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.