Monday, 5 September 2011

Blood For Blood: Breaking Bad review


BREAKING BAD: 'Hermanos'

All season long, we've been seeing parallels and divisions drawn between the lead players in the game for supremacy between Gustavo Fring, Hank Schrader and Walter White. They have shared metaphorical problem dogs and a need to open up closed houses, but also been split between the romantics and the scientists, and those who do the driving and those riding shotgun. In that thematic respect, 'Hermanos' felt a little overfamiliar: there wasn't much need for another episode to drive such points home any more than they already have been, even using a new analogy about brothers. Seeing where Gus came from is a fascinating diversion, played out in a scene that manages to be tense despite a predictable outcome, but showing the similarities between how he and Walter got their respective careers off the ground didn't give us anything we didn't already know about who these characters are and why they play the games they do.

Yet the brotherhood that joins Breaking Bad's characters together isn't real. It's a business brotherhood, a bond based on a contract of assumed trust, rather than blood. Like the Pollos Hermanos, as the cartel Don pointed out, these characters are red and white meat - sitting together to give the impression of family and togetherness, whilst actually only business partners rather than genuine brothers. A family built on deception: the restaurant isn't really selling chicken as its primary source of income, and it doesn't say much that the birds used to symbolise family ties on the logo are the same breed being slaughtered and served up inside. These characters may have a lot in common, even a shared 'parentage' for Gus and Walt in terms of how they came into the meth business, but unless bound in blood, to call them brothers would be a fatal mistake.
The episode opens with the debilitated Tio watching a television report on the death of his nephews, the two brothers sent to kill Walt in revenge for Tuco's death but who ended up being taken out by Hank in that amazing car park showdown. They were twins, the closest of brothers, and all the more deadly for it. Yet when they had to put their trust in someone outside the family, it backfired on them. Gustavo Fring, the man who made the phone call which killed them (or at least, had the call made for him), now sits down in front of their crippled uncle and tells him this is the consequence of blood for blood.

He doesn't mean his feud with the cartel though, at least not the one being played out in the present. He is referring to his partner being executed by Tio many years ago, at a meeting with the then-head of the cartel, Don Eladio. There can be no doubt after the conversations between Gus and Tio that Gus had substantial personal reasons for having the twins killed, in addition to protecting his investment in Walter White. He takes visible pleasure in taunting Tio, who is as helpless now as Gus was all those years ago when literally under the boot and forced to stare at Max's bleeding corpse. His recounting of the events that led to the twins' death is him performing an act of retribution: I had to look at my dead partner. Now you have to listen to how I killed your nephews. Blood for blood.

But not quite. Because despite all the effort he has gone to in order to get justice for Max's death, Gus was not his brother. When it came to making a choice between self-advancement and revenge, he took the first option, leaving the latter until it suited him better. Having been saved in the past by Gus somehow, Max saw him as family and was willing to plead for his partner's life, even at the cost of his own. When Gus had to make the same choice, he signed a deal with the devil instead. He may have eventually paid the devil back in spades, but only after making his fortune.

Perhaps that was a wise move: he has certainly honoured his partner's life in other ways, naming a chemistry scholarship after him, for one thing. (A detail beautifully woven into the story that only became clear on second viewing to me). Yet even that wasn't entirely philanthropic: it is clear that Gus was using the scholarship to find someone with the cooking skills to replace his lost partner. The name is not so much a tribute to Max's spirit, but for the place in Gus' business which any beneficiaries would be taking over.

Gus himself is a man who has cut all his family ties. His past is erased, to the extent that even the DEA can't dredge up a single detail on who he used to be. Evidently someone important: given how Max passionately talks about Gus saving his life, some serious sacrifices must have been made. The logical answer, you'd think, would be that Gus played some part in Pinochet's junta (records would surely have been kept if he had been a rebel), giving him the power to get rid of all his records and perhaps give up his position in order to save Max, taking him away for a new life cooking chicken and selling meth - the old dream. No matter who he turns out to have been, my bet is that whatever motivated Gus' decision in his mysterious past to save Max, it was motivated primarily by self-interest, having been made clear that Gus didn't possess the chemistry skills that Max brought to the table.

There were similar betrayals of trust taking place everywhere else in this episode. Hank takes Walt along to the Pollos Hermanos restaurant, in a scene both suspenseful and hilarious as a slightly baffled Mike watches from a nearby car, to plant a tracker bug on Gus' ride. Hank trusts Walt as his brother-in-law, yet that false brotherhood has only ever been a one-way street. Walt has had the benefit of the doubt in all Hank's investigations, even when the evidence only seemed to be pointing one way, while he has continually misdirected his 'brother's' trust, most obviously in using him as a means of learning about the meth business in the first place. Remember how he took up Hank's offer in the Pilot to follow a raid, but only so he could check out how a real meth lab was set up after learning how much money was involved?

At the restaurant, he pretends to be willing to give Hank a helping hand, but is actually only working on the instructions of his business partners. When Gus - what a fantastic shock when he turned up behind the counter - told Walt to plant the tracker, he did it without question even though it only made him look more suspicious. You've got to feel sorry for Hank: if you count his DEA partners not backing up his suspicions about Gus, that's twice in one episode he was let down by people he trusts, even getting to do a Columbo (hurrah!) and  managing to unsettle the otherwise ice-cool Gus for a moment by asking about his name.

Walt also believes he has been betrayed, although since his judgment has been wrong on virtually everything this season, chances are that his paranoia is about to lead him into merry hell once again. He finds out that Jesse, the person he had ostensibly taken for a surrogate family member (again, entirely for his own benefit), might not be quite so loyal as he had taken for granted. That's actually a little unfair on Jesse: let's say instead that he's not so easily led anymore as Walt would like to believe. Naturally, Walt expects Jesse's trust to be absolute, even when he feels absolutely fine about reading the private messages on his partner's phone. But was the meeting discussed in Jesse's text really something he was deliberately hiding from Walt, or was it the one he had promised to arrange to carry out Walt's plan? Jesse has been seeing things more clearly since rediscovering his sense of self-esteem, so whether he is still relying on the promises of people who would pretend to be his brother remains to be seen. 

He's also the only one who is working hard to look after a real family of his own - as we saw with Skyler, Walt is causing nothing but trouble for his family, although his work cleaning out the foundations of his house was at least put to good use - sending money to Andrea and Brock, the mother and, yes, brother of the boy who was killed by Gus' thugs. Jesse feels responsible for that real brotherhood being taken away, so it looks like he's getting ready to step into the breach.

That he refuses to go and see his adopted family only confirms how much they mean to him: given how the organisation he works for was the real cause of Andrea's son, the last he wants is for Andrea and Brock to accidentally become involved in the war between Gus, Walt and the cartel. He probably doesn't want them to see him wearing such a spectacularly hideous shirt as that black sparkly number, either - although whether that's any more disturbing than Saul's schooltime memories (doesn't he seem just the sort to chase girls with sticks?) is a matter for extensive debate.

Though the aspect of the brothers motif which looked at the similarities between the characters in the power struggle felt a bit repetitive, 'Hermanos' drew much dramatic power from extending the theme beyond those character notes and into it a vital part of the unfolding story. When that story is being played out in scenes as superbly staged as the interrogation - the kind of high-tension set piece which has become the hallmark of this astonishing series - and by actors as versatile not only as Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris, but Giancarlo Esposito, who rose above and beyond the challenges set to him in last night's showcase, there's no justification for complaint. Breaking Bad's unwavering excellence has earnt it that much trust at least.



Duncan said...

"...didn't give us anything we didn't already know about who these characters are and why they play the games they do."

You don't think learning that the hermano in 'Los Pollos Hermanos', who used to fill the Gale/Walt/chemist role in Gus' organisation, was killed by the Cartel in the form of Tuco's Tio provides useful insight into whether Gus is likely to reconcile with the Cartel any time soon?

Xander Markham said...

The information that we learnt from that scene was useful for the reason you mentioned, but my point was that there didn't need to be the parallel drawn between Walt and Gus' starts in the meth business: it felt just a bit too clever for its own good, where the episode already had plenty of more naturally clever stuff going on.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

can we assume that when Gus slit his assistants neck in front of Walt, Jesse and Mike that he was making them suffer as he had when he had to watch Max bleed to death...that gives us some insight into Gus that he may have a humanity or was so damaged by that incident or that he understands the power he has making others feel powerless as he did then.
Is Jesse his new Max?