Better Call Saul may ostensibly be a prequel to Breaking Bad, but for the first two seasons TV maestro Vince Gilligan hasn’t exactly been all that obsessed with setting up his opus. It is, fundamentally, a different show. Following Jimmy McGill – Saul before he was Saul – Better Call Saul is less concerned with the meth trade and Albuquerque’s underlying crime culture, and instead tells the story of a conman-cum-lawyer’s repeated failed attempts to be taken seriously by his peers and, more importantly, his brother. It’s a family drama, with the feud between “Slippin’ Jimmy” and the electricity-fearing Chuck the core of the emotional twists and turns. We may know where one of them ends up thanks to the parent show (and a depressing framing device), but that only makes things the more tragic.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some shades of where the wider Breaking Bad mythos is heading. Alongside Jimmy’s conflict we’ve seen ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, newly arrived in Albuquerque, begin to find himself a part of the city’s drug-dealing underworld; Tuco appeared in the very first episode and he’s since brought in the rest of the Salamanca clan – the cousins and a pre-stroke Hector. The end of Season 2 saw Mike plot to kill Hector in revenge for threatening his family, only to be stopped at the last minute by a hidden figure, warning him by car-note “Don’t”.
To the Breaking Bad faithful who had cracked an anagram hidden in the season’s episode titles, it was pretty obvious where we were heading. Now AMC has confirmed it; to kick-start the promotion for Season 3, due this Spring, they’ve released an in-universe advert for Los Pollos Hermanos, complete with an appearance from its CEO and secret drug kingpin. Oh yes, Gus Fring’s well and truly back.
He may have been half-blown-up a season before the show’s end, but Fring was the undisputed big villain of Breaking Bad, a coiled full measure of menace, so this is a pretty major development – besides main characters Jimmy and Mike, he’s the biggest returning character so far. And as this is the first officially released footage related to the new season (there’s been a few stills, but not much else), it looks like Gilligan’s got more than a simple cameo in mind. To concur with this, Giancarlo Esposito, the actor reprising the role, tweeted out that we’ll be getting “the rise of Gus”. Not too disconnected anymore, then.
So, Gus Fring is back in a big way, but what exactly can we expect from everyone’s favourite fast-food baron, and might his return tell us about the plot of season 3?
The Rise of Gus
When we first meet Gus in season 2 of Breaking Bad, he’s a big step up for Heisenberg’s meth business; Fring already has a successful drug empire, with the New Mexico-spanning restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos an elaborate distribution front (in partnership with Madrigal Electromotive GmBH). In terms of relationships with the Better Call Saul characters, he’s a business acquaintance of Saul, although secretly working much more closely with the lawyer’s hired muscle, Mike. The Salamanca conflict appears to be pretty much over, with Tuco small time after his jail stint, the cousins out of the country and Hector a shadow of his former self. If we’re going to get Gus as a major presence going forward, it seems reasonable to expect most of these pieces to fall into place before the show’s over.
Of course, by the time of Better Call Saul he’s already well on the way to the top. The show is set in 2002, six years before Breaking Bad, so at this point Fring’s been in America a good decade-and-a-half (he emigrated from Chile to Mexico in 1986). We know from the parent show he has a well-built rivalry with Hector Salamanca (who killed Fring’s partner, Max, in a 1989-set flashback), but that he eventually overcame that and worked with the cartel to grow his business, which is where we’ll likely pick him up. As such, the core of his “rise” here will have to be the Salamancas being brought down, including Hector’s stroke, allowing him to seize control of the whole operation.
Any Gus action will, at least to begin with, come through Mike, who is evidently entering into the Fring/Salamanca conflict partway through. He’s an unexpected third party in the battle, one who could mess with whatever long game Gus is playing, but conversely may finally give him the upper hand. The show is probably going to view all this through Ehrmantraut’s eyes – he and Jimmy are the two main POV characters – seeing Gus’ rise primarily as part of Mike’s personal redemption (or, perhaps more reasonably, acceptance) of his past.
With that said, we could very possibly still get some of Fring’s backstory. Better Call Saul isn’t above taking massive diversions to deeply explore the backgrounds of supporting Breaking Bad characters if it strengthens the rest of the show – “Five-O”, which detailed tortured dirty cop Mike’s tragic origins, is still a series highlight – and there really is little known about Gus’ earlier life. It’s hinted heavily in Breaking Bad that he was somehow linked to the Pinochet government, and allusions are made to a completely different life. It may be something as simple as he and Max (whose relationship was left ambiguous in Breaking Bad) being romantic partners and wanting to escape persecution, but whatever the case, it feels like a hidden detail Gilligan has kept back.
The big question, though, is how Gus will be portrayed. We all know he’s a maniacal presence in Breaking Bad, but Better Call Saul has never really assumed prior knowledge, and so has freedom to play about with the reveal of his menace. Given that we’ve already had the calm-exterior-hiding-pure-evil reveal before, though, it’s fair to expect something a bit different.
How Will He Fit Into Jimmy’s Arc?
However, while there’s a lot of meat to get into with Gus, it’s important to remember whose show this really is. Season 3 may be marketing itself on the presence of a Breaking Bad favourite, but the focus is still going to be on Jimmy, his fractured relationship with fellow lawyer Kim, how Chuck discovering his actions at the end of season 2 will affect his career dreams, and his ever-closer fate of (oh-so-regrettably) becoming Mr Goodman.
The slow-burn nature of the show makes it unlikely that we’ll get much of Fring crossover for Jimmy this season (perhaps a visit to Los Pollos, or a single late night meeting). In fact, given that Saul doesn’t realise how out of his depth he is, or that Mike isn’t “his” guy, until Walter White gets into an all-out war with Gus, he’s probably only ever going to have a glancing link to Fring across the show’s entire run anyway. To preserve Breaking Bad continuity they can’t spend too much time together and, in any case, you don’t really want to have Saul “created” by Gus – it’s a lazily convenient move that would greatly reduce the impact of the past two years of personal development.
Gus is very much a subplot character in regards to the core picture, then, but that shouldn’t be taken as a knock against the Fring hype. Hector appeared in only a handful of scenes last year, yet still had an indelible presence thanks to Mark Margolis’ performance and the way the show’s writing balanced his contextual and narrative importance. While we’re likely to get more of Gus than Tio seeing as how he’ll be pitched in a less adversarial position (Mike it 100% up for the “good thing” he offers), it’ll be a similar gradual introduction and development – don’t expect Better Call Saul to suddenly switch into Breaking Bad gear because Mr Two-Face is here.
Don’t worry though – the series has shown multiple times it can infer great weight with very little, so even if he does take a backseat, many of the questions and dangling threads will no doubt be addressed in typically subtle form. For now, let’s get a bucket of our favourite fried foodstuff and count down the days until The Chicken Man returns.
Better Call Saul is set to return in spring 2017.