OK, cue the ritual spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen AMC’s Breaking Bad – and especially Seasons 3 and 4 – you might want to skip this one.
A few months back, I argued that Al Swearengen, saloonkeeper and unofficial mayor of HBO’s Deadwood, was television’s Best Villain Ever. I stand by that assessment, but if there is a runner up, it is surely Gustavo “The Chicken Man” Fring from Breaking Bad. (Not coincidentally, these two shows join HBO’s The Wire in forming the Holy Trinity of TV drama, at least in my books.)
Fring shares some important characteristics with Swearengen – and, for that matter, with Stringer Bell from The Wire. Like both of those villains, Fring is a strategist – ambitious but cool-headed, with the intelligence, patience, and discipline to line up all his pieces before he makes his move, even if that occasionally means letting his enemies knock over a pawn or two. The Official Pornokitsch Taxonomy of Villains™ listed Swearengen as a Kingpin and String as a Pragmatist, and either of those labels would fit Gus Fring pretty well. But he’s got more than a whiff of the Obsessed in him too (more on that later), leaving me undecided as to where exactly he fits best.
Maybe that’s appropriate, since the Chicken Man has been defying expectations from the beginning.
Gus Fring was never meant to be the show’s Big Bad. Originally, he was slated to appear in only a few episodes as the mysterious big fish drug dealer helping high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-crystal-meth-master-chef Walter White get his product to market. Credit the textured, genuinely chilling performance of Giancarlo Esposito with convincing producers that Gus ought to be a regular cast member, complete with his own backstory and character arc – both of which turned out to be essential to taking the show to the next level. Before Fring, Breaking Bad was a good show. By Season 3, it was television’s best in a long time, and with due respect to the great Bryan Cranston, that had a lot to do with the glut of amazing supporting characters – enough to sustain an entire spinoff prequel, as it happens, the also-excellent Better Caul Saul. The producers of the latter were similarly powerless to resist the pull of El Pollo, and re-watching the episode in which Fring is introduced to audiences for the first time, it’s easy to see why.
When we first glimpse Gus, most of us don’t even realize it. Like Walter, all we know is that we’re looking for a major player in the local drug market, one who’s been dealing meth “in bulk” for twenty years and never been caught. He’s a cautious businessman, so he’s chosen a local fast food chicken joint, Los Pollos Hermanos, to meet – and vet – his would-be suppliers, Walt and Jesse. As Walt’s lawyer, Saul Goodman, explains, “He’s very cautious who he does business with.” Walt waits at the restaurant for hours, but is never approached. “It’s a no-go,” Saul later informs him. The mysterious businessman “didn’t like the cut of your jib.” A determined Walt returns to the restaurant the following day, and after sulking over his curly fries for a few hours, catches the manager giving him side-eye. We’ve seen this guy before: he approached Walt’s table yesterday, smiling blandly from behind wire-rimmed spectacles, to ask if everything was to Walt’s satisfaction. Walt took no notice of him then; chances are, most viewers didn’t either. The Chicken Man hides in plain sight, wiping down fast food tables and pouring out fountain Cokes in a yellow dress shirt and chinos. He looks about as badass as your geeky cousin – which is of course the point.
When Walt confronts him, the manager keeps up the act a while longer, blinking his great big doe eyes bemusedly, offering to refer Walt to the company’s website. It isn’t until Walt claims that he and Fring are “alike” that the façade melts: The doe eyes harden into something flat and dead; the voice deepens; the smile turns brittle. “I don’t think we’re alike at all, Mr. White,” the Chicken Man says.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, this scene (Season 2, Episode 11) is worth a re-watch. Those few seconds, those few flickers of Esposito’s features, are laced with such quiet menace that when Walt shrinks back in his seat, the reaction seems heroically measured; what he should really be doing is getting the fuck out of there.
Of course, if he had, he would never have found a distributor for his blue meth – and we would have missed out on one of the greatest protagonist/antagonist relationships in television history.
They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and that goes double for antiheroes. A show like Breaking Bad only works if audiences keep rooting for the main character in spite of his actions – at least up to the point where he crosses over from antihero to outright bad guy, by which point we are so invested that we can’t help but keep watching. For that to happen, the antagonist has to be measurably worse than the antihero – a tall order when your antihero is as dark as Walter White.
But don’t worry – the Chicken Man is up to the challenge. Taunt an old man in a wheelchair by bragging about killing his relatives? Check. Poison an entire Mexican drug cartel? Check. Threaten to murder your partner’s infant daughter? Check. Take out your own henchman with a box cutter just to send a message? Why not?
It’s not just what he does, either, but how he does it. He uses violence sparingly, after a great deal of forethought. And he has a keen eye for drama, though he evinces none himself: He kills impassively, methodically, slowly. Like a man acutely aware of how to use human emotion to his advantage – all the while repressing his own.
The key word here is repressing. At first glance, Fring seems to epitomize the dispassionate, it’s-just-business type of killer, but it’s a lie: Gus is actually keeping a lid on some pretty violent emotions. As we learn over the course of Season 3, Fring is nursing a couple of lifelong vendettas – blood feuds so bitter that he’s willing to pass up the chance to kill his enemies quickly if it means he can watch them suffer. That makes him a lot more interesting than your garden variety coldblooded killer. It’s not just the aloofness with which he commits violence, but the suspicion that he’s barely holding it together; that behind the dispassionate killer lurks something even worse.
Consider the aforementioned drug cartel murder. Fring and his right-hand man, Mike (played by that other Master of Subtle Expressions, Jonathan Banks), have been summoned to the hacienda of Don Eladio, head of a Mexican cartel under whose thumb Fring has been operating for twenty years. Fring offers Eladio and his henchmen a bottle of expensive tequila with which to toast to a new business arrangement. The don hoists his glass, but he’s no fool: He waits for Gus to drink first. The Chicken Man downs his shot and then waits, apparently for quite a while, as the party kicks into high gear before excusing himself to go to the bathroom.
He’s not gone long before henchmen start pitching over. The tequila has been poisoned. Gus must have imbibed the stuff himself, and has gone to the bathroom to purge. You’d think he’d be in a bit of a hurry, what with the deadly toxin seeping out of his stomach and the angry men with machine guns everywhere, but no – he takes the time to remove his suit jacket, fold it, and set it aside; to take a hand towel and lay it across the floor, so as to avoid getting bathroom grime on his meticulously pressed trousers; to rinse his mouth and dab at the corners with a cloth. And when it’s over, and he returns poolside to see Mike garrotting the last of the survivors, he just surveys the massacre impassively.
The scene would be chilling on its own, without any of the backstory, but it so happens that Gus is serving more than one agenda here. Not only is he eliminating an impediment to his business, he’s exacting his long-deferred revenge against Don Eladio, who murdered Fring’s business partner (and possible lover) some twenty years earlier. You’d think a guy who’d just knocked off a lifelong arch-enemy would show a bit more emotion. A fist pump, at least.
So, yeah – Walter White has a pretty dark foil to play against. But their relationship goes deeper than that. Gus’s ruthlessness has its own gravitational pull, dragging Walt even further to the dark side as he struggles to survive. And this relationship is reciprocal, as each man is forced to greater extremes in an effort to overcome the other. They’re locked in a death spiral, and they both know it – but they can’t let go, since neither man’s business can succeed without the other. Breaking Bad was always about Walter White’ fall from grace, but once he’s locked in combat with the Chicken Man, it’s less a fall than a skydive without a parachute – in tandem.
Of course, it had to end somewhere, and there is perhaps no greater testament to creator Vince Gilligan’s affection for his villain than the manner of the Chicken Man’s demise.
The author of that demise is Hector “Tio” Salamanca, the only person in the world Gus hates more than the now-dead Don Eladio. The latter ordered the killing of Gus’s partner, but it was Tio who pulled the trigger, kicking off a tit-for-tat blood feud that Gus is pretty sure he’s won. After all, Tio is in a wheelchair now, mute and full of impotent rage. Gus delights in mocking his vanquished foe face-to-face – an indulgence that will cost him when, with the help of Walt, Tio detonates a suicide bomb concealed in his wheelchair.
The scene is already pretty over the top, but Gilligan goes one step further, having Gus emerge from the bombed-out room with his face half blown off, the most gruesome Two Face you’ve ever seen (at least on television), but somehow still standing upright. He even pauses in the hallway to straighten his tie before he dies. He’s just that fastidious.
A dangerously cartoonish scene for a show that otherwise cleaved to realism, but the internet cheered anyway. If Gilligan couldn’t quite contain himself, well – neither could we.
Of course, through the magic of television, Gus Fring is back, taking his long foreshadowed place in Better Call Saul. (Ah, prequels.) As delighted as I am to see him, I can’t help feeling that he doesn’t quite belong there. Saul is a subtler beast than its predecessor; if Breaking Bad was a bold Pollock splatter painting, Saul is a landscape in soft, boozy watercolours. I’m honestly not sure how a character as frightening as Fring fits in. If he does, it probably needs to be in some watered-down form (like watered-down Saul and super-diluted Mike). But is that really what we want?
I guess we’ll find out.
And now, the Machine:
Strengths: Smart, cautious, methodical, and utterly ruthless. Never loses his cool unless he wants to, and even then, everything he does has been carefully calibrated to send a message. Always manages to stay one step ahead of his enemies – until he isn’t.
Weaknesses: In a word, Tio. Fring’s blind hatred for Hector Salamanca makes him predictable at precisely the moment he can’t afford to be, which proves his undoing.
Best Quote: “This is what comes of blood for blood.”
Lair: A fast-food chicken joint might not be the most glamorous of digs, but it makes a great cover. Still, the whiff of french fries probably clings to those yellow dress shirts for a while. 3 points.
Toys: None to speak of, unless you count that box cutter and that hazmat suit. 0 points.
Henchmen: No shortage of disposable street thugs, but really, all he needs is Mike. 6 points – all of ‘em Ehrmantrout.
Schemes - Scope: The drug empire is impressive, but it’s the carefully orchestrated, patiently executed, 20 year-long revenge plot that really puts it over the top. 6 points.
Schemes - Complexity: If laying out your chessboard takes 20 years, safe to say your plan is pretty complex. 6 points.
Overall Badass Rating: 21
Next month: KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAN(S). And check out the rogues' gallery of previous villains here.