EL CAMINO: Necessary or Sufficient?

11Oct19

I took advantage of one of the (many) perks of my job and took over our high-quality screening room this morning to watch El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie that dropped today – this was probably the closest that Vermont will get to a theatrical release! I have some non-spoilery thoughts, followed by a few well-marked spoilery ones, including one major critique of the movie:

My first reaction was that El Camino was a two hours well-spent. It is pretty much just fan service, but as a fan, I felt well-served. The story it told was compelling if not that essential, and like any other Breaking Bad episode, it was beautifully shot, performed, and written. While the many cameos were variously effective, the bottom line is that spending two more hours with Jesse Pinkman is sufficient for my entertainment needs.

A number of reviews I’ve read seem to feel similarly: it’s good, but ultimately “unnecessary.” As Matthew Gilbert starts his review:

Here’s the question that dogs every TV sequel, prequel, and revival: Is it necessary? Does the material — in this case, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” — justify revisiting the original narrative? Was it worth undoing the ending of the series — and risking the greatness of its legacy — to deliver yet another chapter?

This piece and others got me pondering about this word “necessary” – what might such a description mean for a television series? In a Twitter conversation with critic Daniel Fienberg, whose review also called it unnecessary, he suggested that for series that don’t end on their own terms, like Deadwood or Gilmore Girls, a revival feels a lot more necessary than a show whose finale is roundly hailed as both satisfying and conclusive—like Breaking Bad.

But what do we “need” from a television series? For a series that is cut short or takes a bad turn in the hands of replacement writers, it might be about answering narrative questions about what happens next, or paying off the arc of a character that seems incomplete in the original. But unless a character dies, there’s always more story potentially to be told – and how can we judge whether that story is “necessary”?

For Jesse Pinkman, the consensus seems to be that it is not—knowing how he escaped the next set of calamities that follow his liberation from a neo-Nazi torture camp seems far less important than the feeling of hope that we felt as he drove off in his El Camino back in 2013. But the fact that El Camino‘s story is inessential doesn’t make it any less pleasurable: while Breaking Bad‘s narrative drive toward “what happens next” might be its main motor, the joy of the ride was the combination of the program’s stylistic verve and the characters who inhabit its world.

Spending another two hours with Jesse Pinkman is not necessary in any real sense, but neither was spending the first 60 hours with Walt and Jesse, and Skyler and Hank and Marie, etc. Not necessary, but certainly sufficient.

OK – now there be spoilers, including my biggest critique of the movie:

 

The various cameos, especially to dead characters via flashback, were certainly gratuitous, but enjoyable nonetheless. Todd’s role was most important, and most satisfying, as it felt organic to the plot and actually developed his character significantly, providing additional sense of his emotional and moral detachments. The scene where he convinces Jesse to give him the gun was just heartbreaking, and made me relish my memory of Jesse’s eventual strangulation of “Ricky Hitler.”

The other flashbacks were more like fan service and certainly “unnecessary,” but I took pleasure from them all in stoking my memories from the series (which I rewatched earlier this year and have been seeping in the footage of, for my videographic Breaking Bad project): Mike’s mentorship role in Jesse’s life, Jane as his brief flash of pure love, and Walt as the awkward father figure who once kind-of cared for him. I got most pure joy from watch Bryan Cranston embody Walt again after all these years, as so much of his performance is rooted in his gestures and vocal patterns.

My biggest problem with El Camino was how much it presented a world comprised only of white men. Certainly Breaking Bad was always centered around the story of Walter White (who is literally coded as White man), with Jesse riding shotgun as the secondary white male protagonist. But the thankless role of Skyler was essential to the narrative, creating a moral contrast to Walt’s toxic masculinity (that was misunderstood by many of its fans). Additional women like Marie, Jane, Lydia, and Andrea were always marginal, but at least offered a sense of a world where women mattered, even if in the margins. Likewise, Gus, Tuco, Hector, Steve Gomez, and other more marginal characters of color worked to highlight and often comment upon Walt’s whiteness.

Alas, El Camino has only the brief appearance of Jane in flashback, one scene with Jesse’s mother, the dead body of a Latina housekeeper, and… a trio of prostitutes? In looking at IMDB, I found only one other speaking character who is not a white man: Jean, the customer looking for a new vacuum played by the venerable Marla Gibbs.

That scene portrays one of the very few glimpses of Albuquerque outside the crime world that Jesse longs to depart, and functions as a reminder of how that world is dominated by white guys. Breaking Bad has always been a more hermetically-sealed series in its constructed storyworld than many other contemporary serial programs, content to ignore the wide swaths of society that fall outside the main characters’ realm of influence (and this is a big contrast with Better Call Saul, which ranges wider in its scope). However the tight focus on Jesse moving from crime scene to accomplices and back leaves almost no room to see anything outside his immediate contacts, which means a parade of white male criminals.

I think this is a telling instance of the power and importance of representation. It might “realistic” (whatever that means in this series) that all of Jesse’s interactions are with men in this tight little story, but the effect is to create a world where women are absent and excluded, and that exclusion is palpable and rings false. I doubt that Vince Gilligan set-out to tell a male-only story, but in keeping to his narrow character focus, he created such a narrative, I’d argue to its detriment.

So let me end with a pitch for another Breaking Bad movie, in case Vince Gilligan or his collaborators ever stumble across this post: make a movie offering a similar coda for Skyler Lambert (her birth name that she’s retaken to distance herself from Walt). I want flashbacks to what she went through after Walt leaves town, losing all of her assets, becoming a taxi dispatcher, grieving Hank with Marie, trying to parent her children in light of their father’s monstrosity, and ultimately attempting to rebuild a life while reconciling her own complicity and victimhood. It might not have the crime caper tension of El Camino, but it would deliver the emotional complexity, melodramatic ethics, and interpersonal relationships that were so vital to the original series. And just as spending two extra hours with Jesse was rewarding, I want more time with Skyler, Flynn, Marie, as well as flashbacks to Hank that such a story would deliver. She has earned that much.



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