At last we come to the episode of Breaking Bad which showcases that, contrary to what Gustavo Fring might want to believe, at his roots he and Walter White are not as different as they may seem.
The episode begins with a potent flashback to third-season standout episode “I See You”, which had ended with Fring’s intense confrontation with Walt in the hospital’s lobby, followed by the cold-blooded execution of the surviving cousin by Mike Ehrmantraut. In this extended look, we find Hector Salamanca watching the news of his nephews’ demise from the discomfort of his nursing home. Clearly he’s distraught, but becomes even more-so when the television is abruptly shut off by none other than Gustavo Fring, who drags a chair in front of Hector, stares him down and delivers what has to be the most brutal bitch-slapping of a monologue the show’s ever provided:
“I can give you the highlights,” he says, coldly. “Your nephews grew impatient. They continue to press me for my permission to kill Walter White. When I wouldn’t give it, they settled instead for DEA Agent Schrader. But a phone call was placed to Agent Schrader moments before the attack, thus giving him the upper hand. Mario was shot in the face and died instantly. Lionel lingered for several hours. The warning call to the DEA Agent—Juan Bolsa may have some insight into who placed it. But yesterday the Federales were at his hacienda and in the confusion Juan was shot dead. An accident perhaps, a mistake made by his own men. Well, we may never know. At any rate, I thought you should hear it from me.”
Throughout this speech, made solely for the impact it would make on Salamanca, who has no power to respond, we see the man become noticeably upset, then progressing to pure, unadulterated rage. Fring continues.
“This is what comes of blood for blood, Hector,” he says. “Sangre por sangre.”
Talk about brutal foreshadowing (something Gilligan and his writers continue to become more adept at layering into these episodes). This is the most we’ve ever heard Fring monologue on his own accord, and it was meant as straightforward revenge narrative. What we don’t know until the end of the episode, however, is that it is more than just a power-play by Fring to take over the cartel’s North American meth dealings. This is personal, poetic in its raw furious intent.
Fring can’t possibly know that he’s sowed the seeds here for Walter to successfully plot his demise. Perhaps, however, you can suggest that those seeds were planted 30 years earlier when Fring and his hermano Max Arciñega had their fateful meeting with Don Eladio and his men. In those days Fring was as impulsive and reckless as he’s accused Walter of being, knowing only that he’s got a foot in the world of methamphetamine production and he wants to take it to the next level.
By forcing a meeting with the kingpin in his own backyard, he sets in motion the destruction of perhaps the only man he’s ever cared about (at least the only one we’ve been privy to meeting). And it inspires the more careful nature he’s cultivated over the ensuring decades in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, while plotting to avenge the cold-blooded murder in the present day.
Blood for blood.
That fateful sit-down is among the sharpest-directed scenes in the entire history of the show. This younger version of Fring sees himself as taking the initiative, bringing a new drug to the attention of Don Eladio by giving “samples” to Eladio’s men who he knows will then return the news to their boss. Eladio feels his hand has been forced, that by disrespecting him, Fring needs to be put in his place. Thus he’s put in motion the murder of his chemist, Max Arciñega, who he’s groomed for the role all the way from the streets of Santiago. They are the chicken brothers, Los Pollos Hermanos.
There’s no more powerful scene in all of Breaking Bad than that close-up of Hector forcing Fring, sobbing openly, to watch his friend bleed to death while intoning: “Look at him. You did this to him.”
The implications of Fring’s hidden past, meanwhile, permeate this episode. As we become aware, Hank now suspects Fring is tied in with Gale, our murder victim who Hank believes is the long-hunted Heisenberg. Though Fring sells every other DEA agent and police detective on his story that Gale was nothing more than a scientist he’d provided with a college scholarship, a man he respected who simply couldn’t help but take shortcuts, Hank isn’t buying it. He also makes it clear that he’s looking deeper into Fring’s past than anyone else has dared.
“Is Gustavo Fring your real name?” he asks. “I know you’re a Chilean national, but there are no records of your ever living there.”
Fring backpedals, looking absolutely stunned for a moment before he gains his composure. Record-keeping under the Pinochet regime was notoriously lax, he says. “I’m sure if you keep digging you’ll find me.”
Moments later we see Gus, in the elevator, his fingers twitching uncontrollably.
No one else would ever notice, but this is clearly what he looks like when he fears he’s trapped in someone’s crosshairs, much in the way we see him a few moments prior, glaring at the police sketch of Victor, gleaned from the moments he was seen in Gale’s apartment. Later he asks Mike if there’s any way he can be traced back to those days in Chile. Mike’s cool response: “If I can’t find any trace of you before ‘89, I seriously doubt Schrader can.”
There is, howvever, a history there, one hinted strongly at by Don Eladio as he sneers into Gus’ ear as the man watches his friend die. “The only reason you’re alive and he is not is because I know who you are,” Eladio says. “But understand. You are not in Chile anymore.”
Indeed. And Hank Schrader could yet prove to be a more dangerous adversary than either Fring or Walter would ever expect. He’s got terrific gut instincts as an officer of the law, and when he’s got his nose onto something, he won’t relent. Even when it means, however, that he makes some absolutely terrible decisions. Walter finds himself suckered into one of these situations when he agrees to drive Hank to a gem and mineral expo, only to discover that Hank’s real intention is to get Walter to place a tracking device on Fring’s car in front of the restaurant. Walter tries to hedge, says he doesn’t feel good about this, that it is a mistake. Hank becomes agitated.
“I need you to help me out, okay?” he almost cries. “This is really important to me. You gonna make me beg you? Just stick it in there!”
Walt reluctantly agrees to do it, and appears to follow Hank’s instructions, pretending he’s got to tie a shoe, only to place the device as he does so. We think Walt’s done it, then he goes into the restaurant and finds Fring at the counter. The exchange is tense and revealing.
“May I help you?” Fring asks, his face looking typically blank.
“I .... I ...” Walter stammers.
“Sir?” Fring repeats coolly. “May I help you?”
“I didn’t do it,” Walter blurts, showing his hand, which contains the tracking device he has not placed on Fring’s car. The two men lock eyes, and Fring quietly responds.
There’s an awkward pause, and then Fring clenches his teeth, repeating intensely.
“Do. It. May I take your order?”
Walt obviously then goes out and does it. The device placed, he’s left desperate to get back to the lab, where he can stand firm and make his case to Fring that he’s not tainted, that his hand was forced only by a deceitful Hank.
“I swear to God,” Walt makes clear. “I thought I was driving the man to a gem and mineral show. And all of a sudden he has me pulling up to your restaurant and ... and ... and telling me that he’s investigating you!”
As he delivers the monologue we see and hear Walter becoming more and more unhinged, a scene which later is repeated as Max Arciñega defends his friend Gus, begging for Don Eladio to be merciful.
“Look, you and I we’ve had our differences, but I would never ... my brother-in-law, evidence-wise, has nothing. He’s operating on pure conjecture. No one, not one person that he works with, thinks that you are anything other than the owner of a fast food chain. But if anything was to happen to Hank, then that would only draw their attention to you and therefore to me as well. We have a mutual interest in resolving this without violence. I will make sure that he discoversnothing
Of course Walter, as always, is playing both sides of everything. He insists on then storming into Jesse’s home, confronting him about whether he’s managed to get a meeting during which the ricin can be used to poison Fring. Walt tells Jesse to be aware, Hank is on to Fring, and “if Hank catches Gus, Gus catches us.” Here we see Hank and Walt juxtaposed against each other personality-wise: Hank is relentless, while Walt is impulsive, reckless and (more dangerous) desperate. Jesse tells Walt that Hank has nothing on Fring, that’s all he can say.
“Otherwise Hank would be dead,” Jesse argues logically. Walt’s not buying. He tells Jesse to tell Mike that he’s worried about Hank’s investigation, that Hank knows who Jesse is (obviously) and that since Jesse did kill Gale, “there’s that.” All of which would be fodder for Jesse to request a sit-down with Fring so he can discuss what to say if Hank and the DEA come calling.
“You need to be properly coached!” Walt says. “And when you get near him, you put this [the pack of tainted cigarettes] to use.”
Jesse knows Mike’s just going to tell him to shut his mouth if he gets busted. No way he’ll set up a meeting.
“Insist on it then!” Walt all but screams. “Gus’ ass is on the line, and trust me, he will meet with you if he thinks you’re a liability.”
Jesse responds coldly. “No. He will waste me if he thinks I’m a liability.”
Right-o. And right now, no one’s looking more like a liability-in-waiting than Walter. Jesse goes to the bathroom and Walt notices Jesse’s phone vibrating. The text reads: “Meeting is off. Something came up. Boss is busy.”
Flush. Jesse returns, and Walt tells him it sounds like he got a phone call.
“Anything important?” he asks, sarcastically, before leaving, now suspecting he can no longer even trust Jesse to toe his line. If only Jesse knew just how cold-blooded Walter can be when he feels backed into a corner.
The heart of this episode is impulsivity. Fring’s impulsive need to push himself into Don Eladio’s business gets Max killed, setting up thirty years of revenge planning. Blood for blood on a grand scale. Meanwhile, Hank’s impulsive decision to draw Walter into his investigation simply shows how much of a blind spot he has for his brother-in-law, the one man who has the ability to ensure he’ll forever be off track in his search for the elusive Heisenberg. And Walter, backed into a corner by his lack of any ability to simply (as Mike put it a few episodes prior) “take yes for an answer,” feels he has to assert himself as the man in control, even as all that control seems to be melting away.
For an episode so full of back-story and foreshadowing, “Hermanos” proves to be the lynchpin of the Fourth Season, an episode which heralds potential downfalls for nearly every key character, even as it hints at what the ultimate endgame will be for the season’s final face-off. And though it’s the only tantalizing flash we may ever have into the history of Gustavo Fring, what a flash it was. Few episodes of television ever have this much raw power, or this many fully-drawn characters, all fighting at cross-purposes. The message of Season Four is that there’s only room in Albuquerque for one kingpin. Gustavo Fring and Walter White may believe they are now polar opposites, but they instead are so alike it’s clear only one can come out of the season alive.
Deje que el flujo de sangre. Let the blood flow. Jonathan Sanders
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC
When I saw the title for this episode before watching it for the first time, I was certain that we were in store for another limited character (Jesse/Walt) bottle episode like the one we were treated to in Season Three’s “Fly”. While I was wrong about the bottle episode aspect (short of Saul, we pretty much run the gambit on checking in with various characters, locations, and ramping up plot points), the relationship between Walter and Jesse at the end of this episode pretty much represents the polar opposite of where we left them at the end of “Fly”. In that episode, Walter is dealing with his guilt, which while not ending in a drug-induced confession of his sins against Jesse, does lead to a rather fond exchange of feelings. The resulting kinship at the end that episode leads to the quid pro quo relationship in the final episodes of Season Three, wherein Walt saves Jesse, and then Jesse saves Walt. I’m not sure either of those events would have worked all that well had we not had an episode like “Fly” creating the necessary connective bonds.
Now consider that bloodied brawl that ensues after Walt yells: “Go to Mexico and screw up like I know you will, and end up in a barrel somewhere.” Jesse draws the first literal blood here (specifically, he throws the bug at Walter’s head knocking his glasses off and putting a gash above his right eye), but it is Walter who has irreparably (seemingly) damaged their relationship. Walter has always been an egotist. Sure he started his meth cooking venture from a desire to leave something behind for his family, but in his mind, he has always been the lynch pin that everything else depended upon.
Ever since Walter crossed Gus at the end of Season Three, his previously growing power and influence has pretty much stymied. One of his attempts to fortify some sort of power or bartering maneuverability has been out of a desire to bring the distant “post-Gale Boetticher” Jesse back into the fold. Jesse has been understandably resistant to this the entire season, though he does reach out once or twice (go-carts anyone?). So when Jesse finally calls Walter over to confide all the new overburdening developments in his life, he genuinely needs that partner/father figure that was there for him at the end of Season Three. But the Walter Jesse needs isn’t the one who shows up at his house at the end of “Bug”. Instead we have a Walter that’s seeing solipsistic red, blinded to the fact that he finally has Jesse confiding in him—we have Heisenberg.
We get to see Walt do some soul searching (a rarity for him) in the next episode “Salud”. It’s probably worth noting that his alcohol and medicine-induced candidness in those upcoming scenes with Junior seem to have been what he needed with Jesse at the end of “Bug” (that same candidness at the end of “Fly” is also due in part to Jesse slipping an unreasonable Walter a few sleeping pills). There’s probably an on set joke about how the world might be a better place if Walter just self-medicate a bit more.
But I digress. Looking at this episode in light of the remaining episodes of Season Four, we known that the Jesse/Walt relationship ends in a state of reconciliation (via mutual goal), but it’s done-so at a considerable risk to Walter’s life (Jesse’s gun to his head) and, more importantly to Walter’s continuing development, at a considerable cost to his “soul” (poisoning Brock, which is a telling callback to “Full Measure”, when Gus, incensed at Walter’s insinuation, asks Walter, “are you asking me if I ordered the murder of a child?”).
Again, there are a lot of things happening in this episode beside the bombshell Jesse/Walt fallout. Skyler’s re-encounter with Ted Beneke stands out as the most isolated of the bunch, not to mention lending itself as one of the funnier moments of the season in a particularly serious episode. It probably makes sense that it stands alone from the other plot threads hurtling toward the season’s end. After all, it does have its narrative roots from a time when Walter and Skyler were unofficially divorced. So why shouldn’t the re-emergence of the thread stand equally apart?
As an aside, Ted’s return is one of those seemingly dropped narrative threads that unexpectedly make its return. This is perhaps as good a place as any to compliment the show on its ability to really use everything in its established narrative cannon. Something else could have been done here that caused funds to come up short in “Crawlspace” a few episodes later. Instead, bringing back Ted’s IRS issues, and growing Skyler’s independence in the money laundering business is just a really tightly woven plot development. If I had to guess, I’d say that Skyler’s Season Three involvement in helping to “cook” (nice wordplay by the writers there) Ted’s books was introduced to develop Skyler’s Breaking Bad parallel to Walter. But you wouldn’t know it from how logically the thread comes back so late in Season Four. We get to see the efforts of this cleanup in the episodes to come, culminating of course in the extremely unsettling conclusion to “Crawlspace”, wherein Skyler’s and Walter’s separate narrative arcs collide spectacularly.
Gus is still between a rock and a hard place with the cartel and Hank’s private investigation. You see it with his men’s scramble to cleanup in anticipation of a possible DEA sweep, but you wouldn’t know it from Gus himself who really begins to cement, as Jesse terms it, “that Terminator shit,” walking head on to sniper fire. It is interesting for the growing mythology of Gus’ super villain-esque power, especially when comparing it to Walter’s lack thereof. I’ve heard some people discuss how much more they like Gus than late-series Walter. I wonder if this isn’t just because of all that we don’t know about Gus, and how much we do know about Walter. After all, people working for Gus seem to be in as much danger as anyone Walter comes in contact with. See Mike’s redshirt henchman who loses his life to sniper fire at the other end of the cargo ramp Jesse is helping carry.
This brings us to another character development moment for Jesse. Yes, the ending between Walter and Jesse is a huge moment for those characters and the show, but there’s something else happening for Jesse that first appears when he’s talking to Mike during the cleanup at the distribution center. Walter has been spewing paranoid rhetorical logic in Jesse’s ear all season, so it’s interesting to see Jesse try to do his best Mr. White impression in a brief conversation with Mike in regards to Hank, and whether or not it’s “illogical for [Gus] to off the dude.”
This itself isn’t all there is to the scene, but it says a few things about Jesse. It shows us that despite his distance and annoyance with Walter’s persistent paranoid nagging, he has actually been listening. The rhetoric is also astonishingly like what Walter has been saying to him all season, albeit a transparent emulation of Walter (a superbly nice performance here by Aaron Paul). Taking that into account, this scene makes the final one with Walter all the more heartbreaking. The other, equally important character development note here—and I think the first actual foreshadowing of Jesse’s future role to play in Gus’ organization that goes beyond Walt’s theory of creating a wedge between them—comes when Mike asks, “if something were to happen to [Hank], would you have a problem with that?” Jesse’s reply—“who really cares what I think?”—is itself answered by Mike in the asking of the question.
Mike isn’t exactly a small-talk kind of guy, so when he asks if Jesse would have a problem with them offing Hank, it says that Mike and Gus do in fact care what Jesse thinks. It’s a moment that plays so discreetly before a large action beat, that most viewers probably miss it on the first viewing. Cut to the end the final scene of the episode where Walt attempts to reinforce the idea that no one cares what Jesse is thinking. This is also the episode where Jesse is invited to Gus’ house, wherein he is not only asked by Gus for help, but afforded a large amount of import; it is no wonder the end of “Bug” is a mercurial one for the Walt/Jesse relationship. Brian Steinbach
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