El Camino: Reprising a hit

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on November 01, 2019

New high: Aaron Paul puts in a career-best performance in El Camino, effortlessly mixing PTSD and deadpan comedy

Fans of the super-successful TV series Breaking Bad get to see a favourite character finish his final lap in a new movie

It’s been six years since Breaking Bad went off the air, and it feels like the downtime has only enhanced its already formidable reputation. Vince Gilligan’s crime drama, a Shakespearean high tragedy filtered through neo-Western aesthetics, is now widely considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time.

The basic premise is simple and compelling — set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with stage three lung cancer, who teams up with his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to cook and sell the drug methamphetamine, or crystal meth. Initially, the idea was to leave some money behind for Walt’s cash-strapped family. Soon, however, Walt realises that he’s good at this and leans into his adopted persona, ‘Heisenberg’ — the lethal, hat-wearing kingpin of America’s largest meth ring. Walt and Jesse’s descent into moral relativism (murdered rivals ‘had it coming’) — and how Jesse recovers his moral compass — formed a big part of what made the show compelling. And yet, Jesse Pinkman fans felt a little shortchanged throughout Breaking Bad’s excellent last season because he is literally in a cage during the last few episodes. Not much agency there, so his character arc felt a little anticlimactic.

The movie El Camino (written and directed by Gilligan), released on October 11 by Netflix, addresses these shortfalls — and gives Jesse the breathing room to craft his own ending, separate from Walt’s pyrotechnics in ‘Felina’, the Breaking Bad finale. Picking up literally moments after ‘Felina’ ended, we see Jesse riding off in the titular El Camino, eventually landing up at his old friend Skinny Pete’s (Charles Baker) house. Pete and Badger (Matt Jones) help Jesse get back on his feet. Until, of course, he can locate their old associate Ed Galbraith (veteran actor Robert Forster, who died the day El Camino released, incidentally), America’s most boring vacuum salesman — and her most effective ‘disappearer’, the man who can give you a new identity, a new life for the right price. Snowy Alaska, we’re told, is Jesse’s final destination.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there isn’t a whole lot of plot in El Camino. It’s more like a character purgatory, where physical objects and news flashes remind Jesse of certain moments from his past (this also gives Gilligan the chance to rope in Bryan Cranston and company for one-scene, flashback cameos). Jonathan Banks is suitably grumpy and wise in his all-too-brief cameo as Mike Ehrmantraut, Jesse and Walt’s ex-partner, whom we now see more regularly on Better Call Saul (a Breaking Bad spinoff show that focuses on the character of Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk). The pick of the lot is Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), who plays Jesse’s dead girlfriend Jane in a beautiful, elegiac scene towards the end.

But at the end of the day, this is Breaking Bad, the ultimate postmodern Western. It was inevitable, therefore, that at some point, bullets will start flying around and bodies will drop. In El Camino, murder and mayhem are delivered by Todd Alqvist (Jesse Plemons), perhaps the most hated Breaking Bad villain of them all. Through another powerhouse performance, Plemons reminds us just how monstrous — and how curiously domestic — this character really is. Todd is an odd mixture of old-fashioned Southern politeness (‘yessir’ and ‘yesma’am’ all around; hokey, homegrown wisdom never far from his mind) and a wholly contemporary ruthlessness (two of his most infamous murders were of small children) — a bit like Old Nick himself (isn’t the devil supposed to have impeccable manners, after all?). About half of the flashback scenes in El Camino belong to Todd, who seeks the imprisoned Jesse’s help in burying his housekeeper, the victim of another Todd brain-freeze. As Breaking Bad fans know only too well, disposing bodies has led to some of the most memorable and grisly moments in this universe.

El Camino may be fan service, strictly speaking, but it’s also a reminder of Gilligan’s technical mastery. The way he has shot Albuquerque suburbia in the wake of Walt’s demise is a case in point — amidst the manicured lawns and neatly lined up backyards, there is the unmistakable air of a war zone, reminiscent of the memorable season two finale where Walt’s garden is enveloped in debris (after two planes collide overhead).

The engine that drives El Camino, however, is a career-best performance by Aaron Paul. Mixing PTSD and deadpan comedy is an extremely risky venture but Paul seems to do it effortlessly. One look at his eyes and you know that Jesse Pinkman is still in that cage at some level, even if he’s doing the shooting now. With the unalloyed success of his other big show, BoJack Horseman, the 40-year-old actor is firing on all cylinders. His boyish looks and slacker demeanour allow him to be ‘one of the lads’ and be visibly vulnerable at the same time, a rare combination these days. No surprise, then, that Paul is currently on Hollywood speed dial — as Jesse Pinkman would say, “Science, b*tch!”

Published on November 01, 2019

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