This review contains spoilers.
One of the reasons that Breaking Bad might just be the pinnacle of the new wave of American TV drama to date is the way in which it manages to bring together two different strands of ‘new’ TV and marry them together seamlessly.
New TV is all about immersing you in tangible worlds; places loaded with exotic detail, with their own quirks and codes and laws, that make them seem like places that actually exist outside the hour you spend exploring them. It’s about creating an environment that’s intoxicating enough to make you want to visit every week.
The quality HBO/AMC/cable shows do this either by a rigid social or historical verisimilitude (seen in shows like The Wire and Mad Men) and/or the kind of intricate, pervasive character work that makes the characters (and therefore the plot) as fascinatingly unpredictable as people in real life usually are.
The network shows have more time to fill, but contradictorily, due to advertising and executive restraints, they can’t spend as much time (in theory) on long scenes of character development, so shows like Lost, The X-Files, Fringe and Buffy rely on an elaborate, comic-book like mythology, often centred around a central mystery in order to intrigue viewers.
In truth, there are few things in TV more thrilling than a long-awaited mythology episode, where the back story of a mysterious character is revealed, or we get to see how our favourite characters met. Lost span a whole series out of this technique – hell, even Heroes managed to come up with a good episode in Company Man in its first season.
Both techniques are effective at getting you hooked, but it’s arguably rare for a show to marry quality with a truly dense and exciting mythology, and if it has, it’s certainly never been done with the same degree of effectiveness as in Breaking Bad. This week, in Hermanos, we finally got to explore some of Gus’ backstory, and unsurprisingly, it was utterly fantastic.
The structure of Hermanos itself was somewhat unusual – we got a few glimpses early on of Gus visiting Tio/Hector after the death of the cousins to coolly taunt him with the news, before returning to the present day for the bulk of the episode, then finishing on with that astonishing, extended scene from Gus’ past.
In a major coup for the series, Steven Bauer played the charismatic head of the Mexican cartel Don Elario – show runner Vince Gilligan has stated numerous times that the central conceit behind Breaking Bad is “Mr Chips turns into Scarface”, so it was a thrill to see a honest-to-goodness Scarface alumni make it into the cast.
The scene itself shoots straight into the pantheon of incredible Breaking Bad scenes, and God knows that’s a crowded field at this point. Playing out entirely in Spanish, the scene was unbearably tense, partly due to the early tease of the blood-tainted swimming pool, partly due to the lingering presence of the truly repulsive Hector, and partly due to the unnerving sight of Gus as we’ve rarely seen him before – subservient, unsettled, out of control, and even out of his depth.
The only time we’ve only seen Gus start to lose his vice-like grip on proceedings is, in fact, earlier in the episode, after receiving an interrogation from Hank and the DEA higher-ups. It’s a bravura performance – he has plausible rejoinders and alibis in place for just about every eventuality, and it’s enough to win over the majority of the DEA braintrust. Hank, however, remains sceptical, and despite the men parting on good terms, Hank’s not buying it. Gus knows this, as evidenced by his stony face and almost imperceptible hand twitching in the lift post-interview.
Hank’s certainly got Gus pegged as his man, and enlists an unsuspecting Walt to help him plant a tracking device on Gus’ car (in a nicely subtle payoff to one this season’s running gags, when Walt asks about the mineral fair, Hank counters with “We ain’t going to no goddamn rock show.”).
When Walt realises the full horror of the situation too late, there is an absolutely brilliant shot of Mike pulling up next to Hank and Walt, just when you things can’t get more suffocating – it’s a moment that is hilarious and terrifying in a way that only Breaking Bad is capable of pulling off.
This was followed by one of my favourite moments of the episode, where a completely discombobulated Walt stumbled into Los Pollos Ermanos and mumbled incoherent apologies to a smiling Gus, who replies with a magnificently strained, “Do it” through teeth gritted so hard it looked like his jaw bone is about to snap.
This new complication compels Walt to attempt to speed up his and Jesse’s plan to take out Walt – however, Jesse’s fragile mental state and Walt’s increasingly fervent paranoia don’t leave either of them in a good position to take down the fearsome Gus.
Once again, we saw the rampaging nature of Walt’s ego, as he casually dismisses a fellow cancer patient in an early scene, belittling him and loudly proclaiming his philosophy on taking control over his own life, only to spend the rest of the episode floundering around, without a clue how to extricate himself from the mess he’s esconced himself in: always reacting, never acting.
I say a variation on this every week, but this is the beauty of Breaking Bad – the inter-character tensions have built up to the point where you cannot see a way out other than all hell breaking loose, very, very soon. Things are permanently on the cusp of erupting into violence, as we saw in the Gus flashback, and things can never be the same afterwards.
The death of his “ermano” led to the creation of Gus as we know him – controlled, ruthless, clinical. Not only did the flashback give us an insight into how Gus used to be more flighty, more emotional, prouder (like Walt, in other words), but it also demonstrated just how cold he’s become – he’s been torturing the admittedly reprehensible Hector for years, taking advantage of his disability to taunt him with the prospect of his own murder for what’s likely to have been a very long time.
And not only that, we get a glimpse of something else that motivates Gus – revenge. Retribution. And arguably, the reveal that he does feel emotion – real, deep-seated emotion, enough emotion to motivate a lethal confrontation with a drug cartel – makes him far, far dangerous than we had previously thought.
Now that’s how you do a mythology episode.
Read our review of the last episode, Problem Dog, here.