The smartest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. – Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects
When I got hooked on Breaking Bad, the character of Gustavo Fring was the reason why. Refined, quietly intense, a deliberately shadowy figure who was almost impossibly careful (he drove a Volvo! A Volvo!), Gus was the most effective villain I’d ever seen on television. I took to calling him “The Devil,” and feeling a secret thrill each time he achieved one of his objectives.
One of the rules of drama, in life as in art, is that The Devil is immortal. I was convinced for years that Osama bin Laden had to stay alive, wherever he was in the world; I thought my country needed the force of evil he represented as the opposite to its own heroism. When Seal Team Six took bin Laden down last year, no one could have been more shocked than I was. I remember thinking, Oh God. What have we done?
In retrospect, that’s when I should have known that Gus Fring would die.
I never saw it coming. Gus Fring had a fine-tuned sense of danger (see what I mean here), and he was as thorough and objective a planner as he was ruthless. He placed as much value in education as loyalty: Gus met his former colleague Gale Boetticher when the latter won a chemistry scholarship Gus had set up in memory of Max, whom he loved. His businesses (notably Los Pollos Hermanos) were successful, and he cultivated relationships with those who might have seen the chicken empire as a front for something else. He covered what became his “blue meth” operation with a spotless business and community record.
But the balance, as Aristotle implied, is all. The concept of the golden mean tells us to find the middle ground between any two extremes: a thirst for justice and a need for revenge, love of family and blind rage at those who threaten it, the need to make a living and greed. Gus Fring forgot about the golden mean; it’s possible he was never that well acquainted with it in the first place. Having seen Max die at the hands of Don Eladio and Hector Salamanca decades earlier, Gus kills the former and does worse to the latter. Some of the best scenes in Season Four featured Gus visiting an elderly, ailing Hector, for the sole reason of informing the old man that he’d slaughtered Hector’s family.
To Gus, the past was never really past. In the end, this was his undoing.
As we approach Season Five without the stabilizing, sinister presence of Gus, I feel a bit lost. I’ve seen Walter, Jesse, and even Hank fall and rise and fall and rise, and I’ve lived in that tense zone of thinking each episode could be the last for any of them. I never felt this way about Gus. He thrived in a particular darkness of his own design: I came to rely on this as the source of the threat to the other characters. Without their common enemy, what need does Jesse have for his fledgling self-control? What stands between Hank and his likely next target? Who will limit the reach of Walt’s selfishness, his rage, his narcissism?
I am newly sure of one thing, though. The Devil doesn’t die: it must follow that Gustavo Fring was not The Devil. Not in the universe of Breaking Bad.
But if Gus wasn’t The Devil, who – or what – is?