The GCU (Gilligan Cinematic Universe): On 'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie'
Thoughts on what Vince Gilligan's 2019 'Breaking Bad' feature tells us about the convergence of TV and movies.
Over the summer, I was fully immersed in the Breaking Bad universe over at Vulture, covering both halves of Better Call Saul’s exceptional final season while filling in recaps for Breaking Bad’s first season, which must not have seemed popular enough to merit coverage at the time. After inching my way through the latter assignment—this time, knowing where this journey will end for these characters—I burned through the entire series again in less than two weeks, a feat made easy by it being such a white-knuckle thriller. Watching 62 episodes over two weeks instead of six years forces a new perspective on the series, akin to looking at time-lapse footage of a building that you once saw getting constructed brick-by-brick. Subtle course corrections in storytelling techniques, visual style, and character development can be appreciated for their full evolutionary sweep, and you can admire how the show arrived at a satisfying architecture by tearing up a few blueprints.
But then there’s the strange case of the 2019 film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, written and directed by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Gilligan and Peter Gould were between the fourth and fifth seasons of their prequel series, Better Call Saul, when Gilligan peeled away to make this 122-minute feature around Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the partner of Albuquerque chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and one of the small handful of major characters to make it out of the series alive. The film never persuasively answers question of whether we even need to know what happens to Jesse after the end of Breaking Bad, but it still offered an opportunity for Gilligan to show off the dexterity of the world he created and work in a new medium, which is the most fascinating part of the experiment to me. How might a show considered among the most “cinematic” in television history work as actual cinema? What adjustments, if any, would need to be made?
There’s an extended rant I’ll spare you for now about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is killing the movies by turning them into television, but the gist is this: The MCU exists in theaters and on original streaming series, and all the movies and shows have the same visual template in order to make the crossover between projects and media seamless. This severely limits the contribution individual directors can make—in fact, the more iconoclastic the filmmaker, like Sam Raimi (Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) or Chloe Zhao (Eternals), the more compromised the fit—and winds up making movies an interchangeable form of “content,” available in high-res digital streaming in theaters and on your phone. To that end, the pandemic almost felt like an acceleration of some diabolical master plan to wipe out the movie/TV binary for good.
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Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are more appealing visions of convergence, in the sense that they were always inclined to push the boundaries of what was expected of television—of pacing, of mise en scène, of an eclectic attention to detail. (Directors were not interchangeable, either: When Rian Johnson or Michelle McLaren got an episode on Breaking Bad, you moved forward in your seat.) Yet El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie whips up such a fascinating tension between the two media that it feels neither here nor there, as if Gilligan is trying simultaneously to adapt to making a movie and to wrestle it to the ground. He certainly realizes that “cinematic” is not cinema, and he’s consciously attempting to blow up the Western elements of Breaking Bad into an actual neo-Western, complete with a Sergio Leone-inspired gunfight. But he’s also obliged to expand the mythology of the show itself, much like the MCU would do in its Disney+ shows.
El Camino is not a standalone experience, but a piece of supplemental entertainment. In that respect, it’s alternatively limiting and liberating: It cannot possibly have much resonance to anyone who hasn’t watched all five seasons of the show, but it also doesn’t have to labor over world-building. It can, quite literally, jam on the accelerator. The last time we saw Jesse, Walter had freed him from the white supremacist gang that was keeping him caged up on their compound, where he was forced to cook batches of Walter’s high-quality blue meth. Through a Mythbusters-esque rigging of a machine gun in the back of his car, a dying Walter wiped out most of the gang—save for dead-eyed Todd (Jesse Plemons), who Jesse strangled himself—and took a stray bullet in the process. When Jesse peels away from the compound in Todd’s El Camino, scarred and bedraggled and screaming like a banshee, that was the end of his arc on Breaking Bad. What happened to him next was up to our imagination.
That is, if we ever imagined much of anything at all. Before El Camino was announced as a film, how many people even gave a second thought to what Jesse might be up to? And I don’t necessarily mean that sarcastically: People probably thought even less about Saul Goodman after Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul is arguably the richer of the two series. In truth, Walter White had so strong a gravitational pull that it was a challenge for viewers to imagine the other characters independent of his toxic influence; he hijacked and ruined the lives of everyone in his orbit, perhaps Jesse most of all. Perhaps Jesse’s fate as an under-the-radar meth cook and addict wouldn’t have been so rosy without Walter around, but he also would not have absorbed so many traumatic losses of life and conscience. For that reason, El Camino isn’t merely a what-happened-next curiosity for fans, but a chance for Jesse to move forward on his own—an active character rather than a passive one.
El Camino opens with a riverside conversation between Jesse and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) after both have decided to step away from their partnership with Walter and retire from the meth business. It doesn’t work out for either man, of course, but it’s an important moment for Jesse, the rare time in his life when he can imagine a future for himself, rather than merely survive his day-to-day chaos. A similar scene comes up later in flashback, when Walter asks him about his plans and Jesse gives some absurd answer about pursuing a career in sports medicine. Here, though, Jesse gives Mike’s suggestion of Alaska serious thought. It would be a fresh start (“Up there you can be anything you want,” says Mike), and a quiet place to reckon with the horrors he’s witnessed, withstood, and perpetuated. Gilligan sets this destination for Jesse while also introducing a new look for the film, one with an eye towards the wide-open expanse of the New Old West.
What Jesse needs to do to get to that new place is simple: He needs to find enough cash to pay Ed Galbraith (Robert Forster), the proprietor of a vacuum repair shop, to change his identity and help him disappear. That would just be a drive across town if he still had any reserves of drug money. His immediate mission is to hide from a citywide manhunt while making his way to Todd’s apartment, which we learn through flashback has bundles of cash tucked away somewhere inside. But Gilligan doesn’t mine the past for narrative information alone: Jesse’s interactions with Todd are a deeper catalyst for change. Todd is Jesse’s vile mirror image, reflecting the worst version of himself. He is to his Uncle Jack as Jesse is to Walter, doomed to wriggle under the thrall of a stronger, more purposeful man. Jesse is not an unfeeling monster like Todd, which has made the torments of Jesse’s soul more painful than the torture of his body, but the two see something in each other. Throughout the course of the film, Jesse has to teach himself how to be his own man.
The minimal plotting allows Gilligan the space to stage meaningful conversations and suspense setpieces that are far more protracted than features usually allow. He is not Sergio Leone—to be fair, no one is—but he gives himself the same license he would take on Better Call Saul and certain episodes of Breaking Bad (the heist in “Dead Freight” springs to mind) to slow the action down while ramping up the tension. The Leone connection is most obvious in a scene where Jesse proposes an Old West shootout with the welder who rigged him up in the white supremacists’ meth lab, complete with close-ups on the whites of both mens’ eyes and a 10-pace distance that spans the length of the 2:35-1 frame. Better still is a sequence at Todd’s apartment where two men posing as cops try to toss the place for the same hidden cash Jesse is seeking. When Jesse calmly negotiates his cut of the loot with a gun pointed at his head, it’s like a rebirth.
Like a Western gunfighter older than his age, Jesse wanders through El Camino as a condemned man who’s nonetheless determined to salvage whatever shred of integrity or redemption he can muster. Mike tells him at the beginning that he can never put things right, but this film exists to put some moral distance between Jesse and his partner. In a crucial scene—one of the last and best of Robert Forster’s career—Jesse finally shows up at Ed Galbraith’s vacuum store with the cash to go into hiding, but he’s missing about $1,800 of the $250,000 he needs for the job. (Half of it for skipping out the first time Ed tried to pick him up.) Jesse is furious that Ed is sweating such a small amount, but he starts to understand that it’s about honor among thieves, about being on the level even when you’re outside the law. He’d become too accustomed to operating with scoundrels.
There are times when El Camino succumbs to “Easter egg” fan payoffs that plague the MCU—hey look, Todd kept the tarantula of the boy he killed in “Dead Freight”!—and there’s no escaping the fundamental awkwardness of a film that depends so much on viewers having watched all five seasons of a TV show. But Gilligan is experimenting in pushing film to accommodate innovative television in the same way film director like David Lynch or Lars Von Trier, with Twin Peaks and The Kingdom, wanted to stretch the boundaries of what TV could do. It’s not convergence, but expansion. El Camino may be a footnote to a towering series, but argues for a future where TV and film challenge each other rather than become indistinguishable.
For the first several season of Better Call Saul my biggest problem with it was that the Mike storyline was just a lot of stuff I could have guessed happened based on what we see in BB, that it was very well acted, written, and directed, but ultimately added nothing to the broader story and was trading a lot on my excitement to see stuff I recognized.
The same is kind of true of El Camino, I had assumed jesse probably fled to Alaska. A lot of people I know thought he probably ended up in jail, driving a stolen car being hunted by cops, which I guess is logically true but absolutely not what the tone of the final scene is implying.
But the difference is I liked Jesse much more than Mike and was more excited to see things turn out alright for him.
I appreciate this take on El Camino, a movie that perhaps was not necessary at the time but now seems like an indelible little sector of the Gilliganverse. There’s always a certain strangeness in seeing television properties jump to the big screen, at least for me. Star Trek and Sesame Street are prime examples. (Yes, I'm old.) The jump from lo-res 4:3 soundstages to widescreen worlds made these old friends look like they were suddenly living in a different, more tangible version of reality -- almost like they had literally stepped out of the television. Breaking Bad was already cinematic in its way, so that effect wasn’t as pronounced, but it was still a cognitive shift to sit in a movie theater watching Jesse do his thing. There was an exciting sense that we were somehow outside the box and off the map, exploring regions we never imagined seeing. (The feeling is heightened by how different Todd looks here in the flashbacks, which I sort of square by telling myself how large Todd looms in Jesse’s memory.)
But I do, in retrospect, feel that El Camino was an important story to tell. Breaking Bad always seemed to exhibit compassion for Jesse, even in his most self-destructive periods, and always took his pain seriously. In Breaking Bad, he was under the thumb of a malignant abuser. In El Camino, the abuser is out of the way and we get to see the recovery process begin. It’s cathartic in a way that even the scream at the end of Breaking Bad is not.