There’s a scene during Stand By Me that probably stands as the ultimate example of the irrational demands we place on all our favorite stories. When we love a tale, we feel like we need to know more, but is that even possible? Assuming we even can know, will we be better for it?
It’s just after Gordie finishes telling the gang of boys his “Barf O Rama” story. They all have big smiles on their faces, perfectly contented by the story that’s just been told. That is, at least until Teddy, Corey Feldman’s troubled misfit, pipes up: “…What happened?”
“What do you mean what happened, that’s the end,” Gordie says.
“How can that be the end? What kind of an ending is that, what happened to Lardass?” Teddy asks.
Gordie largely sidestepped the question (“I don’t know, maybe he went home and celebrated with a couple of cheeseburgers”), but we can imagine things might have been different if his audience had been 10 million people, and Netflix had given him a big pile of money to satisfy entire metropolises worth of presumptive Teddies. In that way, this week’s release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story is essentially Lardass First Barf Part II for the streaming generation (written and directed by Gordon Lachance, who has since changed his name to Vince Gilligan).
The Lardass in this case is, of course, Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad‘s number two character who, as we remember from the finale, escaped a final shootout in an El Camino. Or do we even remember that? El Camino helpfully offers a flashback to remind us, though the effect, of this scene and of much of the movie, is that it’s hard to separate flashback from recreation. It’s like trying to distinguish between actual memory and introduced memory. El Camino plays like this strange mix of prequel, sequel, and clip show. True, the lines between formats might’ve been sharper if I’d rewatched the Breaking Bad finale to brush up on my Breaking Bad history in preparation for the Breaking Bad Netflix movie, but I object to the idea that I should need to do homework before I watch some TV, even when that homework is to watch more TV.
El Camino answers the question of “what happened to Jesse Pinkman?” about as unsatisfyingly as anyone answered “what happened to Lardass?” in Stand By Me. We were once given to believe that Jesse (played as always by Aaron Paul, whose expressive voice acting has an odd way of overshadowing his physical acting) drove off into the proverbial sunset, where we could assume whatever happy, sad, or in-between outcome for him based on our level of faith in Jesse Pinkman specifically and in our belief in the possibility of happy endings in general. In that way, asking what happened to Jesse Pinkman or to Lardass is a little like asking what happens after you die. It depends on what you believe in the absence of any evidence.
El Camino gives us a brand new ending for Jesse Pinkman in which… basically he drives off into the sunset again. Only now, it’s after a kind of two-hour scavenger hunt, complete with one not-entirely-believable shootout in order to resolve another not-entirely-believable encounter with a fixer. It doesn’t give us any of the answers we thought we wanted. Mainly it succeeds in postponing Jesse’s mortality for a little longer, and in shaming us for asking the question. The fact that it gives us one last performance from the great Robert Forster as the fixer, who died the same day El Camino was released, is the most compelling thing about it.
Unlike AMC’s brilliant Better Call Saul, a Breaking Bad prequel series that’s arguably better than the original, El Camino mostly serves to remind me of all the things I didn’t love about Breaking Bad to begin with. Some of the first Breaking Bad characters to show up in El Camino are Badger and Skinny Pete, Pinkman’s buddies from early in the show who never quite made the transition into the critically-acclaimed series the show eventually became. Then, as now, they seem more like tweekers from a Law and Order episode than actual tweekers. There are similarly unwelcome flashbacks to early seasons Jesse Pinkman. It’s easy now to forget the days when Jesse was more like an after-school special version of Eminem, more a guy who wore beanies and said “yeah, bitch” than the fully-fledged character he would gradually grow into.
There are also Breaking Bad‘s formalistic quirks, like an excess of almost perfunctory “artsy” long shots that don’t carry much weight or emotional value, and the excessive focus on flora and fauna as a way to set scenes — like lingering shots of flies, lizards, beetles, burbling brooks, etc. Hey, guys, remember that? Oh boy!
It’s quite possible that the movie just isn’t Vince Gilligan’s ideal medium. Taken solely as a concept, Breaking Bad was always a little slick. “Science teacher with cancer who sells meth to provide for his family” isn’t that out of of place with the seemingly dozens of shows about psychic detectives or heroin-addicted super surgeons that the networks push every year. What set Breaking Bad apart was character development. It quickly outgrew its own elevator pitch. Gilligan’s genius is being able to take the stand-ins from a slick pitch an exec would love and turn them into compelling, nuanced humans — characters we inquire after like they’re lost acquaintances. “Aw, but what happened to Jesse Pinkman?”
Robbed of the screen time it takes to explore and fill out those characters, El Camino feels more like the pilot of Breaking Bad than Breaking Bad, the thoughtful, smart, compelling series we remember. Would El Camino make a better series than a movie? Maybe, or maybe it already was and that series was called Breaking Bad. It’s also possible that the question of what happens to Jesse Pinkman is less like the premise of Better Call Saul and more like the question of what happens to Lardass. Maybe he ate a couple of cheeseburgers to celebrate. Maybe he went home and shot his father and ran away to join the Texas Rangers, like Teddy suggests. Maybe stop asking Gordie, okay? He doesn’t know.
VERN: I like the ending. The barfing was really good. But there is one thing I don’t understand: did Lardass have to pay to get into the contest?
GORDIE: No, Vern. They just let him in.
VERN: Oh! Oh great. Great story.
TEDDY: Yeah, it’s a great story, Gordie, I just don’t like the ending.