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'Breaking Bad' recap: Putting up walls

September 5, 2011 |  7:00 am

Skyler
It’s been nearly two dozen episodes since Gustavo Fring and Walter White first crossed paths, and what we know about the former is remarkably little. We know he runs a fast-food chain in addition to a criminal organization. We know he does everything he can to stay under the radar, including keeping tabs on law enforcement by appearing to be one of their chief boosters. We know he lives in a large-ish house, but probably not one as big as he could really afford (just with the fast food money). And we know that he runs his organization on the principle that people who stick out too much need to be dealt with swiftly and brutally. Throughout, we’ve been given the sense that Gus succeeded where Walt is flailing because he keeps so many people – even the audience – at arm’s length.

“Hermanos,” the best episode of “Breaking Bad’s” fourth season so far and one of a handful of episodes on a short list for best episodes of the show, period, tells us more about Gus than we’ve ever known before. We learn that, in addition to being a Chilean national, he’s apparently someone so scary in Chile (or related to someone so scary) that he’s essentially untouchable, as far as the cartel is concerned. We learn that the other “Hermano” in Los Pollos Hermanos was a gifted chemist named Maximilio, an early business partner, very good friend, and possible lover of Gus. The two started a chicken restaurant in Mexico as a front for their methamphetamine operation, and they took the rather substantial risk of slipping known employees of a crime boss named Don Eladio samples of their product, hoping it would lead to a meeting. It did, Tio shot Max, and Gus embarked on what appears to be a decades-long attempt to prove the maxim that revenge is best served cold.

Gus is more or less the main character of “Hermanos,” even if we spend plenty of time with Walter, who’s going in for a cancer scan and learning that Jesse may not be telling him everything about his new job. We also get drop-ins on the rest of the gang, but we’re often seeing them through Gus’ eyes. For instance, take my favorite edit of the episode. Walter’s just gotten done with his cancer scan, and his eyes seem filled with worry or perhaps the realization that he’s not quite as in control of his life as he made out to the other guy at the doctor’s office. (And how great was it that all of the things the other guy talked about were also things Walter had done in the last year, just in more menacing ways?) Walter talks a big game about how important he is, but all season has been about proving to him that he’s nobody, in the grand scheme of Gus’ criminal empire. And as we watch him slowly don his protective gear, we’re abruptly seeing him do so from the perspective of the security camera on the lab’s wall. Pull back even more and Walt is just one employee in one location on Gus’ computer monitor. Walt’s an employee as surely as the girl out front in the restaurant running the cash register.

The episode more or less pivots on two encounters between Gus and Walt. The first is a flashback to last year’s episode “I See You,” where Walt and Gus talked at the hospital after Hank’s shooting (followed by Gus going to tell Tio just why the Cousins had been killed). The second is the first time Gus and Walt have met face to face since the season premiere, but it occurs under different circumstances than either might have wanted. Walter’s been asked by Hank to place a GPS tracker on Gus’ car (since Hank is the only one convinced Gus is a drug dealer), and he wants to let Gus know he didn’t do it. Gus has no interest in tossing Hank anything that might implicate him. (His interrogation by Hank and other DEA and police officials is a masterwork of Gus having prepared for every possible eventuality.) He also has no interest in meeting with Walter, as he must know that Walter wants desperately to kill him and, thus, eliminate the single biggest threat to Walter’s own life.

And yet now Gus needs to tell Walter how to proceed in the midst of this impossible situation. And when he says, “Do it!” in response to whether Walter should plant the tracker or not, it almost seems as if just a touch of Gus’ façade comes down. For most of the episode, he’s the cool, collected Gus we’ve seen up until this point. But in that single moment, he’s the guy at the edge of that pool, raging against the men who killed Max. And then the wall goes right back up, the wall that confines his emotional reactions to finger twitches and careful consideration. So Walter goes back out to the parking lot and puts the tracker on the car. (It’s worth mentioning that the scene where Hank tells Walt his theories about Gus as Mike pulls up in the background is absolutely hysterical. What a funny scene in such a dramatic episode!)

And even as we see the moment when Gus learns he’ll have to put up a wall to get what he wants, we get a sense that even Walter’s learning this lesson. For all his bluster and certainty of his own awesomeness, Walter’s getting a pretty big lesson in his own smallness this season. When he realizes that even Jesse might no longer be on his side, you can see a wall go up in his eyes. Turned away from Jesse, he hears his lie and realizes he’s going to have to do this on his own. Just as Gus learned to put up his own wall and just as Skyler hides away the money she can’t yet launder to maintain an appearance of normalcy, Walter’s going to have to find a way to keep some things to himself.

Photo: Skyler White (Anna Gunn) hides away Walt’s salary in vacuum-sealed clothing bags. (Credit: AMC)

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--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

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