‘Breaking Bad’ Character Study: A Little Sympathy For Gus Fring

Previous Character Studies: Saul Goodman / Sklyer White / Hank Schrader

Gus Fring was a murderer and large scale peddler of a highly-addictive illegal drug. He knew this drug was capable of having calamitous effects on any community it infiltrated. He killed enemies, accomplices, and trusted associates. He may or may not have been living in America under a fake name after working in some capacity with Pinochet’s violent regime in Chile. He did all this right under the nose of the government agency responsible for catching people like him, posing as a bespectacled local businessman who wanted to support law enforcement, even as he was signing off on the attack that would eventually leave one of those officers bedbound and partially paralyzed for a number of months. And yet, despite all that, I still feel a little bad for Gus Fring.

What was Gus Fring’s real crime? Yes, okay, all those murder and narcotics things I just mentioned, if you want to be legally and technically accurate. But let’s not do that. Let’s zoom out a little and look at all of this from 30,000 feet, where the individual actions he took and laws he broke look like little tiny ants scurrying around a blue and green Earth. I don’t know about you, but from up way there I just see a guy who was guilty of flying a little too close to the sun.

Let’s rewind.

We know very little about Gus Fring prior to his association with Walter White. We know he was very successful, and we know he was very careful. He hid in plain sight, making only well-planned moves that were designed to increase profits without raising his profile. We also know he had enough status in Chile prior to becoming Gustavo Fring, proprietor of Los Pollos Hermanos fried chicken restaurant, that the boss of a violent Mexican cartel would let him live even after deciding that his burgeoning drug business was an offense deserving of severe corporal punishment. The exact nature of his role in Chile is still a mystery, and it’s somewhat off-topic from the point I’m getting at, but given his expert knowledge of the narcotics industry as well as all I’ve mentioned here, maybe stories like this one can provide some potential framework for his old life. A sample:

In testimony sent to Chilean Judge Claudio Pavez, Manuel Contreras alleges that Pinochet and his son Marco Antonio organised a massive production and distribution network, selling cocaine to Europe and the US in the mid-1980s.

According to Contreras, once Pinochet’s ally and now a bitter enemy, Pinochet ordered the army to build a clandestine cocaine laboratory in Talagante, a rural town 24 miles from Santiago. There he had chemists mix cocaine with other chemicals to produce what Contreras described as a “black cocaine” capable of being smuggled past drug agents in the US and Europe.

Point being: Maybe he wasn’t the best guy prior to his meeting with Walter. Fine, conceded.

But it was Walter who, as he does to pretty much everyone he comes in contact with, turned Gus’s life into dog crap before ending it in dramatic, explosive fashion. Gus hired Walt because Walt presented himself as a serious businessman who could produce meth of great quality and quantity with very little drama. Then Walt demanded that the friendly, competent, karaoke-loving Gale be replaced in the super-lab with the then mid-train wreck Jesse, at least partially to distract Jesse from going after Hank with a lawsuit, and that’s where everything started to come unglued for Gus. (Who, it should be pointed out, originally passed on working with Walt for exactly that reason.) Bringing in Jesse led to the disagreements with the street dealers who killed Combo, which led to the issues with the killing of young Tomás, which led to Walter — the supposedly mild-mannered chemistry teacher whose one job was to quietly cook the meth that fueled the whole operation — mowing down and shooting two of Gus’s dealers in the street to save Jesse. I could continue, but I think you see where I’m headed. Walter White, and his association with Jesse, turned Gus Fring’s careful, successful empire to dust.

Now let’s imagine a world where Gus sticks to his gut and chooses not to work with Walter. He’s still got Gale, a fine chemist who makes excellent, if not world-changing, methamphetamine. He’s still in a good place to make the move against the cartel that he’d been planning. And it’s not like he’d have to worry about “Heisenberg” and his blue meth, because Tio’s nephews would have had no one to stop them from axing Walter as he walked out of the shower, and Jesse was and is too much of a loose cannon to become a serious threat. Plus, with no Walter and Jesse in the picture, Gale never gets murdered, which means Hank never stumbles across the Los Pollos wrapper from Gale’s apartment that triggered the whole investigation in his operation (nor does Hank ever get attacked by the cousins, meaning he doesn’t have weeks and weeks to sit around the house connecting dots).

The long and short of it is that Gus Fring could have probably had all he ever wanted — a consistent supply of high-quality product, no enhanced suspicion from the DEA, revenge against his enemies, some homemade Chilean soup in the evenings — had he not agreed to work with Walter. He just flew a little too close to the sun, like a Meth Icarus, and for his sins, he got burned. Say what you will about the man and his methods, but that’s a little sad.