Tuesdays with Walt: “Hermanos”

There are loads of great critics writing Breaking Bad reviews every Sunday night/Monday morning. Because of skill and scheduling, I’m not going to be able to stand alongside those reviews. Instead, I hope to write something about Breaking Bad each Tuesday when I have more time and perhaps you are ready for a new day’s worth of material on the best series on television. These pieces won’t necessarily follow my traditional review format, but I’ll obviously be discussing relevant plot details and the like.

Last week, I speculated that the proverbial business was about to pick up, but “Hermanos” only proves that to be partially true. Although the events of “Problem Dog” suggested that any of the combustible combinations of Hank, Gus, Walt, Jesse, Mike and the cartel could and would explode at any moment, this week’s fantastic effort keeps the hand on the grenade pin while taking a much-need pit-stop in the background of one Gustavo Fring. For nearly 20 episodes, Gus has been a mystery to Walt, Jesse and the audience and for much of this season, he’s been absent (too absent, I think). However, Breaking Bad made up for the lack of Gus six weeks ago with “Hermanos,” which fills in some of the blanks about the mysterious chicken man, but still leaves us wondering.

Before I get too far into the few things I wanted to discuss this week, I wanted to note that I definitely love this episode, yet I did think the flashback structure was just a smidgen awkward. The content was fantastic, particularly the gripping final 15 minutes, but the framework didn’t flow just right. It’s a small thing to pick nits about, but I’ve seen a lot of grandiose statements about this one on the Twitter and I wanted to point out that I basically feel the same way, albeit with a minor gripe. Giancarlo Esposito’s work in “Hermanos” is powerful and more multi-dimensional than ever and there are a number of top Breaking Bad moments here. That said, I’m not ready to crown it the best episode of the series.

ANYWAY, last week I posited some thoughts about the similarities between Walt and Gus, most notably in their desire to appear totally in control but at the same time exist in this logical, rationale space. “Hermanos” brings forth even more likenesses between the two men in the flashbacks and also takes steps to point out the key differences in the present-day sequences. These two versions of Gus help us see how he was once very much like Walt and how he’s learned not be over time.

I want to start at the end of the episode (but the beginning chronologically, really) because that’s where the resemblances are most obvious. All those years ago in Mexico, Gus and his partner* Max had big plans for more than just chicken. After Gus apparently saved him from a terrible life in Chile, Max became an all-world chemist and the two of them eventually decided that it was time to make some money off Max’s talent. Gus thought he was making a big, logical business move by offering some of their meth to the employees of the biggest cocaine jefe Don Eladio. And although Gus and Max had many great points and seemed very confident and prepared in their meeting with Don Eladio, Gus’ brash behavior leads to Max’s execution (at the hands of the now wheelchair-bound Tio). As Max’s blood and brain matter drain into Eladio’s pool, we finally see at least a portion of the experiences that turned Gus into the stoic, almost surgical operator he is today.

*There has been much speculation about the true nature of Gus and Max’s relationship, with many noting that the two very well could have been romantically involved. I didn’t pick up on that at first, but armed with that perception I watched the episode again and totally saw it. Kudos to those who are smarter than I and picked up on that. While not confirmed, this revelation adds an additional layer to the Gus-Walt comparisons that I will address momentarily.

But as many of you can probably guess, much of that previous paragraph sounds a lot like the initial struggles of one Walter White. He had the chemistry down like Max and just happened to have Gus’ over-eager, somewhat know-it-all attitude as well and though he survived a number of close calls in the early going – Emilio, Crazy 8, Tuco, etc. – Walt’s ambitious behavior has hit something of a wall. Gus and Walt both want a certain handle on money and power while still presenting themselves as controlled, logical businessmen in a dangerous, uncontrolled world. One of the big differences is that Gus eventually learned how to expertly negotiate between those two personas. You can be presumptuous and rational, but you have to pick your spots when to be both (surely Max’s death kick-started this process for the chicken man). Gus knows this, Walt? Less so.

Despite the number of challenges and near-death experiences he’s faced in just over a year,* Walt has still had a meteoric rise through the drug ranks. The journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface has been a quick one for Walt and that’s why this season’s events have been so frustrating for him. Walt has grown to expect that things will turn out his way because he believes he’s always the smartest and most powerful man in the room. No doubt Gus is playing on his own experiences when dealing with Walt because the way he sees it, Walt needs to learn a bit of a lesson about power, control and logic and when to play your cards. Clearly the intimidation games in “Box Cutter” went a long way in showing Walt who is in charge, as do the surveillance cameras.

*We’ve been speculating about the time frame for the series’ events and I never enjoy calling a story’s verisimilitude into question, but Walt’s assertion that he was diagnosed with cancer a little over a year ago seems like it’s on the tight end for me. Skyler’s pregnancy throws a wrench into all of this. As always, she’s to blame!

This parallel makes me think back to the end of last season when Gus was so adamant about removing Jesse from the equation. The primary difference between Gus and Walt is that one of them lost their partner and presumably learned a lesson. Despite all the danger around them, Walt hasn’t lost Jesse; in fact, he’s been able to save his younger partner on multiple occasions. And while the threat hasn’t been as immediate, Walt’s been able to protect his wife, his children and his in-laws as well. It’s been a stressful year or so, but at least Walt can say everyone directly tied to him is alive. Human collateral damage has been at a minimum.* Obviously, this fact makes him more likely to be un-phased by all the risks and warning signs around him. Walt has already grown overconfident; keeping everyone alive only allows that to grow.

*The one moderate exception to this is of course Gale and I think what I’ve explained is part of why Walt has shown real remorse over Gale’s death. Up until that point, he’d killed “bad” people – drug dealers, street enforcers, the like. Moreover, those lives were taken in moments where immediate self-defense was absolutely necessary. But with Gale, Walt manufactured his murder to keep his position (and he and Jesse’s lives, of course) and he’s been kind of a wreck anytime Gale’s name gets mentioned. This is because Gale’s death is a massive sign to Walter that eventually this game catches up with you in some way or another.  

Thus, perhaps Gus had even more reason to take Jesse out last season. Not only was Jesse a junkie, but Walt needed to see who was really in charge of this operation. Walt ultimately turned the tables on him again, so Gus was pushed to do the things he did in “Box Cutter” and in all the days after. It is apparent that Walt has still not learned a thing and that’s probably part of Gus’ decision to turn Jesse against Walt. If he can’t kill Jesse to prove a point to Walt, he’ll just kill Walt.

Of course, what Gus does with Walt, Jesse or the Cartel might be determined by Hank. After presenting all his evidence to the superiors and being shot down thanks to an epic performance from Gus in an interview,* Hank is now stuck investigating Mr. Fring outside of department purview. Although this approach leads to outstanding scenes like the one with Hank trying to convince Walt to secretly place a bug on Gus’ car while Mike hilariously watches on nearby, I have this feeling that it only means bad things for Hank. Setting aside my prediction that he’ll die sometime soon, Hank has too many things working against him with this investigation. Everyone else is convinced of Gus’ innocence and Hank has had problems in the past with off-book work (see his work in the whole RV episode with Jesse last season). It just doesn’t feel like a safe or smart decision for Hank, especially if Walt gets backed too far into a corner from either side and decides to make a ridiculously rash decision.

*This is yet another example of how much better at this Gus is than Walt. Just imagine replacing Gus with Walt in that sequence with Hank, Gomey and the other investigators – I don’t think it goes as smoothly. Walt is good at thinking on his feet, but he’s not so good that he can be relatively bombarded with something and turn it into a victory. Again, Walt’s problem is that he thinks he’s so smart that he’d overplay his hand a bit. Gus’ story is well told, but given with such calm and sincerity that it makes sense no one but Hank questions him. Walt would be much more incredulous given similar circumstances.

Finally, I wanted to mention that one of the biggest strengths of this week’s episode is that it helps make Gus somewhat more sympathetic without making him too sympathetic. Breaking Bad has this knack for making the audience care about overwhelmingly flawed and in most cases, generally bad people and “Hermanos” does that for Gus. There is so much we still don’t know about him, but it was very smart to clue the audience into moments that give the character more shape and emotional resonance. Gus is still a deadly SOB and there’s certainly a lot we still don’t know – like what he did in Chile – yet I cannot help but feel compassion for the guy. When he tells Hank and company that he wants to honor his long-dead friend, he really means it. The episode’s pathos is wonderfully done. And again, it is not overly done. The character and his past have been recontextualized a bit, but he’s not suddenly a tragic, heroic figure. Gus Fring is still a bad man. We just know a little bit about why.

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