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How BETTER CALL SAUL Can Avoid Turning Gus Fring into Fan Service

How BETTER CALL SAUL Can Avoid Turning Gus Fring into Fan Service

Gus Fring is coming to Better Call Saul. The best Breaking Bad “villain” will be joining the prequel series in its upcoming third season, and it’s hard to imagine many fans of either show being angry about getting more of Giancarlo Esposito‘s meth and fast food chicken king in their life. But just because everyone loves Gus Fring, does that mean we should be excited he’s coming to the show? Or is Better Call Saul about to engage in the worst kind of fan service?

I know I wasn’t alone in my original skepticism about a prequel for Saul Goodman. Bob Odenkirk was tremendous on Breaking Bad, but in what universe did his slimy lawyer seem like a good option to anchor an entire series? Especially as a followup to a cultural phenomenon like Breaking Bad, an action-packed show paced like it was on meth itself, with one of the all time great lead characters at its core. What could a series about an attorney do to live up to those standards?

Well Vince Gilligan and company have more than proven why they get the big bucks, because Better Call Saul has become one of the best shows on television. Jimmy McGill has been a compelling, complicated, and empathetic lead, and getting more time with Jonathan Banks‘ ass-kicking Mike Ehrmantraut continues to be a gift from the television gods. Couple that with genuinely great performances from Michael McKean as Jimmy’s a-hole brother Chuck, and Rhea Seehorn‘s brilliant Kim Wexler, and the cast has unquestionably lived up to the standard of the fantastic Breaking Bad ensemble.

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However, that’s only possible because of how good the writing has been on Better Call Saul, which I think–and I don’t say this lightly–has been even better than on Breaking Bad. It might not be as purely entertaining as the story of Walter White (how many shows have ever been?), and it certainly moves at a much slower pace, but the development of the characters and the building towards the tragic fall of Jimmy McGill/the birth of Saul Goodman has been a master class in how to convince your audience that the thing they absolutely know will happen could still somehow be avoided. We love Jimmy. Sure, he’s flawed, but ultimately he’s a good person, so how can this lovable guy become human scum Saul Goodman? It’s like thinking things might work out for Romeo and Juliet, even though the play starts with us being told they’ll both be dead at the end. It’s incredible achievement of writing, both in terms of plot and characterization.

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We never knew where Breaking Bad was going, and that kept us tuning in every week. We know exactly where Better Call Saul is going, and that’s exactly why we keep tuning in every week. It’s unlike its predecessor in so many ways, and that’s a huge part of what makes it so good. It seemed nearly impossible when they first announced the show, but Better Call Saul has managed to stand on its own as a great TV series, independent from Breaking Bad, despite being so intimately connected to it.

And now it risks all of that by bringing Breaking Bad‘s best baddie on board in what looks to be a major role.

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There have been lots of other Breaking Bad connections through the first two seasons, and they have ranged from making perfect sense for the story to being cringe-inducing, like it’s very first one.

The pilot episode, whose number one focus should have been to show that Better Call Saul would be its own thing, foolishly involved Breaking Bad‘s psychotic Tuco, in a way that had nothing to do with the drug trade that will inevitably become a big part of Jimmy and Mike’s relationship. He showed up because of a completely random mistake over similar looking cars.

Raymond Cruz as Tuco Salamanca and Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
It felt so forced and unnatural to the story, and came across as nothing more than the dreaded fan service, designed to make you feel good by giving you something you already know and love. “Hey, remember Tuco from that show you knew! He’s here too! It doesn’t make any sense for him to be here, but that’s okay!”

It was not okay.

The only service any show–especially a prequel–needs to worry about is servicing the story it is telling. Fans don’t need to be given things they liked before, they just need to be given an interesting story about characters we care about. Shoehorning past favorites into new things never works, it just makes the new thing feel as though it’s not good enough to stand on its own.

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But that’s not to say they can’t include things we already know and love, because they can, so long as it fits in to that story. Better Call Saul has shown that, with Tuco himself no less.

Tuco’s second appearance on the show, when Mike was working with his unlikely accomplice, the drug-dealing Nacho, made perfect sense. Mike is peripherally caught up in the drug trade, and that means he should be running into people like Tuco and Hector Salamanca. He was helping Nacho with his Tuco problem, and all of the issues that came with Tuco’s original appearance on the show were absent the second time around because of that logical reason for him to be there. It was a great, tense scene, and most importantly, it advanced the story. That’s how you service fans.

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Which brings us to Gus Fring. It was inevitable he was going to play a role on the show at some point. You can’t get to Saul Goodman without him becoming involved with Gus Fring, especially since he also becomes a big part of Mike’s life too. The pertinent questions around Gus were 1) “When would he join the show?” and 2) “In what capacity?”

We know the answer to question one, and it is somewhat surprising it is happening now. The show has moved slowly towards Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman with great success, so adding a major figure that contributes to that development will certainly accelerate his change. Whether that ends up being a good or bad things remains to be seen, though I trust the writing on the show so much I’m not worried.

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The answer to the second question though will determine if Gus Fring’s return will feel like fan service or a logical and positive development. If he takes on an over-sized role in the story, it could undercut what the show has done so far, making it feel less like the tragedy of Jimmy McGill that we are so invested in, and more like Breaking Bad-lite. I’m far more interested in Jimmy’s relationships with Kim and Chuck than I am in seeing how Gus built his meth empire. If Gus is used to remind us of all of the things we loved about Breaking Bad, it won’t make us enjoy Better Call Saul more, it will do the opposite.

But, if Giancarlo Esposito is used sparingly, at least for now, and in a way that feels true and sincere to Jimmy and Mike’s origin stories, it will help bring the show to new heights. At some point this slow burn will heat up, and if Gus’s part in that feels natural we won’t be worrying about fan service, we’ll be caught up in the plot.

Giancarlo Esposito Giancarlo Esposito was so terrific as Gus Fring in Breaking Bad, it seemed like a waste of his talents to make him the cartoonishly malevolent Tom Neville on Revolution. And while it seems that Esposito may be making his return to the role of Gus on Better Call Saul, he is one of the performers we could easily see sitting in the captain’s seat for a new Star Trek series. Esposito’s quiet intensity made him a great villain, and it could also make him a very compelling hero. But if not the captain, we could see Esposito as an elder statesman doctor who serves as a mentor to the young crew while also playing a critical role in the ongoing adventures.

We have seen the right way and the wrong way for Better Call Saul to use elements from Breaking Bad, with the exact same character showing that context makes all the difference. If the character’s role make sense to the story, it works. If it doesn’t, it feels forced and hurts the show. Fans don’t care for nostalgia if it undermines the new thing we are enjoying.

We enjoy Better Call Saul because it’s not Breaking Bad; it stands on its own as a great series. If the show remembers that with Gus Fring this could be the most exciting development in the story yet. If not, we’ll probably look back at Gus’s involvement as the point the show lost what made it stood on its own as a compelling tragedy, rather than a shadow of Breaking Bad. If that happens, it won’t be servicing fans of either show.

But what do you think of Gus Fring’s upcoming role on Better Call Saul? Are you excited for it, or are you afraid it could hurt the show? Tell us in the comments below.

Images: AMC

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