Four seasons in, Better Call Saul has proven, in many ways, to be an even better show – more complicated, more wrenching, more humane – than its predecessor. That’s no small feat, considering Breaking Bad is one of the most well-regarded shows in recent memory.
But even great shows have their missteps, and Better Call Saul‘s biggest one is Gus Fring.
Fring’s back… unfortunately
As a Breaking Bad fan favorite, Fring descended upon Better Call Saul with tons of hype. Indeed, the entirety of Season 2 had been building up to his arrival – the episode titles turned out to be a puzzle spelling “FRING’S BACK,” and that season closed with an anonymous note to Mike that all but confirmed Fring would be swinging by the Saul storyline soon.
Then, when Fring finally arrived in Season 3, he quickly got to doing what he does best. He presented himself as a law-abiding pillar of the community while exerting his considerable influence in the Albuquerque drug trade. He made incredibly meticulous arrangements for a “superlab” that would be used by Walt and others in Bad, and alternately helped and threatened criminals like Mike and Nacho.
All the while, he played five-dimensional chess in order to enact his slow-burn revenge against Hector Salamanca. It wasn’t Gus who gave Hector the stroke that would nearly kill him, but Saul reveals that it was Gus who ensured Hector would never fully recover from it.
In short, this was Gus exactly as we knew and loved in him Bad: ruthless, cunning, precise. The problem is, Better Call Saul isn’t Breaking Bad, and what worked then isn’t working anymore. So far at least, Saul hasn’t figured out how to recalibrate Gus for this new context.
Gus is a mystery that’s already been solved
By design, Gus is one of the most mysterious characters in the entire Bad/Saul universe. His public persona is a carefully constructed façade, his criminal endeavors a means to some secretive end. That’s part of what made him so terrifying on Bad. In contrast to our “heroes” Walt and Jesse, whose hearts we knew all too well, Gus seemed unknowable and therefore unbeatable.
If Gus has any hidden depths worth exploring, the show hasn’t hinted at them.
On Saul, though, we know exactly who Gus is. We know what he is or isn’t capable of, and what he’s really after, and how that struggle is going to end up. The mystery’s been solved, and pretty satisfactorily at that.
The thing to do, then, would be to complicate Gus the way the show has Jimmy or Mike. Who knew that sleazy Saul Goodman was once sweet Jimmy McGill? Or that Mike was capable of the vulnerability he’s shown Stacey? Part of the fun (and heartbreak) of Saul is seeing how much more there was to characters we thought we already knew.
Gus, however, remains simple. He’s exactly the same vengeance-obsessed guy he was in Bad, only slightly younger. If he has any hidden depths worth exploring, if he offers any fresh angles into the nature of obsession, if there’s anything else to him that’s worth knowing at all, the show hasn’t hinted at them.
New data isn’t the same thing as new insight
Saul does give us more facts about Gus. We learn more about his place in Albuquerque’s criminal underworld, how exactly he manipulated Hector’s health, even what kind of fruit tree he had growing up. But none of those additional details have the weight of actual insight. None of them reveal anything about Gus that we didn’t already know.
With Gus, Saul falls victim to that worst pitfall of prequels: the assumption that new information is inherently interesting. If Saul occasionally leans a bit too hard on connections to its parent show (did we really need an origin story for Hector’s bell?), Gus is the show falling on them with a thud.
Since we’re not gaining any new understanding of him or his world, even the biggest reveals feel rote. I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that Gus helped put Hector in that wheelchair, but I can’t say I was particularly shocked to find out, either.
Oh, Gus as a child tortured an animal for stealing his fruit? And now he’s monologuing about it to a bedridden Hector? What a great opportunity for me to go grab a snack. Not even Giancarlo Esposito is capable of selling that as more than the eight hundredth reminder that Gus Fring is a dangerous and vengeful motherfucker. Without new context or a new perspective, it’s all just added noise.
Gus is more plot device than character
Nevertheless, Gus continues to get scenes like that because Gus is supposed to be a major character in the story. Only he doesn’t behave like a character. He’s more like a machine.
He’s there to move around all the other characters and get them where they need to be – Mike in his employ, Nacho ensnared in cartel drama, Hector in the nursing home. He’s not the only one on the show who functions this way. The Cousins are basically human weapons. But they’re used sparingly, brought in to add some spice to turn up the heat. We’re not expected to think too hard about them.
Gus, though, we spend considerable time with, and in all that time, he never demonstrates anything like a personality. He’s caught in a predictable cycle of inputs and outputs: Someone raises a problem, and Gus spits out a chess move for the actual humans in the cast to carry out. I assume that when no one else is around, Gus just turns off the way an idle computer monitor might.
He’s simply an obstacle to be cleared by the characters we care about – and one we know can’t be completely defeated, because he needs to thrive long enough to terrorize Walt and Jesse on Bad.
The good news is, Gus still has possibilities
Arguably, Gus needs to be on Saul because he’s clearly a key figure in Mike’s pre-Bad story, and will probably play a huge role in whatever becomes of Nacho. But if the guy needs to stick around, it’s high time the show looked for ways to expand our understanding of the character.
It wouldn’t even necessarily need to give up Gus’s single-mindedness. Saul could and should look into what Gus’s obsession means, not just what it is. What has Gus given up in his quest? Who might he be if he weren’t so consumed by it? What is it like for him to lead a life so singularly focused? Is it lonely and empty, or is it satisfying in its own twisted way?
It’s time Gus, usually so far ahead of all the other characters, caught up to the rest of them.
Heck, at this point, I’d settle for a scene of Gus settling down for a night alone with his Netflix account. What do you think this guy even does when he’s not actively scheming against the Salamancas? Is he capable of emotions other than vindictive satisfaction and cold fury?
That Saul apparently hasn’t really considered those questions seems like a missed opportunity, and a surprising one for a show that’s seemed set on excavating every nook and cranny of its characters’ souls. (Not to mention a tragedy for Esposito, who continues to give this once-great character his all.)
Perhaps it’s out of some misguided reluctance to let go of the enigmatic iciness that defined Gus for so long. Or possibly this show is playing some long game I just can’t see yet, and I’ll see in the end that Gus’s awfulness was all be design.
All I know is that as it stands now, the Gus Fring story is the show we feared Saul would be when it was first announced – coasting on an unimpeachable legacy and a famous brand name, unable or unwilling to get out from under the shadow of its predecessor.
Saul, in the past four seasons, has become so much more than just “that Breaking Bad prequel.” It’s time Gus, usually so far ahead of all the other characters, caught up to the rest of them.