The biggest compliment one can pay El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is to say that it doesn’t detract from the legacy of one of the greatest television shows of all time. We knew we were in good hands with Vince Gilligan. Better Call Saul has proven that he, as a showrunner, knows how to play in the Breaking Bad sandbox again without destroying the castle he built before. Now, for the first time, Gilligan has stepped behind the camera as a movie director as he checks back in on the character of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and shows us what happened to him following the events of Breaking Bad.

El Camino also takes us on a trip down memory lane with Jesse, flashing back to some unseen episodes from his past as he embarks on a new Neo-Western adventure in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The stakes this time are simple: Jesse needs to get the hell out of Dodge. The police have flagged him as a “person of interest” in a local massacre and he’s also dealing with post-traumatic stress. What follows is a two-hour Netflix movie with all the event-filled turns of Breaking Bad. It’s an epilogue to the series that occasionally detours down some narrative cul-de-sacs where familiar faces lurk. Buckle your seatbelts and let’s take our own spoiler-filled ride through El Camino.

El Camino Mike

Old Friends Aplenty and Flashbacks Galore

El Camino trots out a number of returning characters from Breaking Bad and the first of these is Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks). The movie opens with a flashback to a time before Mike died in the season 5 episode “Say My Name.” Mike and Jesse stand by a river and Mike tells him, “Only you can decide what’s best for you.” Jesse has decided that he’s going to leave the drug business and Mike tells him that the one thing he can never do is “put things right.”

It’s a quiet scene that calls back to Mike’s death by the riverside at the hands of the nefarious Walter White. The sound of the flowing river current imparts a sense of calm, right before we cut to Jesse with a beard, wailing and beating the steering wheel of the titular El Camino. He’s just escaped with his life at the end of Breaking Bad. The intentionally jarring juxtaposition of these two scenes helps remind us of how much Jesse has been through since he first took up cooking meth with his high school chemistry teacher all those years ago.

He’s not the same cocksure kid he was when we first met him. There are moments in El Camino where the old Jesse does resurface, but — just in case you skipped the recap intro, or are fuzzy on the particulars of a show that ended six years ago — let’s not forget that this is a guy who has endured torture at the hands of neo-Nazis. Not only that, Jesse has watched people he cares about, like Jane and Brock’s mom, die because of his involvement in a criminal enterprise with Walter.

The Jesse we follow in the present timeline of El Camino is a shellshocked individual who bears the scars, both physical and mental, of Breaking Bad. In his getaway car, he knocks over mailboxes and basketball nets on his way to a house where Badger and Skinny Pete (Matt Jones and Charles Baker) sit ragging on each other while playing video games. We’re back in this world and it feels like we never left … though some of the actors do look different, older and heavier than the last time we saw them.

Aaron Paul was in his late 20s when they started filming the first season of Breaking Bad. Now he’s 40. On Hulu’s The Path (I’m a sucker for any show with a religion called Meyerism), Paul played the father of a teenage son, but in El Camino, the very first scene has Mike calling Jesse a “teenage retiree.”

This disparity between the appearance of certain actors, now, and the way they looked in Breaking Bad spikes El Camino with a surreal quality, as faces slip back into old roles but seem slightly out of synch. The only thing I can compare it to is the Hannibal Lecter franchise, where Anthony Hopkins looks older in the prequel Red Dragon (2002) than he does in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It’s more noticeable when you watch the films back to back and it makes me wonder if it would add a hiccup to the flow for future viewers who might watch Breaking Bad straight through, followed directly by El Camino.

As it is, El Camino services fans who have aged right alongside Jesse by letting them see him and the band get back together, one last time. If Breaking Bad can be regarded as something of a modern Shakespearean tragedy, then Badger and Skinny would be Hamlet’s Gravediggers. They’re the comic relief and Jesse’s safety net. In the house with them, Jesse wolfs down instant noodles and collapses in bed, only to wake up frantic the next morning, not knowing where he is.

Seeing news of Walter’s death and machine-gun massacre on television has a twofold effect in El Camino. For those of us who were there, like Badger and Skinny Pete, it lends the events of Breaking Bad a mythic quality. Yet it simultaneously reduces them to a local news story and we realize that for all his bluster about being “the one who knocks,” Walter’s story is ultimately one that would be a blip on most people’s TV radar before they went about their usual business the rest of the day.

On Breaking Bad, Jesse was, for all intents and purposes, Walter’s sidekick, but in El Camino, he’s now the main character. The thing is, he seems to be suffering from PTSD. This renders him less than voluble and forces him into a passive role at times, as he listens to other characters talk. Skinny Pete suddenly seems like more of an overeager, take-charge kind of guy than he ever was on the show. When they realize that the El Camino has LoJack and the cops are on the way, it’s Skinny Pete who forms a proactive plan, offering to stay with it while Jesse takes his car. “You’re my hero and shit,” he says. Pinkman, too, has sidekicks.

He isn’t the only Jesse returning for El Camino, either. There’s also Jesse Plemons, the actor who plays Todd Alquist. Todd is still cheerfully non-empathic, capable of polite talk about the weather but lacking in basic social awareness of how others might feel. We see a lost episode from Jesse’s captivity where Todd lets him out of his cage and enlists his aid in disposing of a body. Todd has killed his cleaning lady but for him, it was nothing personal, just business, and a bad stroke of luck on her part.

That’s Todd. His presence in flashbacks, where he sings to himself in a one-man game of carpool karaoke, helps carry the movie during its middle section, as the Jesse of the present gets bogged down ransacking his dead tormenter’s apartment for money. At times, it does feel like El Camino starts to digress too much with its flashbacks, draining the present of urgency as we get more involved in these vignettes from the past. The flashbacks invariably come back around and feed into the post-Breaking Bad storyline; it just feels like we get so far down the rabbit hole with them sometimes that the present plot loses a bit of momentum.

This is temporary, a minor speed bump that El Camino hits as it gets back into the old Breaking Bad groove of subverting plot expectations. The movie keeps itself engaging in the present by veering left when you think it’s going to veer right. Just when Old Joe from the junkyard is about to bail Jesse out, he detects the LoJack and realizes that the police are on their way. Just when Jesse finds the money in the door of Todd’s fridge, two men’s shadows appear outside the window. Just when Jesse tries to heed his parents’ TV-news advice and give himself up to these two ostensible policemen, it’s revealed that they aren’t policemen at all, but rather, a couple of thugs who are after the same money he is.

This week, I happened to rewatch Pulp Fiction for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and if you’re aware of how parts of Breaking Bad were inspired by that movie, it’s easy to see El Camino as a feature-length riff on “The Gold Watch,” the Bruce Willis segment of Pulp Fiction. Jesse’s just trying to get out of town but along the way, he faces some serious complications. The reappearance of Robert Forster, who passed away the day El Camino hit Netflix, also serves as a reminder of his defining role in Jackie Brown.

Forster plays Ed Galbraith, a.k.a. the Disappearer, who specializes in relocating people, setting them up with fake identities and new lives elsewhere. Ed first and last appeared in Breaking Bad‘s penultimate episode, “Granite State.” In El Camino, Jesse tracks him down to his vacuum cleaner store, fumbling over the password but saying he’s 96% sure Ed is the guy. This feels like the old Jesse. Unfortunately, Jesse needs to scrounge up more money before he can acquire Ed’s services as an extractor.

A Gun Duel and Clemency for Jesse

Breaking Bad has been identified as a Neo-Western. That’s not a genre label that is especially important to one’s enjoyment of the show; most people would probably just think of it as a crime drama. However, El Camino goes all in on the Neo-Western emblems with a tense, climactic, gunslinger-like duel between Jesse and Neil (Scott MacArthur), the owner of Kandy Welding Co.

“Like the Wild West?” Jesse says. “Yeah, like the Wild West,” Neil confirms, as he exposes the .45 on his belt. Compared to the likes of Hector Salamanca and Gus Fring (names that are distinct and easy to remember), Neil doesn’t make for a very fearsome or memorable antagonist. Maybe that’s the point, that he’s just some schlub, a low-level operator in Albuquerque’s criminal underworld.

At one point, Neil says to Jesse, “I was wondering when you were going to remember me.” He might as well be talking to the audience. I had a moment where I thought maybe he was a character I had forgotten about from Breaking Bad, but no, this is a new character who’s been inserted into flashbacks of Jesse’s captivity as if he were there all along. Neil, it seems, is the welder who built an unbreakable metal leash for Jesse back when Jesse was being forced to cook meth for Todd’s uncle and his gang of white supremacists.

That’s the thing about Jesse: he’s always been kept on a leash. Todd tells him, “Life’s what you make it,” but like his deceased girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), Jesse has gone where the universe takes him his whole life. When he goes to confront Neil and his crew, it almost feels like history is about to repeat itself and the movie is building toward a showdown like the one that finally claimed Walter’s life at the end of Breaking Bad. Jesse’s more likable than Walter, however, so we’re rooting for him not to go out in a hail of bullets. We don’t want to see him die on some suicide run. We want him to escape to a better life, and that’s what he does after winning the gun duel and torching the welding company.

There’s no better place for a cowboy to be than “the last frontier,” Alaska. The ending of El Camino contrasts Jesse’s peaceful driving state with his earlier wailing one. Jesse has undergone a real arc through the series and in this movie. In short: he’s changed. That’s the foundation on which Breaking Bad was built.

Gilligan once told Newsweek, “Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades. When I realized this, the next logical step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” Limiting Breaking Bad to five seasons (the second season was split in half) and putting its protagonist through an arc from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to unsympathetic drug kingpin helped set Breaking Bad apart from other long-shambling dramas like The Walking Dead. For years, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead shared time slots on the same network, AMC, yet The Walking Dead has intentionally taken the opposite approach to storytelling: drawing out its never-ending zombie tale over ten seasons and counting.

Breaking Bad, by contrast, is a show that knew when to leave the party. Now it’s stopping back by, just to say hi. With its fundamental drive toward change (chemistry is, after all, about transformation), the show was able to keep itself from stagnating, and that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. Even as Lost took flak for making things up as it went along, Breaking Bad would famously paint itself into narrative corners and then come up with new, Houdini-like (or should I say, Heisenberg-like) ways to escape. El Camino upholds that tradition on a scene-by-scene scale.

The movie withholds its Walter White flashback card until the very end. It wouldn’t be Breaking Bald, er, Bad, unless Gilligan indulged his apparent fetish for shaved heads. (There were at least four major cue balls on the show, plus Gus Fring, the Salamanca twins, and others I’m probably forgetting.) This time, Bryan Cranston is wearing a bald cap as Walter. His scene with Jesse doesn’t feel essential to the plot, but then again, the movie itself has been called unnecessary by a fair number of critics.

El Camino trades on nostalgia in a number of ways, throwing back to Breaking Bad’s season 5 magnet caper in dialogue and alluding to Walter’s ricin victim, Lydia, with a line on the news about “the poisoning of a Houston woman.” Walter’s appearance onscreen is more or less the last hit song that the movie needs to play as it winds down this two-hour concert where it has interwoven new material with go-to standards like “Mike,” “Badger and Skinny Pete,” and “Todd.”

Jesse always played second fiddle to Walter and was originally supposed to die in the series; El Camino grants him some much-needed independence. It would be interesting if Breaking Bad had killed off Walter in its penultimate episode, then used the present-set parts of this movie for its finale. But it was Walter’s story, and people were satisfied with the ending they got for him. Less so with Jesse, perhaps, for some diehard fans who were always curious to know what happened to him after the finale.

Gilligan also once told The New York Times, “If there’s a larger lesson to Breaking Bad, it’s that actions have consequences. If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished.”

The flip side of that is the human desire for clemency. In this respect, El Camino, the Neo-Western, can be seen as something of a “Forgiven” to Clint Eastwood’s UnforgivenEven if Jesse does shoot some (bad) guys and lure his parents away from their home so he can raid their safe, he’s got a good heart, and by now, he’s been put through the wringer so many times that it feels like he’s earned a reprieve. In El Camino alone, Jesse is hosed, caged underground, manhandled with spit, forced to ride in a trunk with a dead woman, emasculated by a baby-faced sociopath, hog-tied, pinned, gagged, and rebuffed by a vacuum cleaner salesman.

As the cool kids like to say, where’s his agency? Give the guy a break. “Not many of us get a chance to start fresh,” Ed observes. The series finale of Breaking Bad left Jesse’s fate somewhat open-ended. El Camino balances the scales of justice in his favor, once and for all. So long, Pinkman, and thanks for the memories.

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