El Camino

Year: 2019
Studio: Netflix
Director: Vince Gilligan
Writer: Vince Gilligan
Cast: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Banks, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Larry Hankin, Robert Forster, Bryan Cranston, Krysten Ritter

There's rarely been a clearer example of us not knowing we wanted more from a story we thought was over. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lie dead after shooting up the last gang he and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) fell in with to cook meth. His family is fractured, his brother in law Hank dead in the desert, the hundreds of millions in cash buried nearby presumably never to be seen again (although I remember something about his wife Marie – Betsy Brandt – ending up with the lottery ticket with the geographic coordinates written on it).

And after Jack's gang had turned on Jesse, keeping him captive in the lab to cook for them for months on end, Walter's vengeance saw him freed, driving off in the El Camino, laughing maniacally and possibly driven insane.

The story of El Camino is what Jesse did next. The overarching premise is that he wants out of Albuquerque for good, maybe to Alaska, as we see in an early flashback of him shooting the breeze with Mike (Jonathan Banks). To get there, he has to use the services of Saul Goodman's disappearer Ed (Robert Forster) to do so.

But the wonderful thing about the Breaking Bad universe is the way it makes effective and emotional drama out of the nuts and bolts of cause and effect, of setups and payoffs in the plot. Jesse has to get the money to pay Ed for his disappearance. But first he has to find the guy, and all he can remember from his limited exposure to the process during the series was that it was based out of a vacuum cleaner store, which is Ed's front business.

And he has to do it all under the radar of the cops, which is no easy feat since he's fled the scene of a multiple murder in a stolen car fitted with a tracker thanks to Old Tom.

The unfolding of Jesse's efforts is told with plenty of flashbacks, the biggest of which shows us more about the character of Todd (Jesse Plemons). A truly bizarre young man, Todd turns out to be as gormless and feckless as he is bloodthirsty – as we've already seen in the several jaw-dropping executions he committed during the series.

One weekend when the rest of the gang were out, Todd offers to take Jesse out of his hole in the ground to enlist his help with a favour. With Jesse laid down in the backseat so nobody can see him Todd chatters like they're old school buddies, singing along to 70s hits on the radio like he hasn't a care in the world.

Once at his apartment the grisly favour is revealed. He needs Jesse to help him put the carry tray cover on the back of the El Camino because he's murdered his poor housekeeper after she found his stash of the proceeds from the meth business, burying the body out in the desert.

So Jesse's second port of call after his escape – after getting his head as straight as he can at his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger's (Matt Jones) house and hightailing it before the cops descend on the bugged El Camino – is Todd's place.

With Todd actually lying dead in the carnage of Walter's remote controlled machine gun attack following Jesse's strangulation of him using his wrist restraints, he's not around to tell Jesse where the money's now hidden. Worse still, two detectives are sniffing around, obviously hunting for Jesse himself.

He has to get past a nosy neighbour to break in and spends the entire night tearing the apartment and furniture to shreds searching for the money, only finding it right when the detectives come back to search the place.

Cornered, Jesse has to take one of them hostage and try to negotiate his escape, only too late discovering they aren't cops at all but part of the crew who installed his own captivity device for Jack's gang. Having put two and two together after Walt's killings were all over the news, they've come to try and find Todd's stash too, figuring nobody else is left alive who knows about it.

Todd tell them he's found the money and that he'll split it with them if they let him go, and as he leaves to try and find the disappearer he recognises one of the thugs as the welder who helped keep him prisoner.

He finally does finds Ed, who tells Jesse he now owes twice the fee because of the first time he organised Ed's service through Saul but didn't show up. Jesse is only a few grand short, so he leaves to figure out a way to get a measly $1,800 even though he's carrying nearly a quarter of a million in cash in a garbage bag.

I won't relate the entire rest of the plot here, but it deals with Jesse answering his parents' TV broadcast plea for him to give himself up, sending the cops he knows will be watching their house on a wild goose chase, sneaking in to purloin his father's antique guns and visiting the welder and his crew to get the rest of money he needs by force if necessary. But as you can see it's thick with story – the strongest aspect of the Breaking Bad universe has always been writing.

And in the directorial hands of Breaking Bad writer-in-chief Vince Gilligan, it probably never could have been anything other than brilliant. One particular hallmark is that even though there's always a plan, Gilligan never reveals it to you until the best possible moment to give it impact – the gun in Jesse's pocket is a classic example.

And how it got there is part of the realism of the whole thing. Where another version of this story would just have us assume Jesse broke into a convenience store or something to come by a weapon, El Camino is set in the real world where coming across guns is something that takes planning, effort and execution, especially if you're a wanted fugitive with no friends left.

Every word, scene and action is part of those plans, efforts and executions, people as real as you can imagine (even down to their character names) acting in brutal self interest that conflicts with everyone else's. It's the definition of drama as pure as you'll ever see it, and with performances, design and production aesthetic all matching and supporting it beautifully.

It's got the puzzle pieces of plot, familiar characters (and characterisations among the new faces) and it fits perfectly into the universe of the Breaking Bad story.

The flashback scene from early in Jesse and Walt's partnership of them sharing breakfast in a diner after a marathon cooking session is the only thing that doesn't really propel the narrative of Jesse's current plight (although it expands on his and Walt's characters), but it's no less welcome just to have more of the familiar creative language from the series. If you loved Breaking Bad, El Camino will remind you why.

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