[Note: The following recap of "Breaking Bad" season Four, episode eight contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.]
Where to begin describing "Hermanos," the tightest, scariest episode of "Breaking Bad" this year?
I could start with that closeup of the blood in the swimming pool, glimpsed briefly in a preliminary flashback by Gustavo Fring; blue-green water with crimson seeping into it. A lovely and mysterious image, one of the best on a series that's very, very good at showcasing abstract and often haunting close-ups. Or I could start by admiring the show's decision to structure that last act as a long flashback that showcased one of the program's more spectacular talents, its ability to put you in the middle of a real-time moment of violence that builds with a nightmarish mix of inevitability and surprise.
Or I could begin with a caveat that I'm sure fans probably don't want to hear: that an episode like this one is best evaluated a week or two after it airs. On a TV series like "Breaking Bad," which prides itself on "Oh my God, I can't believe they did that!" moments, a setpiece of slow-build bloodletting can leave viewers dizzzy, and inclined toward superlatives. I call this reaction "adrenaline inflation." I remember experiencing it right after the season 3 "Sopranos" episode "University," the one where the loathsome Ralphie Cifaretto beat his pregnant stripper girlfriend Tracee to death. That sequence and its aftermath (Tony thrashing Ralphie) were so overwhelming that it took a few days for me to admit that the episode as a whole was basically an inferior, x-rated attempt to one-up a similarly structured (and similarly titled) season one episode, "College", but with schematic parallels between Ralphie's sexist cruelty toward Tracee and Meadow's psychological abuse by her college beau. The bloody horror depicted in "University" overwhelmed close readings right after the fact; in the hours after it aired, I thought it was groundbreaking, when in reality it was mostly just ugly. Graphic violence sometimes has that effect on critical faculties. It's like a set of high-beam headlights blaring in your face while you're trying to drive a winding road at night.
So let's put all that aside for a moment and praise Giancarlo Esposito, who's been nothing short of masterful as Gustavo "Gus" Fring. Gus is one of the most fascinating criminal characters in TV history -- an outwardly legitimate businessman who brings a law-abiding entrepreneur's steely concentration to an illegal enterprise. Among his many fascinating qualities is the way he's managed to hide in plain sight, just as Walt is trying awkwardly to do (with Skyler and Saul's counsel).
It's possible that any halfway decent actor could have knocked such a well-written role out of the park, but Esposito is flat-out brilliant as Gus -- partly because of the coiled energy that comes from having been cast against type (he often plays more demonstrative, even flamboyant men) but mainly because he's the subtlest actor on the show, rivaled only by Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike.
Everything Gus says and does can be measured in microns. His actions and reactions are exquisitely calibrated. Watching him, you believe that a spicy Col. Sanders-wannabe who's supposedly smart and risk-averse would move crystal meth inside buckets of fry batter plainly marked with little adhesive stars. On first glance such a tactic seems counter-intuitive. But because Esposito plays most of Gus' scenes with an edge of intellectual arrogance, this whole aspect of "Breaking Bad" acquires an edge of gamesmanship. Gus isn't taking the path of least resistance. He's challenging himself, trying to see how much he can get away with -- a quality that links Gus to his star employee, the increasingly prideful and reckless Walter White.
Watching Esposito, I also believe that Gus is a truly great liar. The scene at the beginning of this episode where he throws the DEA off the scent was a bit silly, verging on Nathan Thurm territory; as Hank said later, if Gus were truly legit, and if Gale had graduated from college via a scholarship paid for by Gus, wouldn't Gus have come forward with his alibi immediately after hearing of Gale's murder? But Esposito's soft-spoken charisma and classiness made you buy it, just as the other DEA guys bought it. Whenever Walt lies, he switches into a different mode; he practically become another person. In fact there are times where Walt's lies are indicated so broadly that I have trouble believing he could fool anyone. This is never the case with Gus. His falsehoods are always smoothly integrated with truth, liked marked cards slipped into a deck.
That scene with the DEA guys is a great example; because of the violent past incident that we see later -- the death of his first protege/partner -- it seems quite likely that Gus really did feel some affection for Gale, even if it was a slightly detached, almost scientific affection, the sort that a lab researcher might feel toward a guinea pig in one of his experiments. In that scene I believed I was seeing a courtly and dignified legitimate businessman who was still dealing with the aftershock of hearing that one of his scholarship students had been slain. Then there was that cover story about Gale approaching Gus about a "business venture" -- a smart bit of writing made smarter through Esposito's performance. This was an example of a character raiding his own past, grabbing a legitimately painful memory (one that we see played out in the final act, with young Gus and his partner approaching the cartel with their own business venture) and twisting it into an anecdote that enhances his images as a law-abiding citizen. A smart fellow, Gustavo.
Now let's return to that ending by the pool. My major misgiving about "Hermanos" is that the episode -- particularly the finale -- "explained" Gus, and as powerful as this episode was, in retrospect I wish they hadn't done that. Regular readers know that I tend to distrust any scene or subplot that "explains" a previously mysterious and inscrutable character; I'm not saying this is right or wrong, just that it's my preference and I'm copping to it. When I come across a character like Gus -- a complex man whose motives are often hazy -- I prefer to imagine the forces that made him who he is. When a show provides me with a key of sorts -- and that's definitely what the extended poolside flashback felt like, a key -- it diminishes the character in my eyes.
Does anybody out there remember how a later season of NBC's "Homcide: Life on the Street" finally "explained" the dark, troubled, deviant behavior of Det. Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) by giving him a backstory of sexual abuse? I disliked that twist, not because it wasn't believable (it was very believable) but because it affixed a psychological label to a character who had previously been open to interpretation -- a blank slate onto which viewers could project whatever they wished.
So now we know that Gus has has been endlessly replaying this mentor-protege relationship ever since he was starting out in the meth business. He paid for Gale's education just as he paid for his first partner's education. Gus' orbit is filled with men in mentor-protege relationships, and right now he's engaged in a contest of wills, trying to pull Walter's protege Jesse away from him and transform him into a Gus Fring loyalist. (This is a contest I don't think Walt can win; when he hammered on Jesse in this episode, all but demanding that he poison Gus and get it over with, you could sense Jesse pulling away from him, almost flinching at Walt's neediness and panic.)
Gus is still a terrific character, but that amazing final setpiece -- and how perfectly cast was "Scarface" veteran Steven Bauer as Don Eladio? -- comes at a tradeoff. A huge question mark has been replaced with a period.
When Gus first told Jesse, "I like to think I see things in people," we had to guess what it meant, and the act of guessing illuminated Gus, Jesse, Mike, Walt and everyone else on the series. When Jesse paraphrased the line earlier in this episode, it was still mysterious. But by the end, with that tragic closeup of Gus' face as he watched his partner's blood gush into the pool, it was no longer mysterious.
Yes, certain question marks remain unresolved. "“Is Gustavo Fring your real name?” Hank asks Gus, trying to find out how Gus got from Chile to the United States, and why the paper trail disappears around 1986. But this is more a matter of housekeeping than psychology. We now know that on some level the middle-aged Gus is still trying to replay that traumatic past event, but with a different, happy ending. A big piece of the puzzle has been filled in, but is that a good thing? The character has gained clarity, but at the expense of mystery.
How do you feel about the tradeoff? Let's talk about all this -- and the ongoing astonishments of Dean Norris' acting, and that wonderful, mortifying shot of Walt and Hank sitting in the parking lot with Mike looking on, and Skyler's plastic clothing bags full of cash, which were framed and lit to evoke body bags, and everything else in this arresting, problematic episode -- in the Letters section. And as you nitpick --or chastise me for nitpicking! -- let's bear in mind that "Breaking Bad" is one of the few current dramas about which we can have this type of conversation. As my grandfather used to say, that's not nothing.