Hey everyone, let’s talk some more about El Camino!
See, Breaking Bad had an extremely good hook in the fact that no viewer could ever be certain what would happen to the characters next. Death (and worse) was a very real threat. Foreshadowing and misleads were interchangeable until the moment when, suddenly, finally, they were not. Part of what kept viewers tuning in was the desire to know what might happen next.
El Camino could have had a similar effect on viewers, if it weren’t for the fact that “Where does Jesse go now?” isn’t all that intriguing a question. The film, I think, did realize that, which is why it spent so much time in the past.
The problem with those scenes set in the past, of course, is that we know Jesse escapes the Nazi compound. There’s very little opportunity to wonder what happens next. We’ve seen it. And we’ve seen that he’s already moving on to new adventures.
Why do I bring this up now? Because Better Call Saul had to find a solution to the same problem. Every time we encounter a Breaking Bad character on this show, up to and including Saul himself, we know exactly where they end up. So, really, where’s the narrative tension?
In El Camino, it’s nowhere. In Better Call Saul, it’s everywhere.
El Camino had to deal with the fact that we knew Jesse escaped along with the fact that no reasonable human being would have been emotionally invested in the Nazis. We know they eventually get gunned down by Walt, and that’s all we need to know.
The film therefore decided to slip another antagonist into Jesse’s ordeal: the welder who built the track that kept him chained up while he cooked meth. If we can’t worry about the guy we sympathize with, we can at least give him a nemesis that outlived the bloodbath that ended Breaking Bad. Jesse gets to find him and exact revenge.
Except that that’s only kind of what happens. Jesse bumps into him more out of coincidence than anything. He doesn’t even recognize him. And after he does, we still don’t know who he is. Then later he goes to the guy’s workshop and shoots him because he needs money. The revenge is incidental. The one thing we could have narratively been invested in is something the movie essentially glosses over, because it thinks the more important thing is where the vehicle parks when it sets Jesse free.
Better Call Saul has been infinitely savvier about sustaining tension when we already know the ending. We’ve talked many times about how this show isn’t really about Saul; it’s about Jimmy McGill and the gradual shaving away of his soul. It’s a different character from the one we knew in Breaking Bad. It’s a character with different hopes and dreams and intentions…and we watch him get slowly crushed (and slowly crush himself) into the lowlife criminal lawyer he is destined to become.
The tension of course comes in part from the turmoil within Jimmy, but it also comes from the others in his life. Chuck, Howard, Kim. They’re all unique to this show. We didn’t know their endings going in. We just got to watch as Jimmy’s transformation affected their own lives, and as we came to care about them, we also came to worry. To fret. To hope against hope that they’ll escape his gravity.
Then there’s Nacho, was briefly in Jimmy’s orbit and who ends “50% Off” screaming into it again. We don’t know what happens to him, except that he isn’t around by the time Breaking Bad begins.
Nacho isn’t a bad person, really. He’s a criminal, yes, and he’s made some extraordinarily foolish career choices, but there’s an honest core to him that means if he eventually gets executed in a parking lot, it’s going to hit hard.
The tension there is obvious; we care about him (to some degree) and don’t know his ultimate fate. The show has toyed with us in regard to his fate a few times, sticking him under Tuco and then Hector, two dangerous men who represented such a threat to him (and his family) that he had to take each of them out of the equation. Now Hector is replaced by Eduardo, someone who is already threatening to be more dangerous and less predictable than his two predecessors, and Nacho is still trapped.
What’s more? Gus is now threatening Nacho’s family, too, and insisting that the boy get closer to Eduardo rather than further away. It’s an extremely cruel twist that works perfectly to ratchet up the tension, even as the stakes remain exactly the same.
But intermittently Better Call Saul turns into a show about Mike, and I can’t say enough about how well this show has been handling his particular emotional journey.
I wrote in the previous review that I expected the Werner stuff to stay put in the previous season. Mike would be affected by it, as he must, but he’d carry it with him silently and it would be up to us to read into whatever came next.
I was wrong, and it continues now. Werner’s name is still spoken aloud. Mike is still struggling. In the previous episode I felt genuinely bad when he punched Kai. That poor guy was just trying to reach out and make Mike feel better. In this episode, I was positively heartbroken when he yelled at Kaylee. In fact, I can’t imagine a single more heartbreaking thing for Mike to do than snap at his own granddaughter.
We watch the entire exchange come unglued, with Mike moving from adorably teaching her multiplication to giving shorter and shorter answers to yelling at her for something she probably still doesn’t understand.
She brings up Mike’s son. Another of the good men who isn’t around anymore because Mike failed them. And it upsets him. Which is understandable. But he doesn’t realize in that moment that Matty was the girl’s father, and that talking about him is important to her. He’s a figure she doesn’t remember. Learning about him makes her happy; talking about him makes Mike angry. For perhaps the only time, Mike puts his own emotions before Kaylee’s.
And it’s positively brutal.
What makes all of this interesting isn’t the fact that Mike is dealing with emotional fallout we never knew about prior to Better Call Saul, but that he’s doing it at a point that coincides with his disentanglement from Gus.
Last week, Gus was willing to pay him to (essentially) do nothing until they could start up again. Mike told him to shove it, which was understandable, but we know he eventually goes back.
What happens? What gets a broken Mike plagued with guilt to walk willingly back into an arrangement he knows can only cause more misery?
We don’t know. We can’t know. All we know is that something is happening. Better Call Saul has taken a character whose end we already know and gave us a reason to wonder what happens next.
That’s even more impressive now that El Camino has showed us just how hard it is to do.