Those of us who were (and are) rabid fans of Breaking Bad will no doubt enjoy the latest Better Call Saul, “Sabrosito”, even more than usual. Just about half this instalment is essentially an episode of Breaking Bad, set years before the events of the show. There’s a sequence with Don Eladio in Mexico (who eventually will meet his end at the hands of Gus Fring, years later), lots of time spent with the swaggering, crude Hector Salamanca and best of all, long, interesting scenes with Gustavo himself. Giancarlo Esposito steps effortlessly back into the role that made him famous and inhabits Gus as only an experienced actor can. It’s a real treat, and promises even more compelling plot twists in future episodes.
Gus is one of the most mysterious characters to appear in television: we seem to know him quite well, but in actuality, we know very little about him. (The season 4 Breaking Bad episode “Hermanos” makes a great companion piece for this Saul episode, reminding us of Gustavo’s dark past and hinting at elements of his character that are once again referenced here.) To pick just one of his many mysteries, it’s suggested here, as it was in the days of Breaking Bad, that Gus is actually gay. The fact that the suggestion is coming now, as then, from the mouth of Hector Salamanca in the form of crude insults makes it possible that this is just one more example of Hector’s rough cruelty, but Gus never denies it, nor addresses the issue. (I once attended a Q&A in which that question was put to Esposito, and he ducked the question, simply shrugging and saying, “Love is love.”) This week, Hector’s homophobic insult is particularly creative, re-phrasing “Los Pollos Hermanos” (“The Chicken Brothers”) to “Los Culos Hermanos” (“The Butt Brothers”). Gus, for his part, reveals something of himself that he’s rarely shown before: his wounded pride and sense of righteousness. When Hector and his men “occupy” Los Pollos until Gus returns from a charity event to speak with the foul gangster, Gus stands up to him, and later gives a speech to his employees (with whom he’s very gentle and generous) that in America, thugs can’t push you around. That the rules apply here (unlike in other countries) and righteous people are protected. He’s more emotional than we’ve come to expect from Gus, and a measure of how deep his animosity towards Salamanca runs. In fact, in his final scene, Gus tells Mike that the reason he prevented Hector’s assassination before was that a bullet to the head would be far too easy for Hector. It’s strongly suggested (and we may find out before this season is over) that Gus was responsible somehow for Hector’s massive stroke, which leaves him capable only of ringing a bell and evacuating his bowels on cue. (As it turns out, thanks to the enormously talented Mark Margolis, a full, rich character can still be created with those physical restraints.)
In short, Gus Fring is a bit more human than one would think, based on how he’s portrayed on Breaking Bad, and it’s wonderful to see Esposito add new colours and layers to this character. Jonathan Banks, on the other hand, simply digs into Mike like a tick, and continues to impress with his portrayal of a working-class, tough-minded, no-nonsense handyman (at one point he even reads a magazine called “Handyman”), who is as expert with a power-drill as he is with a sniper rifle. Mike is torn, it seems, between wanting to stay (mostly) on the right side of the law and wanting to provide for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, on whom he dotes adorably. Gustavo keeps pulling out the metaphorical chair for him, but Mike refuses to sit down. He even refuses to accept money for his stunt last week, disrupting Hector’s supply lines. Mike seems like the sort that doesn’t handle being “managed” very well. He’s a solitary person — he doesn’t seem to have any friends, just his small family — and he works that way, too. Part of the fun in watching Mike and Gus interact is that, in terms of character, they’re essentially the same as how we’re going to see them later on Breaking Bad. We know that Mike is eventually going to work for Gus, and the two have a deeply respectful, professional relationship. The beginnings of that are fascinating to watch.
This consistent characterization makes watching Jimmy even more interesting, as unlike Mike or Gus, he undergoes some rather remarkable changes in order to become Saul. (And more again to become “Gene”.) This episode (the second half of which deals with his continuing story arc) finds Jimmy looking small. Re-watching an old episode of Breaking Bad, one is struck by how Saul fills the room, and looks like a mature, experienced man (yes, with a sleazy combover, but still). Here, Jimmy looks thin and defeated. Forced into a humiliating apology to Chuck in front of a judge, he and Kim seem to be playing the long con by initially going along with the terms of legal settlement Chuck offers. What’s at stake is Jimmy losing his license to practice law, and it all revolves around getting Chuck to make a mistake, legally speaking, that Jimmy and Kim can use against him. It all turns on one word: “destroyed”. In his confession, Jimmy initially admits that he “destroyed” the offending cassette tape, but Kim convinces him to change that word to “damaged”. During the hearing, Chuck specifically requests that Jimmy change the word back to “destroyed”, and states, flat-out, in front of a Judge, that Jimmy destroyed the one and only copy of that recording. But a moment later, Kim maneuvers Chuck into admitting that there is indeed a copy of the tape, and Jimmy only destroyed the copy, not the original. It’s a minor technicality to most of us, yes, but in a world where a President can escape persecution by asking what the definition of “is” is, that sort of thing matters. How they will use this tool to evade Chuck’s constant attacks remains to be seen, but as Jimmy and Kim march confidently, side-by-side, from the courthouse, they radiate determination (perhaps Kim a bit more strongly).
With the Kim and Jimmy storyline, we as an audience are somewhat in the dark — we know they have a plan, but we don’t know what it is. (Mike becomes the character who walks between two worlds, posing as a door repairman to snap photos of the interior of Chuck’s house for Jimmy. What the photos are for, exactly, is not revealed.) With the Mike and Gus storyline, the dramatic inertia appears to be moving towards a showdown between Gus and Hector, with Hector ending up severely disabled. This makes Gus into one of the more curious characters of many curious characters on Better Call Saul because he isn’t the antagonist this time around. Indeed: Gus is one of the show’s heroes, standing up to the villainous Mexican cartel with their lowbrow style and brutality. Breaking Bad was a show that challenged traditional assumptions about creating a sympathetic protagonist (Walter White, all things considered, was actually the show’s villain) and Better Call Saul continues the tradition masterfully, leading us into a murky world of compromised ethics and characters with either “soft” moral centres (Jimmy) or a strong moral centre that’s simply oriented differently from most (Gus). The way that the show plays the game of inches with the slow burn of plot and counterplot, and many meditative silences (revel in the sound design of this episode – even the sound of a tomato being chopped is compelling) is one of its most fascinating, and wonderful elements.