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On Better Call Saul, it’s time to get inside Gus Fring’s head

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Let’s pause for a moment to remember how lucky we are to have Giancarlo Esposito on our television screens. What a powerful actor he is. Whenever he stands face to face with Jonathan Banks, it’s like High Noon, but all the quick-draws and flying bullets are buried in their psyches. Not a face-off; an interior-off.


Tonight we get a glimmer of Gustavo Fring’s point of view, reminding us that although we meet him already deep in the criminal underworld, he too has a downward arc to trace during this series. Before his partner is killed before his eyes, before he declares war on the cartel, before the underground meth labs, the torture, the murder, he’s a star earner in the Eladio organization. He’s a fierce competitor and a compassionate boss. He treats his people like family. He won’t tolerate threats or mistreatment directed at them. And in return, his employees are loyal.

Yet even such a sympathetic portrayal comes with a dark side. When Hector Salamanca and his men (including Nacho! Hey Nacho!) crash Los Pollos Hermanos after the DEA raid of their ice cream front business, Gus’ employees are frightened—not just for themselves, but for their boss. Lyle, the gawky assistant manager on duty when Hector invades, can’t shake his concern. “Should I call someone?” he worries, lingering behind after Gus has ordered them all home. And when Gus promises that the Salamanca gang (whom he paints as shakedown artists whom he foolishly paid off during his early entrepreneurial days in Mexico) won’t succeed in the land of the free, Lyle might just hear that as an invitation to stand his ground against dangers he can’t comprehend. It’s possible to cultivate relationships with the community that are too good—that erode the bright lines protecting the hustle and the legit business from each other.


All that is the fallout of Gus and Mike’s meeting last week, the one that green-lighted Mike’s stunt with the shoes. We don’t see Jimmy and Kim until almost halfway through the episode; if you’re like me, you were sunk so deep in Gus’ story that Kim’s appearance (dialing her way through the home repair listings in the yellow pages with typically methodical persistence) felt like suddenly being brought up for air. With that shift, we’re back on offense, fighting our way out of the box Chuck thinks he’s locked up tight around Jimmy. The Kim-Jimmy team-up hits the ground running, with a plot to send Mike to Chuck’s house posing as the repairman whom they correctly surmise Chuck has called to repair his back door. In perhaps my favorite bit of staging so far this season, Mike drives Chuck out of his way with a battery-powered drill, wielding it exactly as he did the shots in the air at that Mexican intersection last week. Those intermittent whhuuuhIIIRRRuuhs clear out a space where Mike can do his thing. Credit editor Kelley Dixon for the crosscutting (working in perfect concert with the sound recordist and designer), writer Jonathan Glatzer for the elegantly constructed sequence, and director Thomas Schnauz for the gorgeous framing. Watch it work in one perfect shot, with Mike pressed up against the kitchen entryway triggering the noise and the electronic pain just as Chuck approaches to give him one more bit of direction, deflecting him up the stairs and out of the way.

Jimmy sent Mike in to take photos with a disposable camera (“you’re the Ansel Adams of covert photography,” he later enthuses at their diner meeting), and Mike goes one better—copying down something from Chuck’s address book. Judging from the hubris of Chuck’s boast to Kim after the PPD meeting with Hay, it has something to do with the original tape safeguarded “under lock and key.” Jimmy destroyed a duplicate, as it turns out; another correct deduction by a man now determined to use his intimate knowledge of his brother to defend himself and, along the way, exact la venganza.

Jimmy and Kim have allied to forge a new family out of the wreckage of a failed one. Maybe not a marriage, but a bond of loyalty. Gus fights for the people he’s brought into his inner circle. Mike fights for the granddaughter who falls asleep on his chest. But all of them have brought innocents into the line of fire. Gus’ employees wouldn’t be in danger if it weren’t for his criminality; in seeking power, security, and revenge, he’s enlarged the scope of collateral damage. Mike needs money for the fancy new home in the safe neighborhood and the good school district, and even though he wants to be quit of Gus and Hector, he opens the door to more work, if it meets his standards. And Kim’s in deeper than any of them. Lyle and Kaylee don’t know the work is shady, but Kim’s got her eyes wide open.

As usual on this show, the pleasure is in watching a plan unfold when we don’t know what the plan is. And at the end, we still don’t know all the details. But we know it’s on track. Jimmy and Kim leave the courthouse side by side, suit by suit, briefcase by briefcase. Let’s enjoy the team-up while we can. Triumph, in Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque, has a short shelf life.


Stray observations:

  • The cold open takes us back to Don Eladio’s pool, the setting for a memorable scene in Breaking Bad season four. There’s Juan Bolsa, Gus’ cartel contact, topping Hector’s duffel bag full of rolled cash with three giant shrink-wrapped bricks of cash—and topping Hector’s bobblehead ice-cream mascot Sabrosito (“Tasty”) with a Los Pollos Hermanos T-shirt.
  • Hector hopes to curry favor with Don Eladio by naming his ice-cream store after him: El Griego Guiñador, the Winking Greek.
  • Two mentions of the Mexican state of Michoacán in this episode: Hector mentions that his ice-cream factory is there, and Gus says that’s the location of the first Los Pollos Hermanos. The restaurant where Mike gets into it with Tuco, last season, was El Michoacáno.
  • Those are… some shoes Hector has. We get a pretty good look at their ruby, strappy strangeness as he scrapes what appears to be dog shit off of them onto Gus’ desk.
  • Like any conscientious business owner, Fring is not above doing any of his employees’ jobs. He buses the hastily abandoned tables after his confrontation with Hector (and after a long last look from Nacho), taking a little pleasure in popping a burrito-wrapper ball into the trash bin from downtown.
  • “Nice to fix something for once,” Mike comments when Jimmy worries that Chuck will suss out the repairman switcheroo if he calls to complain about the work. Later in the toll booth, when Gus arrives for a talk, he’s reading a handyman magazine.
  • Chuck appears to have DDA Hay thoroughly charmed. She tells him a little story about an aunt who had to leave church whenever the boys’ choir sang because she couldn’t take their vocal frequencies. “Well, that is a shame,” Howard oozes insincerely, and Chuck chimes in: “Indeed.”
  • When Hay insists on an apology from Jimmy, he lays it on thick. No matter how he was provoked, “no one should treat his own brother like that, not ever.”
  • Continuing his quest to win Pettiest Bastard Lifetime Achievement Award, Chuck insists on an extra couple of bucks of restitution for the cassette tape that was destroyed. What he doesn’t know is that keeping that cassette tape front and center on the record is exactly what Kim and Jimmy want him to do. Let’s see how fast Hay turns on Chuck when she finds out she’s playing a part in his setup.
  • “At some point we should probably discuss the rule of thirds.”