When “Breaking Bad” premiered in January of 2008, it was the second so-called prestige TV series produced by cable channel AMC. After garnering critical acclaim for “Mad Men,” which premiered the year before, AMC’s second big drama also hit pay dirt. The story of chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his decision to become a meth kingpin after being diagnosed with incurable cancer was a hit with both critics and fans. (It won 16 Emmys in total over its five seasons.) Now, six years after the series ended, creator Vince Gilligan is back with a new movie, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” that wraps up the show’s one loose end from the finale. But interestingly, the movie won’t premiere on AMC: It’s on Netflix.
(“Breaking Bad” spoilers below — although if you haven’t watched the show, you probably shouldn’t watch the movie.)
“Breaking Bad” was good at many things, but its ability to stick that final landing made it truly special.
“Breaking Bad” was good at many things, but its ability to stick that final landing made it truly special. The series finale managed, in just a single episode, to wrap up every plotline that was still dangling. Gilligan said at the time he felt the only way to end the series was with a definitive and complete conclusion. White was killed, his enemies were slaughtered. His partner, former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was freed from captivity and escapes the massacre alive. The last scene shows him driving off into the night in an El Camino, free at last.
But those expecting the movie to start back up where they assumed this scene left off — Pinkman being chased toward Mexico by the cops in a classic car — will be disappointed. Instead, Jesse finds himself unable to leave Albuquerque, trapped both by physical and emotional roadblocks. Pinkman is as much a prisoner of his PTSD as he is by his need to find Walter’s money stash. Thus, the film plays like an extended two-hour episode where Jesse must work his way through a series of obstacles as he attempts to find his own closure. Each sequence is a step towards coming to terms with his experiences as he tries to begin building a new life.
For fans of the series, this is the closure for Jesse they always wanted. All the “Breaking Bad” faces one expects to show up do. (I counted 16 cameos, all told.) But it’s still a strange sort of film, especially coming on the heels of both the “Deadwood” and “Downton Abbey” movies. Both “Deadwood” and “Downton” were standalone pieces that behaved as such. Someone who had never seen either TV series would enjoy them just fine, even if they didn’t pick up on all the nuances. But “El Camino” does not bother with such niceties. Some of the characters need little explanation, like Skinny Pete and Badger (Charles Baker and Matt Jones), Jesse’s two stoner buddies. But others, like Jonathan Banks' fixer Mike, appear randomly with zero clues as to who they are or even if they are more than just memories.
If the movie premiered on AMC, and was treated like a TV movie special, this might have felt more excusable. But the movie is currently exclusive to Netflix with a “limited theatrical run,” and will eventually air on AMC “at a later date,” which is expected to be in 2020.
The original “Breaking Bad” series was a critical darling, but the first three seasons weren’t massively watched.
This is a rather remarkable statement of priorities for Gilligan and Sony producers. The original “Breaking Bad” series was a critical darling, but the first three seasons weren’t massively watched, bringing in around one million viewers per episode. (Ratings for the first three season finales clocked in at 1.5 million apiece.) Audiences didn’t really get on board with the series until season four — and that was due in large part to Netflix.
The sudden jump in average viewers between season three and season four can be attributed to something critics refer to as “The Netflix Effect,” which has since benefitted several shows. (The CW’s “Riverdale,” for instance, jumped a stunning 467 percent in teen viewership after the first season streamed on Netflix.) But “Breaking Bad’s” upward curve in audience viewership over the course of the final two-part season, which shot from two to 10 million viewers by the series finale, was practically unprecedented.
AMC is now one of the very few independently-owned cable channels left, the flagship channel of AMC Networks. It does have a hand in the streaming pie, after buying into the niche streamer of British and Australian programming, Acorn TV. This is a partnership that makes sense when one considers AMC Networks’ other channels — which regularly air British programming — like SundanceTV, IFC and BBC America. But Acorn doesn’t have the reach of Netflix, nor would something like a “Breaking Bad” follow-up make sense for that brand. Meanwhile, AMC doesn’t have the deep pockets to finance Vince Gilligan’s vision of shooting “El Camino” in a wide-screen format with a planned theatrical release. So instead, Netflix stepped up to foot the bill and use the power of its marketing department to trumpet the film’s premiere.
In short, the tables have turned, and where Netflix was once dependent on AMC for content, which it then promoted, now Netflix is the one taking the lead. This partnership also gave “El Camino” the chance to have its TV movie cake and eat it at the theaters, since Netflix is currently far better set up to distribute films than AMC. In short, while it’s not likely to be a hit with non-“Breaking Bad” fans, almost everyone else seems to be getting what they want with this film. Even Jesse Pinkman.