Remember When, 2019 edition: El Camino

And hot on the heels of one (to my mind successful) exercise in pop culture nostalgia comes another. Remember how at the end of Breaking Bad you were left wondering what happens right after Jesse, free from his neo-Nazi captivity, speeds into the night in a stolen car, screaming and crying in catharsis? Well, wonder no more: we now know exactly what happens a few minutes later. Has there even been any other six-year wait this filled with trepidation?

Joking aside: El Camino did remind me of the Deadwood movie more than the Hulu-revived Veronica Mars. It’s undoubtedly enjoyable, it’s well written, and the acting is good to great. Aaron Paul in particular gets to develop Jesse in compelling ways and he brings out sides of the character that we haven’t seen much of. I very much enjoyed El Camino – but I also found it unnecessary. Not so much because it’s more of the same – Breaking Bad was always Walt’s series before it was Jesse’s, so the focus is a different one – but because it fills in a blank that never really existed. At the end of Breaking Bad, we see Jesse driving away, free from a horrible situation, and the same is pretty much true at the end of El Camino. He’s in a better place when the film’s end titles roll, but in all respects other than plot, El Camino is little more than a lap of honour.

And yet… More than Deadwood: The Movie, which repeated much of the plot of the series’ third season, El Camino is made up of scenes and character moments that are enjoyable, effective and even surprising. If it was an episode (or several episodes) of Breaking Bad, it would work well. There is a strange uncanny-valley effect due to the actors all looking at least half a dozen years older even though they’re supposed to be the same age as in the series, but this subsides after half an hour, as we get used to Jesse Plemmons looking like an even more swollen, slightly defective Matt Damon clone. If El Camino had been part of the series, if there wasn’t that break of six years, it would have made for an effective epilogue. It is six years later, though, and is inessential but enjoyable enough to warrant this particular return to New Mexico? (The question could also be asked of Better Call Saul, but I don’t think I’m entitled to much of an opinion on that one, as I haven’t watched anything beyond the first season.)

I find it difficult to answer that particular question. Does the new series of Veronica Mars bring enough to the table to justify its existence? I would say that it does, but I would also acknowledge that I expected something different from the return of Veronica Mars. I expected a good story, first and foremost, and a chance to hang out with characters I like, and those I got. Breaking Bad, much like Deadwood, had ambitions beyond storytelling. To more of an extent than Veronica Mars, it was a story that was about something other than just itself. (As I wrote earlier this week, Veronica Mars isn’t entirely devoid of themes, but it is more of a story delivery system, for want of a less horrifically clinical term.)

And if we look at El Camino in those terms, it’s admittedly somewhat flimsy – but for being flimsy, it is very well crafted. A colleague of mine has just started watching Breaking Bad for the first time, specifically because she’s heard about El Camino and is curious to find out what all the fuss all those years ago was about. For her, I could imagine that El Camino will play better, precisely because she can more easily watch it as a part of Breaking Bad. (She might find the actors’ difference in age more difficult to deal with.) To those who only come to Breaking Bad now, El Camino might find it easier to be what it is supposed to be – an epilogue rather than an afterthought.

P.S.: A sad shout-out in respect to the late Robert Forster, whose big scene in El Camino is one of its best scenes, for Paul as much as for Forster.

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