SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, ask your elderly criminal uncle if he would change the channel so you can watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
This month at the Emmys, Breaking Bad is going to step aside and make some room for other dramas at the acting-categories podiums, because it didn’t air a season during the eligibility period. But next time around it’s not just Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul the competition needs to sweat: from what we saw in “Hermanos,” I’m thinking a group of fellow nominees may be politely applauding for Giancarlo Esposito next year.
Esposito has always been an example of the show’s acting bench—we have Emmy winners Cranston and Paul, and oh yeah, we just happen to have freaking Giancarlo Esposito backing them up, like it’s not even a thing—but “Hermanos” was his tour de force, an episode that peeled some layers off Gustavo Fring, painted some more coats of mystery on and took him through a more dynamic emotional range than we’ve ever seen.
“I’m sure if you keep digging,” Gus says early in the episode, “You’ll find me.” Part of Gus’ power and menace has come from his suave placidity—and from how Esposito has managed to lace that unflappable calm with just the slightest hint of efficient murderousness. (Even, that is, when he was not cutting someone’s throat with a box cutter.) We know that Gus is a vicious man in a vicious business people by hotheads; but his ability to maintain a facade of sphinxlike efficiency at all times–and the intelligence and strength of will all that implies–makes him twice as terrifying as someone who flies off the handle. If the other drug thugs we’ve seen in Breaking Bad are like animals, Gus is like an alien, more fearsome for the near-impenetrability of his emotions, and the enigma of his origins.
“Hermanos” breached both of those, and in the process allowed Esposito to upshift his already compelling performance. It wasn’t an origin story so much as a closer-to-the-origins story. And it began by cracking the tiniest fissure in the Gus we already knew. As Hank brought him in for questioning, he parried questions about Gale and his own biography with his usual inoffensive solicitousness. Then, in the elevator outside, the tiniest stress fracture–a twitch his finger. And that remarkable stricken look on his face. We see something more surprising in Gus than rage: unease.
Esposito’s performance is the perfect counterpoint to that of Cranston, who—as Hank reveals he’s bringing Walt on a mission to plant a GPS tracker on his own crimelord boss—lets a wash of sickened horror play over his face. Where Gus betrays the barest trace of unsettlement, and only when it’s safe, Cranston shows us how Walt is barely managing to keep it together in front of Hank, as he realizes just how horribly he screwed up by drunkenly suggesting that Gale was not Heisenberg.
When they finally meet face-to-face—not the kind of meeting that Walt had been trying so desperately to get—the contrast is something to see: Walt, mortified and abasing himself as he explains that he didn’t put the GPS tracker on Gus’ Volvo, Gus (seemingly pained that his employee is spilling about a criminal investigation in the inner sanctum of Pollos Hermanos) answering with pointed mildness, “DO IT. May I help you with your order?” I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I can’t think of another series that has managed to maintain this level of unrelieved tension over so many hours. The entire scene in the Hermanos parking lot is excruciating, and it gives the lie to Walt’s bravado to his fellow patient at his cancer screening (“Every life comes with a death sentence… But until then, who’s in charge? Me. That’s how I live my life”).
All of which leads to the remarkable flashback, in which we see how Gus first met with the cartel and learn who were the Hermanos behind the Pollos. It’s a greatly different Gus Esposito shows us—not just made up to look 20-odd years younger, but sweaty, nervous, unsure of himself. The Gus of 2011 seems like the sort of guy who, were you to shoot his partner in the head next to him, might pause to wipe off his glasses. Not this Gus. We don’t learn everything about him. We still don’t know precisely who he was in Chile, or what it is that the cartel knows about him; we don’t learn the details of his current negotiation with the cartel or what his refusal of their demands will mean.
But we know that he wasn’t always what he is. We learn that he had human connections—to Max, his partner, at least, whom he supported and rescued from the slums, and who died pleading for Gus’ own life. We learn that he could be scared, and that, somehow, he taught himself not to show it. And we learned—his lecture to Tio Hector, his old nemesis, about the dangers of blood for blood notwithstanding—that there may be things for him that are not just business.
It’s the new, controlled Gus that “Hermanos” leaves us with, as he coolly receives Tio’s refusal to acknowledge him with a “Maybe next time.” Maybe, just maybe, there is still a part of Gus willing to trade not just drugs for money but “sangre por sangre.” And damn, what a job Esposito did this episode of showing that the stone-faced man is really flesh and blood.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Brian Lowry already pointed this out, but as if the tension of this episode needed to be increased, the rare graphic-violence warning before the episode only made the wait—Whose blood is that?—more unbearable.
* Breaking Bad visual of the week: The blood in the pool jumps immediately to mind, but the shot I loved was Walt walking dreadfully into Pollos Hermanos to stare at—a surveillance camera, a wonderful recalling of a recurring motif in this paranoid, walls-closing-in season.
* “Pollos Hermanos, where something delicious is always cooking!”
* Max’s begging for his partner’s life made me recall Walt’s plea, last season, for Gus to spare Jesse, arguing that they’re a package deal. Seeing Gus survive this situation casts that one, and Gus’ general implacability, in a new light.
* Speaking of partners, while this episode was relatively light on Walt and Jesse, their big scene together seemed crucial, in particular what it means for their relationship that Walt now knows that Jesse was lying about his ability to get in a room with Gus.
* Side benefit of murdering someone poolside? Covers up any evidence that minutes ago, you just pissed in the boss’ pool. Good to know.
* I’ll leave you with Gus’ question: “What about Chile?” Indeed. What about Chile?