A review of tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as I add a plus-douchebag to a minus-douchebag...
"This is what comes of blood for blood, Hector." -Gus
Early in "Hermanos," Hank asks Gus if Gustavo Fring is, in fact, his real name, and we're reminded of just how little we actually know of the Chicken Man, who appeared one day at Walt and Jesse's booth at Los Pollos Hermanos and has now become the big boogeyman of Walter White's life. Who is this extremely efficient, almost robotic businessman, why does he act this way, why was he so willing to take the reckless Walter under his wing, and what exactly is his relationship with the cartel?
By the end of "Hermanos," we have the answer to many of these questions, including our glimpse of a younger Gus who had not yet learned to keep his emotions under such tight control.
And what was most interesting to me was just how much young Gus and his "brother" Max reminded me of Walt and Jesse back in the day.
It's not an exact one-to-one parallel or anything, but in both cases you have two partners, one something of a mentor to the other. One is a brilliant chemist(*), and both are in over their heads breaking into the drug game, convinced that their superior product will be so appealing that it'll allow them to stay bloodless in a very bloody business.
(*) And learning what we know now of Max, and of Gus and Max's friendship, explains an awful lot about Gus, why he's so fascinated with chemistry and why he would be willing to take on the unreliable Walter White just because of what Gale said about the purity of the blue meth. He's doing what he's doing to make money, and to get revenge on the cartel, but the Super Lab and the chemistry scholarship and many of the other things he does serve the dual purpose of paying tribute to his fallen friend.
In Walt and Jesse's case, they survived their initial encounter with Emilio and Krazy-8, but only just. Max wasn't so lucky, and Gus apparently only survived because of something to do with his mysterious past under another name in Chile.
And Gustavo Fring wails, and he whimpers, and he has to just lie there and stare at his good friend Max as his blood drains into Don Eladio's pool. And even without the jump back to the present, where time and poor health have now made Tio Hector as helpless and full of fury as Gus was lying by the pool, it's not hard to draw a line from that moment to the man Gus has become: one who is not only smart, but cold and calculating and, if need be, ruthless.
He has, in other words, become exactly the kind of man that Walter White fancies himself to be when he tells the fellow cancer patient that his philosophy is "Never give up control. Live life on your own terms."
Walt has never been quite able to pull that off, though, whether because of circumstance or the weaknesses of his own personality. For the most part, Gus has. He has this enormous empire. He set up Juan Bolsa (the other man at the table with Tio and Don Eladio) to be killed during the raid back in last season's "I See You," and while he can't physically hurt Tio any more than the stroke did, he can sure twist the emotional knife about how he arranged for Marco and Leonel to be killed.
And yet... this origin story for the Chicken Man comes not at a moment where he's at the unassailable peak of his evil powers, but when he seems rather vulnerable, even frantic.
That interrogation scene with Hank, ASAC Merkert, Gomez and Tim is one of the first times we've ever seen Gus in a setting where he has absolutely no control and is at a disadvantage, information-wise. He improvises well, and fools everyone but Hank, but when he gets into the elevator afterwards, there's a look on his face we haven't seen before, one that shows how little he likes it when a situation arises that he couldn't foresee and can't wrestle to the ground. It is not a good look.
The camera pushes in on Gus in that moment, just as it does to Walt at the end of the scene at Jesse's house, after Walt has had a similarly shocking revelation about Jesse's loyalty. The ground Walt stands on has never been as firm as it seemed to be for Gus, but each man is at a precipice now. Walt feels completely alone, convinced Jesse has turned on him and will eventually start plotting with Gus and Mike to kill him. And Gus is caught between a rock (the cartel) and a hard place (Hank's rogue investigation coming at the worst possible time), with a high potential for acid rain (Walt) at any moment.
There's also the matter of partners. Gus's dies in front of him in the 1980s. Walt's appears to have betrayed him today. And Hank's partner still works for the DEA, while Hank himself is so off the reservation, and still injured enough from being shot by Marco, that he has to turn Walter White - whom he thinks of as an effete, spineless intellectual - into his partner.
Making your way in the world of this show alone is very, very tough. Even Gus hasn't really pulled it off. (Where would his organization be without Mike?) At the moment, Gus, Walt and Hank all seem alone on one level or another, and very vulnerable. Very bad things could happen to any or all of them as they go up against one another, especially with the cartel out there as another wild card. Gus ultimately got his victory over the men who brought him low beside Don Eladio's pool, but no man stays at the top of the food chain forever. We've seen that with Tio, and we may see it with Gus before the series is out.
But whether or not Gus falls, and when, this was a great showcase for Giancarlo Esposito, and another superb hour of season 4.
Some other thoughts:
• Given the number of times Vince Gilligan has invoked "Scarface" in discussing the idea behind the show, it's amazing it took until midway through season 4 to actually get a notable "Scarface" alum to guest star. Al Pacino's not available, but they got the next-best thing in Steven Bauer to play Don Eladio. Goal for next season: see if Michelle Pfeiffer will do episodic guest work.
• In the waiting room scene, Walt suggests it's been less than a year since his cancer diagnosis. That seems a bit on the tight edge, if only because the show's lifespan has included Skyler's entire pregnancy, and a lot of things - Walt's recovery from surgery, the plane crash and aftermath, Jesse's rehab, Hank being paralyzed and regaining a good chunk of his mobility - that would take many months combined at a minimum have taken place since Holly was born. Still, as with "The Shield," "Sons of Anarchy" and some other dramas, the show is taking place in much less time than it's taken us to watch it.
• Good things tend to happen when you put Hank Schrader in a parking lot. Last year, we got the insane suspense of the shootout in "One Minute" (and Gus alluded to the origin of the warning phone call in his flashback discussion with Tio), and tonight we got the simultaneously suspenseful and hilarious sequence outside Los Pollos Hermanos, with Walt panicking while a puzzled but amused Mike sits in his car and pretends to read the paper. I also loved Walt and Gus's first in-person interaction since the season premiere. Walt finally gets the face-to-face with Gus he'd been hoping for, but when he reaches into his jacket, it's not for the gun to kill him, but a gesture of supplication with the GPS tracker. And Gus's "Do it" was the first time we've seen his placid Los Pollos Hermanos demeanor seem like a strained performance.
• Two weeks ago, we got our first look at Walt's surgical scar in a while, and tonight Walt goes in for a PET scan, and we are not privy to the results - but do get to see Walt looking very contemplative as he works in the Super Lab afterwards. Is he telling the truth to his family at the dinner table, or are we preparing for a late-season revelation that the cancer has returned, and that the knowledge of it has emboldened Walt to do something particularly reckless against Gus and Mike?
• First Skyler has to look up money laundering on the internet, and now she's literally putting the overflow of cash in with the (clean) laundry in vacuum bags. Heh. Also glad to see just how much use this show and the Whites have gotten out of that crawl space under the house, which was previously the site of one of Walt's more obsessive fix-it projects, as well as the way he broke into the house last season after Skyler changed the locks.
• Interesting compass point for Jesse's current sense of self-worth: he'll pay for Andrea and Brock to move into a nice house in a safer neighborhood, and have Saul check up on them both each week, but can't handle getting out of the car himself to see them. On the plus side, at least he started painting over all the damage done to the house by the tweakers. And I'm still not 100% sure he's as on Gus's side as Walt understandably thinks he is. I think Jesse's still deciding what to do, though at the moment, Gus and Mike seem like the more appealing option.
• Is it ever not fun when a cop or other detective pulls the "just one more question" trick from "Columbo," as Hank does to Gus with the issue of his name?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org