During the series finale of “Breaking Bad,” a trailer ran for a widely forgotten movie based on a video game. That movie was “Need for Speed,” starring none other than Jesse Pinkman himself, Aaron Paul. The trailer’s placement and Paul’s career future looked bright as ever, yet, as happens far too often with iconic television personalities, he could never quite outrun his meth cooking, “yeah bitch” persona.
Now, Paul returns to the character that made him famous and the writer who understands his frequency like no one else.
“El Camino” takes place in the immediate aftermath of the “Breaking Bad” finale. With every law enforcement officer in the area after Pinkman, he turns to a group of old acquaintances and tries to get out of Albuquerque. While that’s the substance of “El Camino,” much of the story is told via flashback. After months of torment and imprisonment, the Pinkman of “El Camino” isn’t the same character who served as the heart of “Breaking Bad,” and writer-director Vince Gilligan seems most interested in understanding how Jesse arrived at this moment of self-reflection.
“El Camino” may not be as perfect of an entry into the “Breaking Bad” canon as another spinoff, “Better Call Saul,” but it is a high-tension crime drama loaded with talented actors. Gilligan understands that given 62 episodes of back story, “El Camino” can dispense with all exposition and instead act as a mix of a meditative character study, a high-octane thriller and perfectly pitched fan service.
With the flashbacks serving as a framework, Gilligan allows former “Breaking Bad” cast members to return, and none are as imposing or mesmerizing as Jesse Plemons’s Todd. Plemons plays the character perfectly, with a blank, unexamined mania that acts as the best part of the film. Plemons may very well be the best character actor of his generation, and this performance goes to show that with the proper role, he can steal the screen from anyone.
Paul’s performance as Pinkman is a bit more complicated. Because Pinkman has changed so fundamentally throughout the show, the character in the present timeline feels almost unrecognizable, especially when contrasted with the Pinkman who appears in flashback sequences. Pinkman has obviously stockpiled trauma and emotional abuse over the show’s run, and Paul appears to be reckoning with how a character can regain their humanity after so much pain.
Paul is at his best when he has a foil to play off — that goes for Todd, Badger, Skinny Pete and Ed, the human smuggling vacuum cleaner salesman played by Robert Forster. An Academy Award-nominated actor, Forster passed away on Friday following the release of “El Camino.” His performance, and the back and forth nature of Pinkman and Ed’s relationship, give Paul the most room to maneuver, allowing life to creep back into the performance. Ed is a calculated update of Forster’s most iconic role, bail bondsman Max Cherry in “Jackie Brown.” Forster plays the character with the same steady delivery and street-wise intelligence, always a few steps ahead of everyone else onscreen.
The most common critique of “El Camino” is its existence. “Breaking Bad” arguably had the greatest ending of any show in television history, and any attempt to return to the main storyline would be met with fan skepticism. But after spending the last season of the show being imprisoned and tortured, maybe closure is all fans could wish for Pinkman.
Gilligan still operates “El Camino” with the same clockwork precision of the series but now appears to have sympathy for who this character is and everything that’s been done to him over the last 11 years. As Skinny Pete tells Pinkman, “You’re, like, my hero and shit.” Even though Pinkman hasn’t always been the moral guideline that fans hoped he could be, he always deserved better. With “El Camino,” he finally has it, and just like Skinny Pete says, he’s our hero, too.