Gustavo Fring

Written by @EllieDangerous
‘Breaking Bad’ convinced many viewers of TV’s potential as an art form. The series is a perpetually spinning moral compass, and somewhere near the centre is Machiavellian drug lord Gustavo Fring, delicately portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito. Gus has been called a terrifying villain, but in the twisted world of ‘Breaking Bad’ his villainy proves an industrious, intelligent way to run an empire.

Spoiler Alert
It’s the empire Walt dreams of, and at first glance he sees Gus as the emperor in whose footsteps he could follow. Walt — our middle-aged protagonist — is a latecomer to crime, and distinguished both by this and by how readily he adapts to it. But he’s an uncut diamond, and if anyone could polish him to a nauseating sheen it’s Gus. If only Walt weren’t so damn scared of him.

So there’s fear there, but also a huge amount of respect. Walt respects Gus for the same reasons we do: he’s a prolific criminal in disguise, but his mask doesn’t have so much as a hairline fracture in it. He gives to good causes, runs a chain of successful eateries, and plays his part in the local community. He’s calm, polite, and fair-minded. It’s a mask Walt never manages to wear.

Walt famously suffers through massive changes in ‘Breaking Bad’, but when we first meet Gus late in season two we’re already at the end of Gus' character arc. He's fully evolved; lighting fires while Walt is still playing with clubs.

Through a flashback we witness a crucial moment in Gus' evolution. As a younger man he and his business partner Max pitch a drug distribution arrangement to the Juárez Cartel. Before his horrified eyes, the Cartel unexpectedly murder Max to teach Gus that upstarts will not be tolerated.

Max’s lifeless stare, and the drip of his blood into the swimming pool, lingers both with Gus and with the viewers. It’s like we can feel it. The scene is made all the more evocative by the subtle suggestion that he may have been in love with Max, a man whose education he’d paid for and whose death seems to haunt him forever.

So the Cartel’s lesson stays with him. Indeed, in the season four premier Gus gives that same lesson himself. Stony-faced, he forces the same horrific chaos upon his onlookers, slashing the neck of Victor — his audacious henchman — with a boxcutter to show Walt that upstarts will not and cannot be tolerated. It’s a cutthroat business, and we could feel it too.

Walt heeds this lesson, but not in the same way Gus did. Gus took Max’s murder onboard, and used it to fine-tune the leader he later became. But Walt takes Victor’s murder differently, deciding it means he too will meet a bloody fate. He is an upstart, after all.

And perhaps that’s why Gus loses in the end: his professional life is one in which everything has its place. Rationale, murder, psychopathy, skill, drug abuse, fried chicken. Gus accepts chaos, because the business he’s in is nothing if not chaotic. He can handle and exploit chaos if it has its place in the Hannibal Lecter-esque organisation of his mind. He could place big-hearted junkie Jesse Pinkman and compulsive oddball Gale Boetticher. He could place Mike the hardened sceptic and Hector the psychopathic patriarch.

But he could not place Walt. He was something Gus had never encountered before, and could not make sense of. Walt was a mess of ambition and paranoia growing wildly in every direction. Gus could not govern Walt’s chaos in the end; he couldn’t duck the wild swing of Walt’s neanderthal club.

Gus’ death scene is one of the most talked-about moments in ‘Breaking Bad’. At first, Gus seems to have survived the explosion sparked by Walt's panicked ingenuity. He gets to his feet, impeccable in his fine suit, and straightens his tie as the camera turns to reveal that the explosion incinerated half his face. He’s covered in blood and cinder. Chaos destroys Gus Fring, but he still manages one final attempt to straighten it out before falling to his knees.
I like to think I see things in people.
Sangre por sangre.
Ellie Ball is the founder of Good Characters, and someone who enjoys coffee cake a great deal. She is a graduate of the Scriptwriting MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. For fun and respite, check out her TV analysis articles on Bang2Write or tweet coffee cake at her @EllieDangerous.
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Published on 28 May 2015

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