While a Breaking Bad movie may have seemed like a bad idea, creator Vince Gilligan has the track record to make El Camino work.
Why mess with success? In an age where the most fiercely loved and talked about shows have fans petitioning in a petulant huff to have their final episodes remade to match lofty expectations, Breaking Bad, AMC’s neo-Western crime drama from creator Vince Gilligan, aired one of the few well-received series finales in the Peak TV era. Meek, sickly chemistry teacher turned criminal mastermind Walter White (Bryan Cranston) defeated his enemies, rescued his estranged, tortured partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and died in something resembling peace. End of story. Felina.
Except what if there were more? As the great Alan Moore once wrote, nothing ever ends, and especially not in 2019. Intellectual property is the currency that fuels Hollywood, and the machine demands sequels, prequels, remakes, and reimaginings. If a property was successful once, then Hollywood executives are banking on it being successful ad infinitum. What is dead may never die, including Gilligan’s seedy version of Albuquerque, New Mexico, teeming with villains hidden in plain sight, Nazis, and crystal blue meth.
On August 24, amidst a slew of franchise-extending announcements from monolithic Disney’s D23 Expo, Netflix quietly dropped the trailer for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the official continuation of the beloved TV series. Taking place after the events of that crowd-pleasing series finale, the limited logline for the new project reads, “In the wake of his dramatic escape from captivity, Jesse must come to terms with his past in order to forge some kind of future.”
The first look featured familiar ne’er-do-well and Pinkman sidekick, Skinny Pete, discussing the potential whereabouts of his escaped and wanted friend. The excitement over the imminent film, set to release on Netflix on October 11 and to broadcast at a later date on AMC, was palpable on Twitter, but the trailer was also met with some healthy skepticism, with some wondering whether revisiting Breaking Bad’s universe would tarnish the legacy of the near-perfect series. Why mess with success for one more hit?
Fans have every right to worry. For every unexpected sequel, reboot, or reimagination that successfully extends or reinvigorates the life of some cherished IP, there are a myriad of examples that have either proved to be controversial, uninspired, or downright awful. No matter the esteem they have for their old favorites, fans are growing tired of being force fed nostalgia and recycled content. Even Aaron Paul expressed doubts about reprising Jesse Pinkman, but he told The New York Times that any apprehension melted away after he finished reading Gilligan’s script.
“I couldn’t speak for a good 30, 60 seconds,” he said. “I was just lost in my thoughts. As the guy who played the guy, I was so happy that Vince wanted to take me on this journey.”
If anyone has earned the right to revisit his baby, it’s Vince Gilligan, and that’s because he’s pulled this off once before. Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel series centered on morally gray lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) prior to his misadventures with Walter White, was also met with suspicion when announced, but has proven to be a worthy successor that’s every bit as complex, virtuosic, and compelling as its parent series.
A prequel is lower stakes, surely, but it also has a greater potential to fall into hackneyed fan-service or over-contrived backstory. The fact that Gilligan was able to avoid that, add further depth to established presences Saul and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), and also create new, treasured characters like Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler and Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill demonstrates that Gilligan is more than adept at honoring his masterpiece while stretching it out further.
Now, there’s still the possibility that a switch to a different format could trip Gilligan and his cohorts up. After all, both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul benefited from the time and breadth that TV allows. Part of both of these series’ specific magic is the way that they drill down into the small details of capers or schemes, reveling in showing every step of the process. In a broader sense, the TV format just gives writers the runway to get inside of a character’s head, explore their motivations, and showcase a transformation. It would be impossible to tell Walter White’s story, his slow mutation from Mr. Chips into Scarface, in a 2-hour movie, or at least it wouldn’t be nearly as rich and devastating.
A prime example of seeing a series fail to translate to a compelling movie is Veronica Mars. Not nearly the meticulously crafted sensation that Breaking Bad is, Veronica Mars was still a well-made show with an aggressively devoted fanbase passionate to see creator Rob Thomas revisit his teenage gumshoe later in life. However, most critics found the film to slightly miss the mark, relying too frequently on in-jokes and series references while also lacking more distinctly cinematic aspirations. Plainly stated, it felt like a longer, fan-servicey episode of the show stuck in a vacuum. When the series returned for the highly-praised fourth season this year, it proved that Veronica Mars was always better off as a TV show with room to stretch its legs.
The obvious response to this fear is that Breaking Bad is an extremely different show from Veronica Mars. Breaking Bad has always had a widescreen, cinematic feel. There’s a reason that so many of its directors, from Michelle MacLaren to Rian Johnson, either came from or made the jump to feature-films. The visual language of the show is part of what set it apart from other series. And several times over the course of the show’s history, they delivered episodes that told a story deeper and more complete than most films can muster. “Ozymandias,” the series’ peak, is so explosive and enveloping, that critics could hardly believe that there was more story to tell after the episode’s tense and devastating first act.
So instead of worrying about Gilligan’s return to hallowed ground, we should be asking what we want out of this journey that Paul was so eager to take. We know Jesse Pinkman escaped the Nazi hideout in Todd’s El Camino, but where he went next, how far he made it, is unknown. The road will undoubtedly be long for Jesse, both figuratively and literally. In the literal sense, Jesse surely is wanted on numerous federal charges for his connection to Walter White and his many crimes, and he’ll likely be on the run or living under an assumed identity, one eye over his shoulder, for the rest of his life. However, the external forces against Jesse pale in comparison to the trauma he’ll have to move past both mentally and spiritually to have anything close to a meaningful or fulfilling life. Something tells me Vince Gilligan is ready to dive into all of these messy obstacles, otherwise he’d know to leave well enough alone.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.