September 4th, 2011
There are some definite echoes to be found in the paths of Zjelko Ivanek and Giancarlo Esposito when it comes to their Emmy Award ambitions.
Both actors were regulars on series in which they played minor roles on a weekly basis (Ivanek on FX’s Damages), and both became the focus of episodes later in the season where their characters were fleshed out through flashback. And, both were strong enough in those episodes that they were labeled as Emmy contenders; while we will have to wait twelve months to see if Esposito will have any success in this area, Ivanek stole the Emmy out from his co-star Ted Danson (and a lot of other contenders) in 2008.
The difference, I would argue, is that Ivanek’s episode is meant to be shocking. We knew nothing about Ivanek’s Ray Fiske (a name I wouldn’t remembered without the help of Wikipedia) before that episode, and hadn’t really been given any reason to care about the character beyond considering him as a legal opponent. And so when we started delving into his past, including his homosexuality and his self-destruction related to an unrequited love, it was meant to throw the viewer off-guard. Fiske’s arc in the episode is a statement, a singular one in fact, and it was the “shock” of it all that made it resonate in subsequent episodes and with Emmy voters.
By comparison, Gus Fring has been an enigma from the minute he was introduced. The show has always kept a certain distance from Gus, always resisting showing us his perspective on events, and in the process it has created a large number of mysteries. Whereas Ray Fiske was a character taken from obscurity to a sudden point of interest, Gus has always been a character begging for an origin story, or in the case of “Hermanos” an origin story mixed in with another escalation in the season’s focus on perspective (this time focused more closely on the narrative). As a result, it comes with a great deal of anticipation but also a great deal of expectation, and raises another question entirely: is it worse to have too many questions or too many answers?
Or, of course, you could just split the difference and embrace them both equally, as “Hermanos” achieves quite admirably.
[Heads up: while I tiptoed around it above, I'm going to spoil Damages Season One here, so skip past the next paragraph if you've still got those DVDs sitting around. I'll drop in another warning when it's done.]
Okay, so here’s the thing with the comparison above. Not only were the buildups to the “flashback origin story/focus shift” episodes different between these two characters, but Gus Fring (unlike Ray Fiske) is not dead at the end of “Hermanos.”
[Spoilers are done now.]
In fact, the episode never even leans into the pitch when it comes to his potential death, staging the climactic scene within the flashback and eliminating any legitimate tension. Although that scene sets up the idea that Gus is expendable, and would suggest out of context that the businessman is about to be eliminated from the picture, we know that Gus lives, which means we are less than surprised that it is Gus’ partner who ends up leaking blood into the pool.
However, Gus is surprised. He is shocked, mortified, and traumatized in a way that tells us a lot about the man Gus is, but those are emotions that we don’t necessarily feel. Our emotion is in seeing the pieces fall into place, with Max’s death calling back to the scholarship discussing in Gus’ explanation for his fingerprints being in Gale’s apartment and sketching in some key details about the people that Gus chooses to work with. Walter wasn’t one of “Gus’ Kids,” someone who he helped get through college, which creates two problems; the first is that he isn’t able to control him as easily, as Walt doesn’t owe Gus in the way that Gale likely did, and the second is that he doesn’t have any sort of emotional connection with him.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that he had an emotional connection with Gale. I noticed on Twitter that Todd VanDerWerff was lamenting being the only critic to suggest any sort of subtext regarding Gus and Max’s relationship, but consider me on the same page. Gus wouldn’t have reacted that way if Gale had been next to him, nor would he react that way if it was Walt who took a bullet from the cartel. The Gus we saw there was the opposite of the emotionally distant man we know, but the man we know was born on that day. Esposito’s performance is tremendous in the episode for a variety of reasons, but I love how he’s able to capture two distinct versions of this character. While the Gus who sat down at that meeting showed fear in his voice, and in his face, the Gus we know betrays himself only with a small hint of concern in his eyes. When pressed by the Cartel, he stammers; when pressed by the DEA, he calmly lays out a story that’s almost too good to be true.
He was broken by Max’s death in a way that suggests a deeper (potentially sexual) relationship, an emotional relationship that he’s promised himself he would never repeat. It’s a relationship that Jesse sort of thinks he’s building, at least in terms of being signaled out for his promise and groomed for a more prominent role, and it’s a relationship that we know will never come to fruition. What we learn in “Hermanos” is what made Gus the man he is today, a businessman who keeps a distance from the operations of his illicit drug business not only to protect himself legally but also to protect himself emotionally. We gained a deeper knowledge into who Gus is, which adds one more layer to Esposito’s performance and to the character’s function in the present.
However, what the episode does really well is that it poses more questions. Admittedly, it isn’t particularly subtle about it given that Hank literally asks the question and Gus and Mike’s phone call functions as a pretty blatant form of exposition in reminding us about it, but we still don’t know who Gus was. We got glimpses of the man he was before that moment, before his war with the Cartel truly began, but his time in Chile is a new question to consider. We have answers, but they’re not definitive answers, which allows the character to gain depth without fundamentally changing: we know more, but we don’t know enough for the character’s inherent (and arguably essential) mystery. We’ve seen enough to better understand both Gus’ war with the Cartel and the origins of the character’s current identity, but we don’t have enough to claim to an indepth understanding of what makes Gus tick.
It’s not clear how soon we’ll get that answers, as it could be another reveal later in the season or it could be something that carries onto subsequent seasons. Gus could remain a prominent figure until the end of the series, or he could die in the next episode without these questions being answered. In truth, I don’t even think I particularly need an answer to his time in Chile, although I’m guessing the show is heading in that direction. If there is ever a point where I know everything about Gus, it will be the point where the character stops being interesting, or the point where the character feels like something to be used or deployed instead of a human being. Flashback episodes can often risk essentializing a character’s experience, as I’d argue happened in the case of Damages despite my appreciation for Ivanek’s performance, but “Hermanos” serves as a strong launching pad for both the character and the season without getting too cute with Gus’ past.
It helps, I think, that the rest of the episode goes on without being entirely over-run. “Hermanos” isn’t told entirely from Gus’ perspective, allowing scenes that shed light on Jesse’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend (who he is now supporting financially as though she and her son were his own family), Walt and Jesse’s fractured relationship (with Jesse balking at murdering Gus and Walt questioning Jesse’s loyalty as a result), and even a quick stop in at the White household to see that Skyler’s put the laundered money in space bags in the house’s crawl space (which I’m guessing we needed to know for later).
Yes, the episode does sort of suffer from that “need to know” mentality, with the show checking off particular details which will be important or necessary later, but there was an elegance to it which I quite appreciated. I’ve mentioned before that the season seems interested in perspective, with the cameras and different point of view camera shots indicative of this, and here there was both a willingness to embrace new perspectives (fleshing out Gus’ point of view) and to avoid necessarily overwhelming past ones. The benefit of this was clear as Walt and Hank sat in the Aztec discussing the plan afoot, with Mike watching from outside the car and Gus (we presume) watching on his computer. That scene could have been told entirely from Walt’s point of view, but the diverse nature of the season’s narrative focus meant that we also understand Mike’s perspective, and “Hermanos” did more to add Gus into the mix. I never felt the panic that Walt felt because I wasn’t only relating to his character, his panic a product of the situation rather than a point of legitimate tension.
Breaking Bad has had some of its finest moments when we are trapped in the moment with a particular character, whether it’s Jesse pulling that trigger or Walt running over those dealers or Hank surviving that vicious attack. However, the show also works well when it emphasizes the viewer as spectator, and allows us a certain degree of distance to reflect on what’s unfolding: it was at the heart of “Fly,” and to some degree it was at the heart of “Hermanos.” The trick, really, is the show’s ability to turn distance into proximity. By focusing on Gus, the episode broadens our focus, giving us the ability to take a step back and better understand how the pieces are falling together; however, at the same time, the episode provides enough moments of subtle reflection (the quick glimpse at the sketch of Gale’s killer) and tragic memory to force us to live in the moment even when we know the end result.
Just as the point-of-view camera shots take us out of the moment while simultaneously placing us within it, “Hermanos” manages to put us in Gus’ head while maintaining a clear picture of how Gus operates (and may operate in the future) within the “present” writ large. It’s a perfect bridge piece at the mid-point of the show’s fourth season, a smart narrative decision supported by a strong performance and balanced in a way we’ve come to expect from the show.
- The cold open dropping in on Gus’ involvement in the aftermath of “One Minute” was interesting, but not particularly surprising: mostly just groundwork for Hector’s involvement in the flashback.
- I’m intrigued what we’re to take away from Walt’s discussion with his fellow cancer patient. Obviously it’s a chance for Walt to explain how his attitude towards the drug business is not dissimilar from attitudes that might be found within a cancer patient (which he, you know, was), but that inspirational poster (highlighted by that sudden reverse angle) feels purposeful.
- Esposito’s Emmy chances will very much depend on how the show weathers a year-long delay between these episodes and next year’s nomination process. I think he stands a better chance of being nominated alongside Aaron Paul if Gus dies at some point in the season, but even then it’s not clear if the one-year break might make it tougher for Breaking Bad cast members to break through outside of previous winners.
- I presume I wasn’t the only one who watched Walt give his confessional to the security camera and wanted it to suddenly nod or move side to side in response?
- Yes, I said last week these reviews would be a bit shorter, but between the holiday tomorrow and the quality of this episode that didn’t really happen. Things will get dicier next week.