The term character arc is an oft-used trope in cinema. Good story-telling is all about depicting the character arcs, this is even more so in cinema and television shows based on crime. One of the main reasons for the success of the show Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, was the unique characterisation of its protagonists. The rest of the storyline is, after all, either predictable or well-known: gangs, distribution networks, policing, and so on.
Breaking Bad was all about the transformation of Walter White (Bryan Cranston in one of the all-time great television performances) from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who takes to cooking meth in desperation to pay for his cancer treatment and to secure the future of his family into Heisenberg, the egotistical, manipulative kingpin of the largest meth-drug running empire in the United States. In the series, White eventually succumbed to cancer, but not before settling his scores with a white supremacist gang who took over his empire and securing his childrens future, and finishing his most redemptive act freeing his former partner and fellow meth cook, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) from the role of a slave cook. One of the most memorable scenes in the climax of the show was that of Pinkman whooping in joy, as he drove away from the facility that chained him in a concrete cage and made him manufacture the drug under severe duress.
While Whites arc was successfully set out and brought to closure, the future of Pinkman, as also the criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (the tremendous Bob Odenkirk), was left unaddressed at the end of Breaking Bad. The ongoing and brilliant spin-off prequel, Better Call Saul has provided us the history of Goodman and is still building up to how the promising attorney and erstwhile harmless conman turned heel completely. But there was still a void in the storyline of the other primary character Pinkman. This has been satisfactorily addressed in Netflixs El Camino: A Breaking Bad movie.
Pinkmans character arc in Breaking Bad was somewhat the opposite of Whites. While White sought more and more power and pursued evil increasingly not just as means but as an end in itself, Pinkman was increasingly riven with guilt and remorse, as he sought to move away from a career in crime and his meth addiction. White manipulates Pinkman to stay within the illegal fold before his universe implodes, only to result in the former becoming a fugitive and the latter becoming a captive.
Gilligan wanted to present the clear and present evil in American society, even in the unlikeliest of sources. Most of the flawed characters on Breaking Bad were guilty of some vice or the other; some, a minor peccadillo, others, gruesome and horrific crimes. But more importantly, his subliminal idea was that every action by every character on the show has consequences that are not of their intention. So while White dies of cancer, alone and estranged from his family, all of his associates in the drug trade encounter death and punishment in different ways. But Pinkman is subjected to the worst punishment forced to see his love interest killed in front of him as the white supremacists use murder to blackmail him to work as a slave for them.
El Camino tells us whether Pinkman gets to have his shot at redemption even as he is subjected to a massive manhunt from the Albuquerque police. Being a one-shot movie, the focus is only on Pinkman and his struggle to go underground and take over a new identity in order to start afresh a life outside of crime. The films narrative is linear, but quick scenes from Pinkmans past, with his previous partner White and his mentor-like character Mike Ehrmantraut, point to his ideas for the future and where he seeks to go.
Pinkman, unlike White, was no genius, but his assets were his resourcefulness and ability to thrive in crisis. He relies on these and on flashbacks and memories to find his journey anew. Some characters and their ways, such as the evil for evils sake Todd Alquist or why Skinny Pete considers Pinkman a hero, would be best understood by those who have seen Breaking Bad. But Pinkmans intriguing path towards closure is what makes up the movie, and can be relished even by viewers new to Gilligans universe.
Aaron Paul who plays Pinkman, retains the intensity from his award-winning earlier performance. We sense his inner pain and his rage, as also his desperation to turn over a new leaf. Its a remarkable achievement for an actor (and his director) that he generates so much empathy for a character who once killed the chemist Gale Boetticher in cold blood.
In a way, El Camino completes Breaking Bad, while retaining the nifty screenplay and gritty realism of its parent show, even if the climax seems a bit stretched and out of character. Perhaps Gilligan incorporated some alien elements to the storyline to match the movie medium.
Ultimately, El Camino is also a good appetiser for viewers to look at the larger Breaking Bad universe, which includes its excellent prequel Better Call Saul, the fifth season of which is expected to drop on Netflix in 2020.