Reading between the lines in this week’s episode of “Better Call Saul”

Like I do every week, I watched Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s spin-off of “Breaking Bad” with my grandmother. She found the scene between Gus Fring and the sommelier “pointless,” but as a gay man, it struck me with its poignancy.

In “Fun and Games,” the ninth episode of the sixth and final season of AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-2022), drug lord Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) visits a wine bar to celebrate a deal well-struck with the Salamanca cartel. While there, he chats with David (Reed Diamond), his favorite wine steward. The tension between them is unspoken, but no less palpable for that. One is reminded of “Hermanos,” the eighth episode in the fourth season of Breaking Bad. During the climactic flashback, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) busts a cap in the crown of Max Arciniega (James Martinez) while a devastated Gus looks on, mirroring the shot of a bereaved Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in “Ozymandias.” Even though the text paints Max as a close business partner of Gus a la Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the subtext screams something more homoerotic between them, through Esposito’s gaping, silent mouth.

You don’t wage a decades-long war of attrition against a Mexican drug cartel to avenge the death of an associate.

Not since Max – and not until David – has Gus unmasked such humanity, in either series. But right when the timbre of the conversation with David reaches something close to tenderness, even though, to the untrained ear, they’re only discussing wine, David exits stage left to bring Gus a new bottle. Wisely, cinematographer Marshall Adams chooses to close in on Esposito’s face, an actor who’s already proven he can emote his way through pages of character development without uttering a single syllable of dialogue. Gus’s characteristically stoic visage cracks finely under the weight of this pathos before he cuts the scene short and exits the bar.

On the surface, the sequence does nothing to advance the plot. However, like any artfully crafted prequel should do, Better Call Saul teaches us something new about Gus’s character without simply offering him up as a cameo appearance for Esposito. We already know how Gus’s story ends, after all, and he isn’t even the man of the hour – that would be Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill (Bob Odenkirk). We don’t need to document every moment of Gus’s life between his showdown with Eduardo “Lalo” Salamanca (Tony Dalton) and his fateful encounter with Walter White.

But what we do need is a deeper insight into the man who loved another so profoundly, not even Max’s death could bring Gus to pursue a relationship with David.

Netflix review: AMC’s “Better Call Saul” (2015-)

To spin off AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is to ask lightning to strike twice.

Vince Gilligan captured that lightning in a bottle with his masterpiece, and he corked it at its zenith, when the business of television characteristically pressures showrunners to push series past their expiration dates until every possible penny can be squeezed out of them.

It is only fitting for the network to ask Gilligan to open the bottle back up again and release some more of the lightning that lit up the sky on AMC, but even a genius of Gilligan’s caliber would be hard-pressed to cast a new spell with the same magic as he did the first time.

If you don’t know what to watch to watch next, AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-) is available to stream on Netflix.

It has been nominated for twenty-three Primetime Emmy Awards over the course of its run, and the series premiere set the record for highest-rated scripted premiere in basic cable. Creators Gilligan and Peter Gould also executive produce the crime drama.

Set in Albuquerque, 2002, Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Jimmy McGill, a con artist struggling to legitimize himself as an attorney under the shadow of his successful older brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), with the support of love interest Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).

Meanwhile, retired police officer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) first involves himself in the Salamanca cartel via drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).

All of this culminates toward Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman, with a framing device of flash-forwards to his life after Breaking Bad as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha named Gene.

If Breaking Bad is a tragedy with comedic undertones, then Better Call Saul is a comedy with tragic undertones. This complementariness is the shaft through which Better Call Saul mines from the mythos of its parent show while at the same time standing on its own two feet.

It justifies its existence in its own right, without any opportunistic, exploitative excess.

For that reason, fans of Breaking Bad may not necessarily be fans of Better Call Saul.

The respective compositions may reach the same production value – cinematographer Arthur Albert shoots TV’s two most cinematic programs on location in a sweepingly photogenic New Mexico – but they sing with two different (yet harmonistic) voices.

Better Call Saul is much slower-paced than the addictive, bingeworthy Breaking Bad, with less explosive payoffs.

Lovingly cut montages of mundane moments abound, none of which are filler, but all of which may be hard to swallow for someone expecting more of the same from Breaking Bad.

In a similar vein, Jimmy McGill’s descent into Saul Goodman is as sociopathic as Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) into Heisenberg, if not as violent, and that is where the text’s brilliance flickers.

Jimmy is such an adept conman, he could scam the uncritical thinker into sympathizing with him.

He ruins reputations, careers, and lives over his deception and manipulation, no matter how zippy his one-liners are, and there ought to be no straightening his crooked path in our minds, because Jimmy’s own rationalization further evinces his antisocial personality.

Warts and all, Better Call Saul is a character study of an antihero as great as any other in the Golden Age of TV. In fact, it’s in a class all its own because of its dark humor.

We may have yet to see how it ends, but, in Gilligan’s hands, who engineered the most perfect series finale of all time for Breaking Bad, it only does what every worthwhile spinoff should and gives you more to look forward to.