Jonathan Storm: 'Breaking Bad': A complex look at villainy

Giancarlo Esposito (left) and Jeremiah Bitsui in a scene from "Breaking Bad." Esposito describes the character he plays, Gus Fring, as "a villain with a very strong sense of himself, graceful, polite, kind, a very good businessman and very different from the average Mafia guy."
Giancarlo Esposito (left) and Jeremiah Bitsui in a scene from "Breaking Bad." Esposito describes the character he plays, Gus Fring, as "a villain with a very strong sense of himself, graceful, polite, kind, a very good businessman and very different from the average Mafia guy." (URSULA COYOTE / AMC)
Posted: July 17, 2011

'Is he a good guy or a bad guy?" my wife, who has not been keeping up with Breaking Bad, asked.

Yes.

She was inquiring about the lead character, Walter White, but it doesn't take a close look to see the good and bad, with all their beautiful, intriguing contradictions, in almost every single one of the show's characters.

Take Gus Fring, purveyor of some of the finest fast-food chicken in all the Southwest from his Pollos Hermanos restaurants - and also of the finest methamphetamine, which he ships throughout the region in plastic bags suspended in vats of his excellent Chicken Brothers batter.

Breaking Bad, televised on the AMC cable channel, begins its fourth season Sunday at 10 p.m. with a chilling episode featuring Gus. The show lives in the ratings and publicity shadow of Mad Men, but has more to offer: It's almost as rigorously designed, with more action and intensity and better acting (that's saying something). Bryan Cranston, who plays White, is the first to win three consecutive best-dramatic-actor Emmys. Last year, Aaron Paul, who plays his partner, was named best supporting actor in a drama.

Common wisdom in the acting trade is that playing villains is the most fun. But Gus, laconic and so intimidating that I was a little frightened to speak on the phone with the actor who plays him, might be different.

Nope, says Giancarlo Esposito, whom you might know as Julian or Left Hand Lacey from Spike Lee's films, or as Detective Mike Giardello from Homicide: Life on the Street. (Neither the immaculately correct Gus, who would just say "no" and leave it at that, nor the elegantly articulate Esposito, who speaks in paragraphs, would ever use such slang as nope.)

"It's a little bit different with Gus, but I enjoy playing Gus," says Esposito, son of a singer from Alabama and a stagehand from Naples, who was born in Copenhagen and lives in Connecticut with his wife, Joy, and three children.

"He's a villain with a very strong sense of himself, graceful, polite, kind, a very good businessman and very different from the average Mafia guy, with a small Chihuahua on his lap, who gives orders that get people dead. He has a great deal of charisma, and he is a great supporter of his employees' inner spirits.

"He likes to bring people to their best selves, not only in his chicken restaurants, but also in his meth world. He takes time to find the people who want to be the best."

Those familiar with Breaking Bad may wonder about kind, especially after Sunday's episode, in which Gus engages in some shocking violence, but the rest of it, after you give the tumblers time to fall into place in your brain, makes sense.

Gus wants only the best, which is why he hires White, a former high school chemistry teacher who, after a cancer diagnosis, decided that the best way to care for his family was to leave them with the big stack of money he could make manufacturing meth.

His stunning product upended the regional drug trade around his hometown of Albuquerque (where the show is filmed on location), and Walt, along with his partner, Jesse, a former slacker student with minor criminal connections, soon found themselves way too deep into a terribly dangerous world they still do not fully understand, scared and belligerent and confused.

Which makes them little different from friends and relatives living "normal" lives in their own homegrown hells. Breaking Bad is as dark as they come, but so compellingly complex that you find yourself hoping that no ray of sun ever penetrates the clouds.

That's not to say it isn't occasionally very funny (Walt and Jesse fumble to stuff a body into a vat; Jesse's stoner friends debate the logic of Nazi zombies), and always beautiful.

Executive producer Vince Gilligan, director of photography Michael Slovis, and the show's stable of directors make almost every scene, even the two-person conversations that make up so much of Breaking Bad, an artwork.

It's called television, but the medium rarely achieves the striking visuality of Breaking Bad, where the color of Gus' shirt comes from the same family as the rich red floor paint of the high-tech meth lab, and his necktie coordinates with both.

Outside, it's just the same. Esposito, who uses daily doses of yoga to help achieve Gus' striking physique and menacing calm, says, "The mountains and big sky and mesa - Albuquerque spoke to me in a spiritual sense as soon as I got off the plane."

Breaking Bad speaks to the spirit, as well, not with gorgeous landscape shots or the cheesy uplift of an underdog's success in the latest reality talent show, but with the van Gogh-like message that real art can find stunning beauty in the pits of paranoia, ennui, and despair.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Breaking Bad

10 p.m. Sunday on AMC


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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