I promised a review of El Camino, but that was before I saw it. It’s not that I have nothing to say about the film; it’s more the fact that anything I could say about it would be informed by my feelings about Better Call Saul.
Of course, I’ll explain.
El Camino is a sequel film to Breaking Bad. It’s on Netflix, so go watch it if you haven’t. It follows Jesse Pinkman through the aftermath of “Felina,” which sounds like a great concept. Except, really, the aftermath doesn’t end up being worth following anyone through.
Walt’s world and the horrors with which he ravaged it felt huge in Breaking Bad. Of course they did; they were the focus of the show. The characters that came into his life and the ways in which they changed (or had change visited upon them) would certainly agree that the reign of Heisenberg was enormous, impactful, and cataclysmic.
With just a little bit of distance, though, the events of Breaking Bad were what David Byrne might refer to as a tiny apocalypse. Visiting a post-Walt Albuquerque in El Camino reveals a world that is far from shattered, or even really upset. Some characters are dead, some news reports dot the airwaves, some buildings are crime scenes.
That’s it, and that’s okay. There’s a kind of story one can tell with that kind of insight. But that was not the story of El Camino. Revealing the events of Breaking Bad to have had precious little effect on the town in which it took place could have been interesting, but that revelation is a side effect of a story too light to have its own gravity.
Here’s the thing: I liked every single individual component of El Camino. The writing, acting, and directing were fantastic, which honestly should go without saying at this point. The jokes were funny. The drama was strong. The tension was masterful.
But somehow they assembled into a movie I honestly can’t say I liked.
It felt inconsequential. Unimportant. When Jesse sped away from Breaking Bad, it was easy to assume that he’d find some kind of normalcy. Clearly it would not be an easy one. Clearly he would have to work hard to find any kind of future for himself. Clearly there was no going home.
That’s all we knew, and there was room to tell us more. Instead, that’s all El Camino really did tell us. It told its story well, but did we really need to know — specifically — where Jesse went and how he got there? Or to put it another way, now that we do know…does it change anything at all?
If you like, you could comb through Breaking Bad and find chapters that, ultimately, came to nothing. Plot threads left hanging. Setups without payoff. Ideas raised before different, better ideas seized control. I get it. El Camino is not unique in being an unnecessary stretch of Breaking Bad.
The difference, though, is that we came back for El Camino. Breaking Bad was an ongoing, evolving work of fiction. It was published by the chapter. As the story went on, certain things the writers thought would be crucial were rendered vestigial. That’s what happens. That’s okay.
But El Camino wasn’t an organic part of the story. It was something tacked on to the end of the story after everything had been brought to a conclusion. To bring it back is to say louder than literally any previous episode had ever said, “I have something to say.”
El Camino really didn’t have much to say. We got some funny scenes with Old Joe and the vacuum salesman. We got to see Mike and Walt again, in happier times, unaware of their looming fates. And while I can’t say I ever wanted to see Todd again, the body disposal scenes felt like they could have been lifted directly from a final-season episode of Breaking Bad. They fit, they worked, and they would have been a great way to kill some time as the show approached its terminal point.
But we shouldn’t bring the show back just to kill that time. Why, really, would we even do that?
What does this have to do with Better Call Saul? Saul doesn’t even appear in El Camino, which was a genuine shock to me as we’re already filling in unseen bits of Jimmy’s history and might as well toss in a Breaking Bad-era scene or two, right?
Well, see, I’ve joked a few times in these reviews about the story of how Saul came to like money, or the story of how Gus dug a big hole, and the fact that these stories never, ever needed to have been told. Period. We didn’t need them. The world was no poorer for not knowing the answers to these non-mysteries.
And yet Better Call Saul made (and makes) those stories matter. Nobody should have cared, but the show worked hard to make us care. It showed us important things where we couldn’t rightly have expected to find them.
El Camino tells the story of where Jesse went after Breaking Bad. Another story that didn’t need to be told. But it was also a story that, by its end, didn’t convince me otherwise. El Camino was exactly what I worried Better Call Saul was going to be: unnecessary.
Which brings us to “Magic Man.” It’s recently been confirmed that Better Call Saul will end with season six, meaning we are in this show’s endgame and the writers know it. And yet they are still, as we bid our final farewells to Jimmy McGill, finding new ways to explore and understand these characters.
El Camino didn’t provide us, at all, with any new insight into Jesse Pinkman. But throughout “Magic Man” we learn a lot about characters we already thought we knew from Breaking Bad.
Jimmy’s circus-tent cellphone giveaway is the big one, of course, showing us the precise moment when the character’s shrewd sense of showmanship crystallizes into shysterism. (His desperate floundering when he runs out of phones results in him promising a 50% discount to any clients who commit nonviolent felonies within the next two weeks, illustrating the point of no return that much more quickly. It began as a tasteless joke with Kim, and is then made foolish reality.)
There’s Gus’ relationship with the cartel, which is still being explored and redefined, as he tries to wriggle out from under the Salamanca family’s thumb. (More on this in a bit.)
And there’s Mike…who I figured would have been changed by the events of “Winner” in a quiet, internal way. I was wrong. He slugs Kai when the boy attempts a gesture of goodwill, promising Mike that he understands why Werner had to die. In trying to say the right thing, Kai says precisely the wrong thing. When somebody else tells Mike that Werner did not deserve to die and was 50 times the man Mike will ever be…Mike does not react. The wrong thing to say was actually the right thing.
Of course we also have the characters unique to this show, such as Kim who is clearly agonizing over Jimmy’s decision to practice law as Saul Goodman, but who ultimately has to concede he knows what he’s doing. For now, at least, he’s interested in using his powers for good. This show will end next season, so we know we shouldn’t get used to that.
And there’s newcomer Eduardo, who was introduced at the end of last season. Then I was able to see him as a sort of Salamanca response to Mike. We even saw him defined through the differences between the methods of the two men. Mike tricks a desk clerk to get information he needs; Eduardo beats and kills that desk clerk for the same information. Mike gums up a parking gate; Eduardo smashes through it.
In “Magic Man,” yeah, that contrast is still on display, but we see Eduardo is not just a foil to Mike; he’s a foil to the entire arrangement. He blabs openly about things that should obviously be kept quiet. He confronts his own dealers without making it clear what he’s doing, or why. He asks questions of Gus when it would be appropriate for him to accept an apology and move on. He coerces Gus into introducing him to Mike and drops information he shouldn’t have.
The drug trade has been portrayed as a dance and Eduardo is trying to turn it into a bar fight. It’s bizarre and unpredictable, just like he is. He both keeps everyone on their toes and makes it impossible for them to predict what he will do next. I wouldn’t say Better Call Saul was lacking energy, but it certainly gets a hell of a lot more from Eduardo.
Which, to be honest, is where I think I’ll leave it tonight. The next episode of the show premieres shortly. I won’t get to see it and review it until tomorrow, but that’s okay. Because “Magic Man” has moved a lot of things forward, and we won’t have to wait until next week to see them moved even further.
It’s a big difference from El Camino, which just kept spinning its wheels.