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6 Years Later, 'El Camino' Proves Just As Exciting And Original As 'Breaking Bad'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Six years after the end of AMC's "Breaking Bad," one of the best drama series ever made for television, creator Vince Gilligan is back with a movie sequel. It's called "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie," and it premieres today on Netflix. Aaron Paul, who costarred on "Breaking Bad" as Jesse Pinkman, is the star of this new chapter, which begins exactly where the series left off. Today we'll revisit archive interviews with Vince Gilligan and with Aaron Paul. But let's start with my review of this new "El Camino" movie - a review which I promise will be as close to spoiler-free as possible.

The first thing to address is the concept. "Breaking Bad" as a TV series told the story of high school science teacher Walter White, played perfectly by Bryan Cranston. As the series began, Walter was diagnosed with terminal cancer and decided to build and leave a nest egg for his wife and family by using his scientific knowledge and teaming with a former student to manufacture and sell a particularly pure strain of crystal meth. Aaron Paul's Jesse was that student. And by the time "Breaking Bad" was about to end, Jesse had been captured by a rival drug operation and forced to cook meth for them while Walter White and his shady lawyer, Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman, were in hiding arguing about their options, which at that moment were very limited.


BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Hey. I'm a civilian. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm nobody's lawyer. The fun's over. From here on out, I'm Mr. low profile - just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I'm lucky, a month from now - best case scenario - I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.

BIANCULLI: What seemed like a toss-away punchline at the time in a penultimate "Breaking Bad" episode written by Peter Gould turned out to be a stroke of brilliant inspiration. It became the premise of "Better Call Saul," the follow-up series still going on AMC that followed Odenkirk's character both before and after "Breaking Bad." In the flashback sequences, he was Jimmy McGill, who would slowly evolve into slimy Saul Goodman in much the same way Walter White would morph into drug kingpin Heisenberg. And in the occasional black-and-white scenes post-dating the events of "Breaking Bad," we see what Jimmy - now Saul - is up to. And he is indeed managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.

But "Better Call Saul," created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, is primarily a prequel to "Breaking Bad" just as "El Camino" is primarily a sequel. It picks up right where "Breaking Bad" left off - with Jesse escaping from his captors and driving away in an El Camino as fast as he can, screaming. And "El Camino," written and directed by Gilligan, is just as exciting, original and outstanding as the other entries, making this for Gilligan one hell of a TV hat trick. The series, its prequel and now its sequel - they're all as good as it gets. There isn't a "Godfather III" in the bunch. But "El Camino," like its predecessors, does visit the past from time to time, which allows us to revisit a handful of familiar characters from "Breaking Bad." One shows up in the movie's opening scene, so it's hardly a spoiler. It's a flashback showing Aaron Paul's Jesse and another co-conspirator, Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut, discussing what to do after retiring from the drug trade.


AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) What are you going to do with all that money?

JONATHAN BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Same thing I do with all the other money - how about you, teenage retiree? You'll be living the dream.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I'm not sure I should stick around town.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) That's a start.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Nothing really keeping me here. Where'd you go if you were me?

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) It doesn't matter. I'm not you.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Seriously. Come on - like, if you were my age. Just play along. Make some conversation.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Alaska.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Yeah.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Yeah. If I were your age starting fresh, Alaska. It's the last frontier. Up there, you could be anything you want.

BIANCULLI: In "El Camino," Jesse is faced with the same questions. Now that he's free, where does he go? What does he do? Unwittingly, borrowing a page from Walter White's playbook in the "Breaking Bad" finale, Jesse seeks help from their low-level, longtime drug sellers, the laid-back Skinny Pete and Badger, which allows Jesse to reunite with some "Breaking Bad" players in the present not just in flashback. Here's Skinny Pete and Badger, played by Charles Baker and Matt Jones, following the news of Jesse's escape on the local TV newscast until Jesse enters the room.


CHARLES BAKER: (As Skinny Pete) Why'd you turn off the TV? News that bad?

MATT JONES: (As Badger) There's just a whole lot of it.

BAKER: (As Skinny Pete) Yeah. I've got to get out of here.

JONES: (As Badger) Where to? You got a plan?

BAKER: (As Skinny Pete) Maybe.

BIANCULLI: That's all I'm revealing about "El Camino." Where Jesse goes from there and what his plans entail - that's where the fun is, and I'm not about to spoil it. Let's just say there are a couple of confrontations here that are as spellbinding and unpredictable and funny, often at the same time, as anything Gilligan has written and directed. And the acting - Aaron Paul carries "El Camino" on his shoulders as effortlessly and impressively as Bryan Cranston and Bob Odenkirk have in their own TV showcases. As for the other actors here, "El Camino" doesn't even show the title or cast credits until the end, so you won't know whom to expect, much less what. But no matter how high your expectations, "El Camino" will meet them. Once again, as with the finale of "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan has stuck the landing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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