No doubt Breaking Bad will circle back around to having Walter White as its protagonist, antihero, and general moral object lesson by the end of its final season. But for now, the show is about everybody other than Walter. And don’t we prefer it that way? It’s still a hoot to see Walter scrambling to regain his feet, whether he’s spouting some bullshit about “never give up control, live life on your own terms” to a poor cancer patient just wanting to share a moment with a fellow sufferer, yelling ultimatums at a security camera, or grovelling when the powers that be actually show up in his life in all their magnificent potency. But Walter is going nowhere fast. He’s in pure survival mode, and his only consolation is the self-delusion that allows him to rationalize being a complete asshole to everybody he claims to care about. What makes us sit up and take notice, what arouses fear and pity and the horrific question of what we want to see happen, are the men whose lives are on the move and on whose actions hinge real consequences—Gus, Hank, Jesse.
Let’s take them one by one. Tonight’s episode is about Gus, and the flashback structure reveals the reality behind the Los Pollos Hermanos name, as well as providing some insight into the conflicts that have returned to haunt Gus in the present. We learn that he had a partner, a gifted chemist named Maximilio Arseniega (I'm guessing on the spelling, by the way, and counting on those of you with closed-captioning to correct me), who developed a high-class strain of meth under cover of the pair’s burgeoning chicken restaurant business. Hoping to strike up a partnership with the Mexican cartel, they hooked up the foot soldiers of its head honcho, Don Eladio, with samples of their product. Their pitch is for Eladio to diversify his Colombian cocaine distribution operation with a homegrown product, one whose production he controls and whose profits he need not pass along to a supplier. But Eladio finds their approach less clever and more disrespectful; they produced drugs in his territory and maneuvered him into a meeting. As his boorish henchman Hector (the bell-tapping cripple we know as Tio) shoots Maximilio in the head, Eladio tells Gustavo that the only reason he’s still alive is “because I know who you are.”
It’s an allusion to Fring’s still-mysterious Chilean past, and it suggests that this past has made him infamous, untouchable, or perhaps controllable. I’ll be interested to find out which it is. This flashback, however, around which the whole episode is built, with teaser cuts to blood flowing into Don Eladio’s pool, left me somewhat cold. As background for Gus’s motives, I’m not sure it works any better to show the whole scene than to allude to it, let it come out in pieces, or perhaps have Gus recount it dispassionately at some point. As a piece of backstory, I already knew the main points before the scene finished playing out; clearly the partner was the chemist Gus mentioned in his interview with the police, and therefore, he was going to die, and just as clearly, the cartel and Gus were not going to wind up on the best of terms. The added value of letting the scene play out for us is the irony of Maximilio pleading for the cartel to spare his partner, even claiming “I need him,” the same argument Walter wields to shield Jesse. But even that is a bit pat, it seems to me, unless it has repercussions down the line for how Gus chooses to treat history repeating itself (with roles reversed).
Happily, Gus’ story is centered not there, but around a scene of pure Breaking Bad magnificence: his interrogation. It’s clear he’s concerned about the walls closing in as he eyes a wanted poster with a drawing of Victor’s face while waiting in at APD HQ. Confronted with his fingerprints at Gale’s crime scene, Gus barely bats an eye. He explains that Gale was one of the beneficiaries of a chemistry scholarship fund he endowed at UNM in Maximilio’s name. They lost touch, but Gale had recently approached him with an investment opportunity, which Gus interpreted as a naked request for money by a man in financial straits. Gus declined, they had a nice dinner at Gale’s, and the next thing Gus knew, the papers were running stories about the murder. He has an alibi for the night of the murder—a fundraiser he attended at the hospital. Any further questions?
And that’s when Hank pulls out his only remaining ace: Fring’s mysterious Chilean past. Seems he turned up in Mexico in 1986 and entered the U.S. a few years later, all nice and legal, but there are no records of a man with that name in Chile prior to that date. “Is Gustavo Fring your real name?” Hank asks with studied curiosity. Gus is momentarily rattled but easily counters Hank by pointing out the spotty record-keeping in the Pinochet years. Afterward, nobody around the table thinks Gus is hiding anything—except Hank, whose cocky wink at Fring’s farewell turns into crestfallen collapse as soon as he’s gone. It’s a devastating moment for Hank-as-protagonist, whose salvation through detective work was last week’s jump-up-and-cheer moment. But for Gus, it’s a clear, if temporary, win. If Hank continues investigating, it will be on his own: “Miss Daisy with binoculars” as Mike puts it (alluding to Hank’s need to be chauffeured around).
Who gets the Morgan Freeman role in that scenario? Why, Walter White, who is all enthused about describing his teenage mineral collection to Hank until he finds out that he’s not driving his brother-in-law to a gem show but to Los Pollos Hermanos, where he will put a GPS tracker (“$289 from SkyMall! Unfortunately, it’s not live view, so we have to come back later, take it off, stick it in the computer, but hey, wonderful times we’re living in!”) on Fring’s car (“the guy drives a 10-year-old Volvo, it’s brilliant!”). What ensues is a gut-busting scene of tense comedy, as Walter pretends to place the tracker then walks into the restaurant where, to his horror and shame, Gus, the man Mike said he’d never see again, sweeps behind the register to take his order. “I didn’t do it. See?” Walter mumbles like a kid caught redhanded. “Good. Do it," Gus insists, then repeats,"May I help you with your order?” So Walter has to kneel down beside the Volvo again on his way back to the car, a move he explains to Hank as “just making sure it was secure.” Naturally, he can’t wait to get to the lab and harangue the security camera like he didn’t have the guts to do when he saw Gus in person: “Evidence-wise, he has nothing, he’s operating on pure conjecture … If something were to happen to Hank, that would only draw their attention to you, and then to me as well. … We have a mutual interest in resolving this without violence. I will make sure that he discovers nothing.” So now, Walter is recasting his value to the Fring organization as the only man who can lead Hank away from Gus’s trail.
Of course, what he really wants is Gus gone, but not by Hank’s hand. So he hightails it to Jesse’s house (where a closeup of his fingertips repeatedly pressing the doorbell echoes earlier shots of Gus’s fingers twitching in the elevator, Walter tapping on the steering wheel, and Tio’s finger hovering over his bell) and insists that “the timetable has been moved up.” But Jesse’s got his own arc now, with his own ambitions and loyalties. If there were any doubt they’ve diverged from Walter’s, Jesse’s baldfaced lie when Walter asks if he’s seen Gus since the diner conversation removes them. And thanks to the text Walter intercepts on Jesse’s phone, he knows it, too. Why might Jesse be less interested in Walter’s well-being than in Gus’? Well, Saul is delivering stacks of Jesse-cash to Andrea and Brock in a spacious new home; that’s something for him to live for, even though he’s keeping his distance from them for the moment. More pressingly, Jesse contradicts Walter’s claim that he could manipulate Gus into a meeting if the boss thought Jesse might be a liability: “No, he will waste my ass if he thinks I’m a liability.” What does Walter have to motivate Jesse’s loyalty, other than a bright future of constant hectoring and self-absorbed whining?
While Walter advocates survival at all costs and with no thought for tomorrow, Gus, Hank, and Jesse are playing much longer games. The framing device does serve one very interesting purpose in this regard. Gus is playing at revenge along with professional success, and as we saw in the pilot, revenge can lead to moves that rationality would eschew. Gus wants Hector to know that he was responsible for the nephews' death, that he erased the trail of the call to Hank by arranging for Juan Bolsa to be killed in Mexico, that today might be the day blood is required for Maximilio’s blood. But then he leaves Hector drooling: “Maybe next time.” If Gus is mixing his past with his present and personal vendettas with business, the resulting impurities could be his downfall. For us, faced with three men on uncertain trajectories, the question is: Whom do we want to succeed?
- Some beautiful parallel shot set-ups in this episode, from the aforementioned finger closeups to repeated shots of Walter pausing before donning uniforms of shame (the medical gown, the yellow lab jumpsuit).
- Desperate to find a place to hide the mounds of cash Walter is bringing home, Skyler packs them in between clothing layers in vacuum space bags, but after the weight collapses her closet hang bag, she dumps them in the crawl space under the house, the same crawl space where Walter once did battle with fungus.
- Marie is wearing yellow when she and Hank come to dinner at the White household. Has she fallen victim to jaundice? Where’s the purple?
- Employees at Los Pollos Hermanos must answer the phone with the rather lengthy slogan, “Los Pollos Hermanos, where something delicious is always cooking!”
- While Andrea’s new neighbor eyes Huell suspiciously outdoors, inside Saul is winding up a lengthy story about an elementary school crush whose parents moved to Scottsdale, “so carpe diem, boy, okay?”
- Walter claims his PET CT scan shows his cancer still in remission, but he hesitates a bit before saying it. Hm.
- Jesse has a neater solution to Walter’s Gus problem: “You add plus douchebag to minus douchebag, and you get like, zero douchebags.”
- “He probably used a dunce to pull the trigger,” Hank opines when telling Walter why Gus is connected to Gale’s murder despite having an alibi. Poor Jesse. No matter who’s discussing him, they assume he’s just a tool.
- “Your chicken, it is so… zesty! Piquant!”