This Sunday, on Breaking Bad’s Very Special Labor Day Episode, we got the inspiring backstory of Gus Fring, a Chilean immigrant who, through hard work and better chemistry, became the fried chicken and crystal meth kingpin of the Southwestern United States. Where would this great country be if seething workers like Walt or Gus or Hank weren’t always dreaming of being their own bosses — even if it means doing terrible things to get there?
“Never give up control,” Walt says to a fellow cancer patient, distilling the entrepreneurial spirit. “Live life on your own terms … Until [death], who’s in charge? Me.” Cut to: Walter, that live-free-or-die guy, boxed into just one of many windows on big man Gus’s laptop screen. Despite the fascinating suggestion that Jesse is lying to unstable Walt and aligning himself with Gus, this episode is all about how Gus became the boss, and how he’s likely angling to become an even bigger one.
In a classic piece of this show’s breakneck pacing, there’s no waiting for the face-off between Hank and Gus. Immediately, they’re in a room together. Gus is controlled as ever with a smooth alibi, but that stricken look in the elevator hints at his unease, and this episode finally allows Giancarlo Esposito to broaden Gus’s range beyond the creepy and sadistic. (Though nothing was creepier or more creepily sadistic than his scene with Walt in Pollos Hermanos.) The episode does a fascinating job of tempering Gus’s eerie strength with some complex vulnerability.
The season premiere of Mad Men’s last season began with the question, “Who is Don Draper?” This episode asks, “Who is Gus Fring?” First off, Gus and Max aren’t really brothers, though Max says Gus treated him like one. So, were Gus and Max lovers? There’s no indication other than the homophobic joke Hector makes after pissing in Don Eladio’s pool. “They like what they see,” says Hector. Is Gus gay or bisexual, or is Hector just being Hector?
Gus and Don Draper have both built up successful business careers while hiding secret identities — and Gus’s backstory might also date back to wartime. Hank suspects that Gus might have slipped into the United States from Chile because security wasn’t too tight before September 11. But perhaps it was because the CIA was so cozy with Pinochet’s government that it employed some of his officers after Pinochet took power. Gus left in 1989, Pinochet stepped down as president in 1990, though he remained a force for much longer.
And why would Gus — who is once mocked as “generalissimo” — have been paying for a chemist’s education in mid-eighties Chile? My knowledge of Chilean history is meager, but my Boolean search engine skills are strong: Gus might have funded the scholarship out of deep love of science. On the other hand, Pinochet’s military was actively funding biowarfare — along with its own slice of the drug trade. Here’s one example: As part of an intelligence division, a scientist named Eugenio Berríos Sagredo was hired to develop sarin gas and, allegedly, cocaine for Pinochet’s drug trade. The coke was, like Walt’s blue meth, known by its color, a “black cocaine” variant disguised for easier smuggling.
That’s all conjecture, but the framing device for Gus’s flashback raises more questions than the backstory itself: First, Gus updates Hector on the situation with Hank and the cartel, then he asks him, “Is today the day, Hector? Look at me, Hector. Look at me … ” Hector can’t, so it seems Gus still holds some power. “Maybe next time,” says Gus, after the flashback. Is Gus worried that today’s the day he’ll be killed by the cartel? I think he’s waiting for Hector to sign off on a coup of Don Eladio: In his current position, there’s little opportunity for upward mobility. Also, the best revenge would be to take over the cartel himself.
The veranda sequence more than suggests why Gus must want revenge. By Don Eladio’s pool, a younger, nervous Gus watches Hector kill his naive, too-soft partner Max in cold blood, then watches his blood spill into the pool while The Man’s foot steps on his neck. So much for Walt and Gus and their ideas of rational business behavior. Also, we now know Gus has worked with at least three brilliant chemist meth cooks. Maybe, as this story about a California professor suggests, corrupt professors just aren’t so rare.
So, will Hank figure out who Gus really is? That GPS device from SkyMall isn’t going to catch Gus, but here’s how it could go down: When Hank’s superiors ordered him to back off, they asked him to confirm the alibi and look into Gus’s scholarship — the scholarship Gus says was named after his old friend, Maximillian Arciniega, and who is likely the same Max who was executed. Maybe Hank will use Max to connect the dots.
This week’s episode, titled “Hermanos,” boils down to two tales of working not-quite-brothers (Hank and Walt, Gus and Max) confronting their bosses, each yearning for some more power, some more control. Currently, Walt’s strategy seems to be some willfully deluded version of the power of positive thinking. Jesse’s playing the game more carefully by lying to Walt about his meetings with Gus, and Gus seems to be in the midst of some more complicated strategy that’s still not obvious. Last week, it seemed as if Gus — trapped between the DEA, the cartel, and crazy Walt — was a goner. And there’s no better way to say good-bye to a character than with a solid flashback episode like this. Still, Gus and Mike are making moves. What do you think?