Better Call Saul is a more-than-worthy follow up to Breaking Bad, but one of the prequel’s crowning achievements is somehow humanizing Gus Fring. Debuting in Breaking Bad season 2, Giancarlo Esposito’s Gustavo Fring is the beating heart of Albuquerque’s meth operation, cooking his high-quality product in state of the art facilities for the cartel to distribute. But Gus holds grander ambitions, and he slaughters the cartel’s leadership to become the new kingpin in town. Alas, Walter White sees to it that Gus’ reign doesn’t last long. During his Breaking Bad career, Gus commits numerous horrific acts, from threatening families and killing ruthlessly to holding Walt and Jesse prisoner as personal meth-making slaves.
Better Call Saul finds Gus at an earlier point in his journey, exploring Fring’s life approximately 5 years prior to his first meeting with Brian Cranston in Breaking Bad. It goes without saying that Gustavo isn’t exactly a shining example of morality in Better Call Saul – he’s still murdering and manipulating his way through life in typically cold fashion. But Gus is not the villain in Better Call Saul and, the prequel narrative even strives to humanize Esposito’s character.
From the moment of Gus’ (re)introduction, the character’s relative lack of experience and power is obvious. Whereas Breaking Bad depicted Gus as a puppet master waiting for his Michael Corleone moment, Better Call Saul reveals how the chicken man got himself into that position. Gus becomes somewhat of an underdog by default – an enterprising young businessman fighting against the Salamancas’ status quo. Gus not only makes mistakes, but shows uncharacteristic vulnerability as he ascends the ladder of the underworld, and this steers Esposito’s character away from typical villain territory. These human traits come to the fore in Better Call Saul season 5, when Gus is forced to burn down his own restaurant or risk losing a valuable mole. Gus’ inner anger manifests itself as OCD, as he vigorously scrubs the Los Pollos Hermanos fryer to within an inch of its life. A villain Gus may be, but seeing the cracks in his facade betray some well-hidden humanity, whereas Breaking Bad focused on Fring the monster.
This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the overarching Better Call Saul story positions Gus closer to the protagonists than the bad guys. They may not be perfect, but Jimmy, Kim and Mike serve as Better Call Saul‘s heroic trio, while the loose cannon Salamanca family play the antagonistic role. Since Gus also has beef (or, indeed, chicken) with the Salamancas, he’s more often found working with Jimmy than against him. Heading into Better Call Saul season 6, it’s Gus Fring vs. Lalo Salamanca, and despite knowing better, most viewers will find themselves subconsciously willing Gus to win. He’s not exactly the lesser of two evils, but he’s the one you want to watch come out on top.
Better Call Saul‘s most overt attempt to humanize Gus Fring comes via season 5’s “Dedicado a Max.” After Mike gets himself into bother, Gus makes the save and transports his injured henchman to a ranch on the border of Mexico. Far from a typical meth kingpin hideout, the compound is home to innocent civilians, children included, who live happily on Gus’ land. There’s even a fountain dedicated to Fring’s former partner (and maybe something more?), Max. Even Mike eventually takes a liking to this small population, none of whom have any idea about Gus’ illicit business ventures. Again, the compound doesn’t excuse Gus’ many, many crimes, but at least the money isn’t going toward fast cars and expensive jewelry.
By humanizing Gus Fring, Better Call Saul treads a very thin line between making the character more relatable without forgiving his violent past (and present, and future). It’s a line few shows could get away with, but Better Call Saul reaps the rewards. After proving so successful in Breaking Bad, Gus couldn’t simply resume his role as the main antagonist. Digging into Fring’s past and rounding out his character with “softer” edges is the best use of the fried chicken mogul/methamphetamine overlord in Better Call Saul.