This post contains spoilers through the Sept. 4 episode of Breaking Bad, “Hermanos.”
I’ve written in the past that Breaking Bad‘s attitude towards the war on drugs, which runs from neutral to positive, makes the show somewhat conservative. So it was interesting to see the show back up and give us an origin story of Gus’ rise in the drug trade at the same time that it’s arguing that the Drug Enforcement Agency is bought off, unable to properly investigate the threat that he poses to them.
After he aces his interview with the DEA and the Albuquerque Police Department, organizations that are already inclined to believe him because of his record as a strong record as a supporter of law enforcement, not withstanding Hank’s trick question that “there’s no record of Gustavo Fring ever having existed in Chile, which I find strange,” Gus is essentially off the hook as a suspect. But Hank continues to track him even though as Mike explains, “from what I hear he’d be committing career suicide,” that without the backing of an agency, Hank’s little more than “Miss Daisy with binoculars” and Walt as his driver. Certainly the outward message is one of, if not the outright corruption of the DEA, its weakness and inability to think creatively and to see what’s in front of it. But is the deeper message that even though Hank is chasing the right man in Albuquerque, even he can’t see the larger picture?
It’s fascinating to see a young, vulnerable Gus pitching meth to Don Eladio, the man who apparently holds the end of the string that’s tied around Don Salamanca’s trigger finger. “This product is the drug of the future,” he rhapsodizes, explaining that’s why he’s been handing out samples to Eladio’s thugs in hopes of scoring a meeting. Instead, his entrepreneurialism gets his partner shot as the man desperately tries to defend Gus, his monologue a parallel of Walt’s constant entreaties on Jesse’s behalf. “The only reason you are alive and he is not is that I know who you are,” Eladio tells him, which raises an interesting question about what lessons Gus learned from that fatal meeting. Clearly, he didn’t stick to chicken, and the cartel followed his lead. But did Gus find out that cooks are dispensable? That protecting your partner can only get you killed? Or that if you’ve got two men making a business proposition, you do your research and then split the difference?
It’s still not a deeply-developed dynamic, but this is as close to an organizational critique of the drug trade and the people who chase it as Breaking Bad‘s come. It’s hard for men to escape the grip of organizations, to live as islands. Gus and Hank might have been able to play a cat and mouse game in another era, another moment in the West. But it’s not clear they’ll be able to do it now.