hearted Todd with utmost believability and aplomb. This movie is all about Aaron Paul, though, as he once again gives a stirring performance as the PTSD-stricken, more reserved but smarter Jesse.

There might be a question as to why a sequel was needed in the first place. It would not be too wild a guess to have assumed that the events of the movie would happen to Jesse in the immediate aftermath of “Felina.” In addition, moments like Jesse exclaiming “Yeah Bitch!”, re-emergence of lovable fools Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) and even a flashback of Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse together give weight to the idea that this was a simple fan-service sequel.

Indeed, El Camino is incredibly similar to its source material. We have the characteristic neo-western feel with big set pieces, bleak, somber settings and slow-moving plot and action. However, what makes El Camino really work is its loyalty to its predecessor’s themes. The reason that the series finale was met with universal approval was that it showed its characters dealing with the consequences for what they did, in a way getting what they deserved. El Camino’s success lies in that it doesn’t try and change that fact for Jesse. Jesse still gets what he deserves based on his actions on the show and the movie is simply about his transformation of getting there.

Saksham Mohan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at sm985@cornell.edu.