Periodically in any great series – The Sopranos, Mad Men and now Breaking Bad – there comes a time to do an explainer episode, something that provides backstory to a major character, a flashback that can illuminate all kinds of issues, but mostly motivation.
In “Hermanos,” one of the best episodes of Season 4, creator Vince Gilligan and his writers decided it was time to take a closer look at Gustavo Fring, the chicken king of the Southwest and, as we’ve seen in earlier episodes this season, a drug kingpin on the verge of being taken down as all sides of his world collapse in on him.
Well, at least that’s what appeared to be in the works. But by giving Gus a flashback episode, Gilligan has muddied the waters of intent quite a bit here. Is this the first sign of a fond farewell to an amazing character or is it a way to show viewers that Gus may be powerful enough to survive not only what the Mexican cartel has in store for him but any DEA issues as well? (Still not known is whether he’ll get slipped Walt’s untraceable killer chemistry concoction.)
In either case, perhaps it’s time to admit what was pretty obvious but also not: That the Gus character, who looked for all the world like a bit player and perhaps part of an arc that would be over and done with soon or even shunted to the side, has been in integral part of Breaking Bad and Giancarlo Esposito’s performance is one of the most understated and under-appreciated on the small screen. It's like Gus was a feint. We met him, but his role didn't appear all that large. It's a seed that has just grown, organically, since the moment the writers stuck it in the ground. That's fine patience.
What stood out so marvelously in “Hermanos” were all the connections from Gustavo’s past and how they are reverberated in the present. Secondarily, if we had somehow forgotten, the writers reminded us that Gus is an OG power-player and that Chile vs. Mexico is still a very big deal.
In the flashback, so much came together. We met Max, the “brother” in Pollos Hermanos, and learned that he was “the chef” and that Gus was the brains, or the business partner, as the two attempted to do business with the powerful Mexican cartel leader Don Eladio. Who was one of Don Eladio’s henchman? Hector Salamanca, better known as the frantic bell-ringing Tio Salamanca, uncle to The Cousins and father-figure to Tuco (now all dead). We see Hector pissing in Don Eladio’s pool, a sign that he may have eventually overthrown him to run the cartel.
And of course Hector is the one who coldly shoots Max at point blank range, filling Don Eladio’s pool with blood. When Gus tries to take his rage out on Hector, we find out via Don Eladio that the only reason Max is dead instead of Gus is that “I know who you are.”
That means, even back then (the '80s?), Gus was a well-known, powerful entity from Chile and someone big enough to not kill, for fear of an even bigger drug war.
Of course, we’ve already known that Gus stopped The Cousins from killing Walt as payback for killing Tuco. Instead, Gus steered them toward Hank (and then probably sent word to Hank, via Mike, that The Cousins were about to kill him in the parking lot), allowing Hank just enough time to inflict some damage.
As the pieces fit together, we know that Gus even had the power to kill another Mexican cartel leader, Juan Bolsa, at his super-fortified hideout just by making a call. Juan Bolsa, you’ll recall, had utmost respect for Hector Salamanca. And so this episode set up, via Gus’s visit to the retirement compound where Hector is living out his final days, that “this is what comes from blood for blood.” And clearly "this" isn't over (even if reminding Hector in detail how The Cousins died gave Gus some pleasure).
In a return visit – will this be the day? – we see Gus’s patient viciousness as he taunts the last days of Hector’s life (and perhaps his attempt to get something else out of him). This vengeance plot point is sublimely juicy. Remember when the flashback to the younger Hector, in a previous season, introduced The Cousins? And how Hector belittled “the chicken man” and Chile iteself? Can’t wait to find out more about this rivalry and what other things Gus eventually did to Hector. Ding-ding!
But maybe the most satisfying flashback reveals in “Hermanos,” had to do with all the correlation from the past to the present. There was Gus’s real love of Max, who he pulled from the streets and educated (a later reference point to Gale and the alleged scholarship program Gus set up in the States – fantastic detail). And in that scene, before Hector kills Max, it’s Max who pleads to Don Eladio that he needs and absolutely has to have Gus as his partner, which mirrors what Walt said to Gus about Jesse and what Jesse will say about Walt next week (unfortunately I saw the “next week on” preview, since I had to watch “Hermanos” on TV rather than DVD). Anyway, all of these strands are wonderful. How Gustavo long ago knew that meth was the designer drug of the future and how he set about to create, in essence, a chemist who could produce the world’s best meth, and how that links not only to Max and Walt and Gale but also Jesse.
Yes, Jesse. Remember how Don Eladio went out of his way to praise Max’s chicken? That there was something spicy about it, something – he searches for the word – “piquant” to it?
Picante, bitch. That little chili-pepper signature that Jesse, as Cap’N Cook, used to put in his meth.
(Oh, you Breaking Bad writers, I bow down to you. How positively Wire-esque, you density wonks. Just…remarkable.)
Now that we know more about Gustavo Fring – if, as Hank notes, that’s even his real name – what are we to make of his character with this new information? You can see, in all the strands of that flashback, how Gus could find someone like Gale so intriguing and likeable and how Walt, while initially equally intriguing, is much more annoying to Gus. And you can see some sympathy for Jesse in there, too. But the bigger question is, did we get “Hermanos” as a way to bid farewell to Gus in a satisfyingly mature and comprehensive way all great shows go about fleshing out characters for depth? And now he’ll get killed off and we’ll know how all the pieces mattered? Or was this Gilligan and Co.’s way of alerting viewers that the noose closing in on Gus may not end up being all that tight? That we shouldn't just assume he's going to come out on the bad end of all this by the finale?
Because now the history of Don Eladio and Hector, Tuco, The Cousins and the Mexican cartels as it relates to Chile and Gus is a potentially fascinating new direction. How important is Chile in this? What really is in Gustavo Fring’s past, pre 1989? Military? Government? What? Is that a direction about to be explored?
There are enough episodes left in Season 4 for that to play out – and for the personal animosity between Gus and Hector to have its revenge finale. But you have to wonder if our little bit player who wouldn’t leave – Esposito/Gus – isn’t still vital to the ending (16 episodes) beyond this season. I mean, it’s Breaking Bad – they can blow up the whole Gus-cartel-Hank-Walt thing in an episode or two and leave everybody reeling until next year. They absolutely have that capacity and to guess where this is all going is futile.
But let’s say Gus, as Walt’s employer, is out of the picture by season’s end. So, too, must the Mexican cartel be removed as a threat. And possibly Hank, though there are diversions for that. But is the future of Walt back on the corners he and Jesse couldn’t handle? Must his super lab existence, his meteoric rise, be downgraded back to street leve? Is that street level peddling through the car wash? Are those 16 episodes going to be devoted to Walt’s slow comeuppance and the devastating emotional fall-out of the actions he undertook in Season 1?
Damn you, Breaking Bad, for leaving so many possibilities and having a reputation for the unexpected.
Anyway, here are some further notes as we all wait to find out just who Gustavo Fring really is:
1. Loved the color of Tio’s hair – blue – offset by the TV screen. It might be my favorite perfectly framed shot of the season.
2. Hank has only been battling cancer for “the better part of a year,” so if you’re doing your Season 4 vs. Real Time math, there you go.
3. Waltisms: “Never give up control. Live life on your own terms.” “Every life comes with a death sentence.” “Until then, who’s in charge? Me. That’s how I live my life.”
4. Print it: “Pollos Hermanos, where something delicious is always cooking.”
5. Loved how the unflappable Gus betrayed some worry when he saw the police sketch of Victor as he was awaiting his interview with the DEA. Then he absolutely nailed the questioning session. “This guy is Terms of Endearment convincing.” – Hank on Gus. Of course, Hank doesn’t believe any of it.
6. “There’s no record of Gustavo Fring having ever existed in Chile.” – Hank. He set Gus off by asking him if that was his real name.
7. The twitching and dinging in the elevator after Gus’ police interview – ruffled. Finger twitching. Bell ringing as he descended floors. Really nice scene, especially since the bell ringing was reminiscent of Tio/Hector.
8. Loved the goofy organ music when Skyler was vacuum-sealing the money into clothes to hang in the closet. Plus, wearing green. As in money. Then storing the money under the house, stacked like dead bodies.
9. “Made me keep at it.” – Hank telling Walt about this drunken admission that Gale was no genius and that Heisenberg was still out there.
10. Did Gus kill Gale?, Walt asks knowing better: “These guys use a dunce to pull the trigger,” Hank says. That was more painful than funny.
11. Mike pulling up along side of Hank trying to get Walt to put the GPS tracker on Gus’s car. One word: Yes. That scene was perfect – except I wanted it to go on longer, to increase the squirm.
12. Jesse’s shirt. Whoa.
13. Walt’s continued cluelessness about Jesse’s emotional state and how Walt’s own actions have damaged other people: “Besides, you actually did kill Gale, so there’s that.” Yep, there’s that. Walt, desperate to get Jesse and Gus together so that Jesse can use the poison to kill Gus. “This is all good fodder for you to request a sit down with Gus. Trust me, he’ll meet with you if he thinks you’re a liability.” Jesse: “No, he’ll waste me if he thinks I’m a liability.”
14. Walt’s burgeoning paranoia. Especially as it pertains to Jesse.
15. “If I can’t find any trace of you before ’89, I seriously doubt Schrader can.” – Mike to Gus on the Chile thing. Yeah, the Chile thing. Piquant!