[21 August 2013]
Towards the end of Season Two of Breaking Bad, Walter White sits in a red and blue-hued fast-food restaurant, Los Pollos Hermanos, waiting for someone. He was sent there by Saul Goodman, his lawyer, to get in touch with a businessman who might be interested in distributing Walt’s particular brand of high-quality methamphetamine. The first meeting didn’t go as planned: Walt’s partner, Jesse Pinkman, came to the meeting both late and high, and the businessman never showed. But Walter is nothing if not determined, and he has gone back alone, determined to wait as long as it takes. He sits for most of the afternoon, long after the last patron has gone home. Still, no one turns up.
As he stares into the dark Albuerquerque evening, a reflection suddenly manifests in the window frame of his booth. It is the owner and manager of the restaurant, an impeccably well-dressed man wearing wire-frame eyeglasses, a bright yellow shirt, and a dark tie that matches the color of the restaurant’s decor. The manager meets Walter’s eyes in the reflection, gives him a slight half-smile, wipes off an adjacent table with a rag, and goes back to the counter. Suddenly, Walter realizes that the man he has been waiting for has been there the entire time, hiding in plain sight.
He approaches the counter and convinces the manager to sit down with him for five minutes. When he finally does, Walter begins his pitch.
“I would like to know why you wouldn’t meet with me yesterday.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not following,” the man responds, incredulous.
Walt persists, but the manager continues to insist that Walter is confusing him for someone else. Until: “I was told that the man I would be meeting with is very careful. A cautious man. I believe we’re alike in that way,” Walter says. “If you are who I think you are, you should give me another chance.”
And this is when Gustavo Fring’s bemused expression fades into his trademark cold calculation. He stares at Walter, unblinking, his face a mask behind which it is impossible to tell what he is thinking. “I don’t think we’re alike at all, Mr. White,” he responds quietly. “You are not a cautious man at all.” The second statement is probably true, but the first turns out to be quite wrong. We all know what happens next: Walter convinces Gus to employ him, and the explosive relationship that develops over the course of the next two and a half seasons becomes the most toxic, terrifying, and ultimately, most satisfying adversarial conflict in television history.
It’s a well-worn adage in storytelling that a good hero is only as good as his villain. Think about it: who would have batted an eyelash at Frodo and Sam if the ring had only defeated the annoying neighbor next door, or celebrated Luke Skywalker’s triumph over the Empire if Darth Vader had only come up to Luke’s shoulder? It’s almost like a mathematical formula: the strength and virtue of the protagonist is directly proportional to the evil of the antagonist. And it used to be, you knew where you stood. Good was good and bad was bad. There was little middle ground.
Yet in The Era of the Anti-Hero, it’s hard to tell these days just who you should be rooting for and who you should be looking over your shoulder for. From its beginning, Breaking Bad has been a show about tenuous moral ground and the slow, grinding deterioration of bad decisions on a person’s soul. When your protagonist is Walter White, a man who only two episodes in has strangled someone by crushing his windpipe between a bicycle lock and a pole, there has to be some pretty no-nonsense stuff in your bad guy.
By the end of Season Four, Gus has transformed from the cautious restaurant owner into a true force to be a reckoned with. A Chilean national with an obscure past, Gus ran his American Southwest meth-supply business with unmatched ruthless acuity. He spent years building his empire while keeping himself untouchable, making regular personal contributions to D.E.A. fundraisers. He even shows up at the hospital to give his sympathies to Hank Schrader after Hank is shot by the Salamanca twins, an act that Gus himself orchestrated.
Gus doesn’t want to work with Walter and Jesse at first because Jesse is a drug addict, and as he warns Walter at their first conversation, “You can never trust a drug addict.” After some complex business involving some low-level dealers in Gus’ employ and the death of a ten-year-old boy who just happens to be the brother of Jesse’s girlfriend, Gus’ partnership with Walter quickly turns sour. It’s not long before Walt and Jesse have discovered just what they have gotten themselves to: Gus is a much more powerful and cutthroat man than they could have ever imagined.
The literal example here is chillingly revealed in the Season Four opener “Box Cutter”, which may stand as the show’s most brutishly intense moment ever. Recall the silence with which Gus enters the lab and sees Walt and Jesse sitting in chairs, having just murdered Gus’ protégé, Gail Boetticher, in cold blood. He wordlessly takes in Victor, one of his security men, attempting to make Walter’s recipe to prove that they can get along fine without Walt and Jesse’s after all. Walter begins babbling his defense as Gus calmly dons an orange hazmat suit, picks up a box cutter lying on a table, grabs Victor, and opens his jugular, holding him tight until as he slowly and painfully bleeds to death in front of all of them. After it is over, still not speaking, Gus reverses the process, washes the blood off of his face and hands, puts his glasses back on, and says simply, “Well? Get back to work” before disappearing again.
It is the placid savagery with which he can murder one of his own employees without even batting an eyelash that earns Gus Fring a spot in the all-time Villain Hall of Fame. It his unexcitable demeanor when enraged that makes him unpredictable and highly volatile to be around, and that’s exactly what you want in a good antagonist: never knowing what he is going to do next. When Gus threatens, you know he means it. Recall the reserved venom with which he offers his ultimatum to Walter in the middle of the desert, after he has successfully trained Jesse to be his cook in order to cut Walter out of the equation: “If you try to interfere, this becomes a much simpler matter. I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.”
All of this begs the question: Where, exactly, did Gus Fring come from? Who was he before he became Gus Fring? It is not until “Hermanos” in Season Four that some of these questions are answered. In 1989, Gus’ business partner and possible lover, Max Arciniega, went to the Juarez cartel, hoping to sell their product of high-quality methamphetamine. But the cartel, believing there to be no money in the meth business, is angered by Gus and Max’s impertinence, and murder Max in front of Gus’ eyes. Don Eladio, the boss, tells Gus that the only reason he is not dead also is because Eladio knows who he is. “But understand, you are not in Chile anymore,” he warns. A few other passing references indicate that Gus might have been involved in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and was a feared man even before he came to the United States. Either way, it becomes clear that over the next two decades, Gus has embarked on little more than a revenge mission, slowly and methodically removing the cartel one person at a time, making business decisions that are more personal than maybe even he would care to admit.
Intensely personal and not always clear-headed decision-making is something that Walter himself is no stranger to, as he admits when Gus first shows Walter the superlab he wants to give him, back when their relationship was just taking off. Threatened with divorce by Skyler, Walt has decided he wants out of the business once and for all:
“I have made a series of very bad decisions, and I cannot make another one,” he says.
“Why did you make these decisions?” Gus asks.
“For the good of my family.”
“Then they weren’t bad decisions. What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family.”
“This cost me my family!” Walt protests.
“When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man? A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up, and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
Gus knows just how to manipulate Walter: Walt has always believed his motives were pure and for the good of his family. But Gus is no different. It is hinted that he also has children, and while he may not share Walter’s delusions about the purity of his actions, like Walter, it is difficult to believe that Gus sees himself as a bad man. He simply does what he believes a man must do: provides for his family. Perhaps this is what makes a truly memorable villain—not their heinous acts or their bad will towards everyone who gets in their way, but the fact that they are exactly like the hero. Nothing scares a protagonist more than the thought that they might one day wind up just like the antagonist, that if their life had gone differently, it could be them standing on the wrong side of the morality line.
But Breaking Bad has never been a morality play, and in Walter’s world, this is exactly what happens. Like all good conflicts, the animosity between Walter and Gus finally comes to a head in the memorable episode “Face Off.” After the smoke has cleared and it is apparent that Walter has the last blast, there is only one person left to take Gus’ place, and that’s Walt himself. With Gus out of the way, Walter’s transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” is complete, and we finally see that all of Walter’s decisions have led him to this point: the top of the underworld food chain. Still, even in his death, Gus still continues to haunt Walter. When Walt’s post-Fring business partnership between Mike and Jesse ends, Mike attacks him: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch, we had Fring! It all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth and cooked and made as much money as you would have ever needed. But no, you just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego, you just had to be the man. If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now.” This—all true, of course—so enrages Walter that he retaliates by shooting Mike in the gut.
It’s also telling that when Walter meets with some new competitors in the first half of Season Five, he chooses just two things to identify himself to them: “I’m the cook. I’m the man who killed Gus Fring.” He wears his conquering of Fring like a badge, as the one thing that should strike fear in their hearts more than any other.
And just as Gus Fring was likely an alias for a man whose full story we will never know, Walter’s next words are an attempt to invoke the one-time alias that he has now fully embraced: “Say my name.”
“You’re Heisenberg,” the competitor says, as if he can hardly believe it.
“You’re goddamn right,” Walt responds, clearly indicating that this is where he has wanted to be all along. Just like that, in a twist that hasn’t been tried too many times before—the hero becomes the villain. But without Gus Fring, none of it would have been possible.
Matt Grant teaches writing workshops to students in Harlem. He has a B.A. in film production and occasionally writes DVD and film reviews for PopMatters. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn.