“Todd, who IS this guy, anyway? What’d he do?”
“It’s a long story.” – Exchange between two characters discussing Jesse Pinkman in “El Camino.”
When the recent “Downton Abbey” movie came out, a few folks asked me if they’d be able to enjoy the movie as a stand-alone story, even if they’d never seen the TV series.
To some degree, yes. To be sure, many a withering glance or jewel of a one-liner in the “Downton” movie would lose much of its impact if you hadn’t seen the show, but you’d be still be entertained and not hopelessly lost.
With the “Breaking Bad” follow-up film “El Camino,” which premiered Friday on Netflix, if you haven’t seen the series:
A. You really should, as it’s one of the Top 10 TV shows of all time.
B. Overall, you’ll be as lost as Badger without Skinny Pete if you tried to watch this sharp and compelling sequel without having seen the series.
Unlike the finales to other beloved 21st century classics (hello, “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones”), the Sept. 29, 2013, farewell episode of “Breaking Bad” was met with widespread critical acclaim and a veritable online standing ovation from its legions of loyalists.
So no, we didn’t “need” a sequel. Nevertheless, what a thrill it is to see Aaron Paul back in the driver’s seat, literally, as the emotionally (and physically) tortured Jesse Pinkman — former high school student turned small-time drug dealer turned No. 2 cooker of meth for much of the Southwest turned killer-with-a-conscience turned prisoner turned escapee.
When last we saw Jesse, he was a bloody, battered, nearly hysterical mess, racing off into the night in a stolen El Camino after somehow having survived a mass shooting that left his captors and his former partner in crime down for the count.
“El Camino” picks up where we left off and follows Jesse’s frantic scramble to stay alive in a storyline not totally dissimilar to certain elements of “The Fugitive,” but we also circle back to previously unseen chapters in Jesse’s recent past, which gives “Breaking Bad” creator/writer/director Vince Gilligan the opportunity to revisit some of the standout players from the TV series who are long gone in the present-day timeline, including Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut (who has also been “resurrected,” so to speak, for the “Breaking Bad” prequel series “Better Call Saul.”)
Banks and the handful of other “Breaking Bad” stalwarts (I’ll not reveal the others) are outstanding, as we’d expect. Great actors given great parts.
“Only you can decide what’s best for you, Jesse,” says Mike, and then referring to Jesse’s mentor Walter White, he continues: “Not him, not me…”
The returnee getting by far the most screen time is Jesse Plemons’ Todd, the disturbingly placid, emotionally stunted, benign-appearing and exceedingly polite former Vamonos Pest employee who was in fact a dead-eyed, cold-blooded, sociopathic killer who could shoot a child or torture a victim to within an inch of his life and fall asleep that night as soon as his head hit the pillow.
We get a number of scenes, including one shocker, revealing Todd’s sadistic manipulations of Jesse went even deeper and darker than we had previously imagined. Plemons delivers a killer of a performance as one of the most chilling villains in any TV series or movie you’ll ever seen.
In the current-day sequences, Jesse battles through PTSD while hiding in plain sight as a “person of interest,” as the newscasts are describing him, in the aforementioned massacre that claimed the lives of nine people in Albuquerque.
The great Robert Forster returns as Ed, who runs the “Best Quality Vacuum” store as a front for an operation in which he facilitates a complete and permanent disappearing act for those in need of such a particular set of skills. (Which will cost ya $125,000 mininum.)
Ed might be Jesse’s last hope for a fresh start. Maybe not. It’s … complicated.
Just like all of “Breaking Bad” was wonderfully, beautifully, spectacularly complicated, just like Jesse Pinkman grew ever more complicated.
The same goes for “El Camino.” While it strikes a different visual tone and moves at a faster pace than many of the TV show episodes (as one might expect from a feature-length story), thanks to Gilligan’s masterful writing and directing, and the bold and powerful and layered performance from Aaron Paul, it’s an extended epilogue quite worthy of the “Breaking Bad” brand.