Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey, Gus Fring

An explosive "Breaking Bad" confirms the greatness of Giancarlo Esposito's soulful, fiendishly clever character

Topics: Breaking Bad, Television, TV,

Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey, Gus Fring

[Note: The following recap of "Breaking Bad" season four, episode 10 contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.]

As “Salud” began, Gustavo “Gus” Fring seemed a defeated man seeking compromise. He climbed into a small plane with his chief henchman Mike and his new favorite employee, Jesse, and flew to Mexico, to make piece with Don Eladio’s relentless cartel by teaching them how to cook Walter White’s blue meth recipe. Devoted viewers know that “Breaking Bad” is all about sudden, audacious reversals. Nevertheless, the series had done such a fine job of highlighting the cartel’s ferocity — capped with an attack on Gus’ processing plant that ended with Gus stalking right into the path of a sniper’s bullets — that I was inclined to believe that Gus really was going to Mexico to swallow his pride, make peace and give up the most valuable aspect of his operation.

By the end of the tenth episode of the show’s fourth season, all Gus’ enemies were dead — the victims of poisoning, a method of murder that “Breaking Bad” had threatened to inflict on one character or another (Gus included!) since season two.

The tipoff of a coming storm came when Gus stood at the edge of Don Eladio’s swimming pool — the same one where he’d seen his first cook murdered twenty years earlier — and subtly popped a small capsule. My first thought was, “Oh, dear. Will ‘Breaking Bad’ pull a bad television trick and give a major character some sort of debilitating medical condition that we’ve never heard about until now, and maybe kill him off with a heart attack?” My second thought, moments later, was, “This is part of a master plan. Gus is smarter than any of these people, and he will emerge victorious.” The second scenario came true. The pill was an emetic that allowed Gus to swallow the same poison that killed most of his enemies. (The scene of Gus forcing himself to throw up the poison in a bathroom was spot-on; it was shot in a way that suggested a religious ritual, a touch that connected it with Gus’ preparation of food in the dinner with Jesse and his meticulous donning and doffing of a jumpsuit in the murder sequence from “Box Cutter.“)



My favorite touch in this lengthy, brilliant sequence was the moment when Don Eladio tried to get Jesse to participate in the toast, and Gus politely excused him from it on grounds that he was a recovering addict and he wanted him to stay sharp so that he could cook more meth. As I’ve written previously, this is one of the keys to Gus’ continued success as an outwardly legitimate businessman and secret drug lord. He lies all the time, in large ways and small, but the lies are always wrapped around truth. There was genuine empathy in Gus’ intervention; I got the sense that on some level he respected Jesse’s newfound sobriety and wanted to encourage it. But of course what was really happening in that moment was pure mercenary cleverness: Gus wanted to keep Jesse alive because he was too valuable to sacrifice. He’d  already thought of exactly how to accomplish that goal, in a way that would not arouse the suspicion of Don Eladio, a prideful businessman like Gus. And he’d considered all the angles before bringing Jesse to Mexico, and paved the way for it so meticulously that nobody else in the organization — Mike included — could deduce where this entire thread was going to end up.

This is a pattern with Gus. Like so many great leaders, he has a talent for making people feel as though they’re extraordinarily important individuals who are right at the center of a drama when in fact they are peripheral players. Over the last few episodes we’ve been encouraged to think that Gus’ interest in Jesse was all about Jesse, and Jesse’s importance to the organization; but while this was partly true, it turned out that Gus’s interest in the young man was also part of a larger plan to preserve his own business and neutralize a rival. In retrospect we now realize that Gus never had any intention of installing Jesse as a cartel chef in Mexico, or making peace with Don Eladio. Accidentally or on purpose, the entire arc of Jesse’s character during the middle part of this season — being attached to Mike as a trainee bagman/enforcer, and being split off from Walt and groomed as a protege in whom Gus saw “great things”, and the intense early sequence in this week’s episode where Jesse took control of the cartel’s lab and successfully cooked his first solo batch — was all leading to that moment by the side of the pool, when Don Eladio offered Jesse a drink and Gus declined it for him. Jesse was but one pawn on a chessboard. Gus is the Bobby Fischer of drug violence.

Hell, let’s just say it: Gustavo “Gus” Fring is one of the greatest characters in the history of TV crime dramas, as great as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen and Mags Bennett (“Justified”). And yes, he’s the equal of Walter White — as psychologically rich and in some ways more fascinating, because he’s so more closed off and mysterious. Walt is emotionally transparent to us even when he’s hiding things from other characters. But Gus remains a question mark even though he seems to know himself better than anyone else on “Breaking Bad,” with the possible exception of Mike. Even if he’d been played by some other actor he would have been fascinating. But Giancarlo Esposito, with his haunted eyes and droopy-faced, Chuck Jones reactions, gives Gus an almost Shakespearean richness. I could picture this character sitting across a table from Macbeth or Shylock and having plenty to talk about.

The show is rife with images of surveillance but has never really teased them out; I wonder if Gus got the idea for the poison by visually or aurally surveilling Walt and Jesse? (A friend points out that this was a different poison than the ricin preferred by Walt, which takes up to 48 hours to work.) Perhaps when Jesse went over to his house that night, poisoned cigarette at the ready, Gus chose to serve food cooked in a common pot because he already knew he was being targeted. Or maybe great criminal minds think alike.

Will Gus survive until the end of the season, though? The episode’s climax suggested that he might have been critically wounded, or at least incapacitated for a while, by the poison. I hope (and suspect) that we haven’t seen the last of him. I hope we haven’t seen the last of Mike, either, but I’m less certain of this. “Breaking Bad” has expended a great deal of energy on Mike and Jesse’s mentor/pupil or surrogate father/son relationship, and the last few episodes have been centered on images of Jesse stepping up and becoming a vibrant, confident person for the first time since we met him. This seems like the dramatically right time to start phasing Mike out, and maybe Gus as well. The moment when Jesse took control of the cartel’s lab — even cutting down Don Eladio’s chef with his favorite epithet, “bitch” — felt like the culmination of a long, strange journey from snarling whippersnapper to legitimate badass, but I suspect the real payoff will happen next week, when we find out what became of Gus and Mike, Jesse’s bosses, as he helped them escape the compound. It’s not insignificant that in previous episodes, Jesse has often been pictured as a passenger in somebody else’s vehicle, but at the end of “Salud,” he had to get behind the wheel and drive.

If Gus and Mike get taken out of the picture by injury, death or prison, who will be left to run Gus’ organization? Presumably either Tyrus, Jesse or both. I get the feeling we’re headed in that direction. It would be richly ironic and very funny if, at the end of “Breaking Bad,” Jesse ended up as as Walter White’s boss.

The rest of the episode was mostly strong, but its other subplots couldn’t help but be overshadowed by the action in Mexico.

Walt’s tearful confession of helplessness to his son, Walter Jr., was one of Bryan Cranston’s best moments as an actor (and one of RJ Mitte’s as well). It also confirmed that “Breaking Bad” excels at staging dramatic scenes in which characters speak with naked honestly about themselves while engaged in deep deception. (Walt’s confession was about a gambling incident that didn’t actually happen, but it was really about all the choices he’s made since the series began — choices that alienated him from his wife and children even though they were made in their name.) I love the subtle parallels between Walt. Jr. and Jesse — two sons forced to care for helpless father figures, and to grow up as a result. This is the striving son/bad daddy season of “Breaking Bad,” isn’t it?

The subplot with Skyler secretly giving over $600,00 to Ted to help him settle his IRS debts, however, was just dumb. I didn’t believe that she would do something that impulsive and risky, I didn’t believe that even a game-for-anything sleazebag like Saul would take part it in it, and I didn’t believe that Ted, dense though he obviously is, would accept it without at least making a few phone calls to check it out. The whole thread was an embarrassment to the series. The less said about it, the better.

What did you think?

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