The latest episode of Breaking Bad reconfirms why this is the best show on television.
The latest episode of Breaking Bad exemplifies why this show is so exceptional. Midway through this episode, homicide and DEA investigators call Gus Fring to ask why his fingerprints were found at the scene of a drug-related murder. Hank leads the questioning. Calmly, methodically, Fring provides a reasonable and reasonably convincing set of answers. These answers satisfy everyone at the table except Hank. The tension in this scene is palpable. And a regular show would have built up this scene and possibly used it as a cliffhanger. But not Breaking Bad. Instead, the tension in this scene is topped a few minutes later by an even more intense standoff.
Convinced that Fring is a drug kingpin, Hank dupes Walt into working for him as an investigator. The two drive to Fring's restaurant, Los Pollos Hermanos, where Hank tells Walt about his suspicions of Fring and then asks Hank to place a magnetic GPS tracking device under Fring's car. Again, in a regular show, this scene would have played out as an ideal cliffhanger. But not Breaking Bad. Not only does it allow the scene to play out in mid-episode, but it also finds a way to put Walt in an even more precarious position. As luck would have it, Mike, Fring's all-purpose hitman, rolls up beside Hank and Walt and watches everything unfold.
Yet again, a lesser show would have used this point as a cliffhanger, letting the audience hang desperately in suspense for yet another week. But Breaking Bad has so much material to cover, has so many plot twists and storylines to explore, that it lets this scene play out fully in mid-episode. Walt staggers into the restaurant, his mind racing. Fring steps to the cash register, smiling broadly, and tells Walt to just "Do it!" After taking a soda, Walt returns to the parking lot, head spinning, and places the tracking device under the car and then drives off. Bryan Cranston, who plays Walt, deserves another Emmy for the controlled hysteria that he conveys in this scene. He has almost no lines, just a few incomprehensible grunts and sighs, yet delivers a performance that is emotionally realistic and, at the same time, very comical.
As riveting as the interrogation and investigative scenes are, they do not represent the heart of this episode. Hank and Walt are secondary players here, a kind of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, adding peripheral humor to a much larger, more tragic narrative. This episode is entitled "Hermanos" and provides us, finally, with some background on Fring. We see here his first brutal encounter with the Mexican cartel. A long, flashback sequence shows us Fring and his early business partner Maximilio trying to convince a Mexican crime boss to buy their meth. Earlier, the two had given their product to the kingpin's employees, hoping to demonstrate the potency of their product by intoxicating the gruffest thugs. But before the meeting progresses very far, Tio, Tuco's scumbag uncle, shoots Fring's business partner in the head. Blood pours wildly into the pool, creating dark swirls in the otherwise crystal blue water. Tio then grabs Fring by the neck and shoves his face beside the eyes-wide-open face of his dead partner.
This scene reminds us of the cartel's unflinching brutality. But more than that, it shows us the kind of violence and risk that Fring has long endured. Suddenly, that earlier interrogation scene looks like a walk in the park compared to the death he has literally faced innumerable times before. Now we understand why the earlier scenes could not have functioned as cliffhangers. From Fring's point of view, these are minor annoyances, not real threats. Making them cliffhangers would diminish the power of this character and place him alongside cowering Walt. And so what this episode shows us, above all, is the grandeur of Fring and the relative smallness of Walt. We understand that after three and a half seasons, Walt remains a bit player in the drug trade, a pawn.
More important, Walt comes out of this episode humbled. For most of this season, he has acted with reckless arrogance—for example, buying and blowing up a sports car as if it were a toy. Even at the beginning of this episode, he waxes philosophical about all the control he has over his life. By the end of this episode, all of that arrogance is gone. He feels scared and helpless and alone. He realizes that he is completely out of his depth.
I had suspected that Gus would die at the end of Season Four. I no longer believe that. I think, rather, that the rest of this show will continue to explore the cat-and-mouse game that has been playing out between Gus and Walt. As "Hermanos" shows us, Gus is far too tough and clever to be killed off so soon.
Written or Contributed by: Eli Katz