Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring on AMC's 'Better Call Saul'

Recap Digest: ‘Better Call Saul’ 3.4, “Sabrosito”

It was fitting that an episode that may have been the most overtly part of the Breaking Bad-verse to date would begin with an underwater shot like the one that opened so many season 2 episodes of the former series. But just when you’re catching yourself wondering when the scorched pink teddy bear is going to drift into frame, instead it’s another familiar figure: Don Eladio (Steven Bauer).

“Sabrosito” spends so much time meticulously building up the story of Gus’ blood feud with Hector Salamanca, one could be forgiven for wondering if Better Call Saul, which to this point has pretty neatly fused the mostly disparate Jimmy McGill Show and The Mike Ehrmantraut Show, might be about to make room for The Gus Fring Show.

The episode is so full of Breaking Bad cameos — Eladio, Hector, Bolsa, Victor, even Ximinez the driver — I thought maybe we might get a Hank Schrader or Steve Gomez appearance during the DEA raid of Hector’s ice cream store. That didn’t happen (though there was an out-of-focus stocky bald white guy who looked a little suspicious), but the pleasure of being among so many familiar faces tended to paper over the paucity of plot movement.

This isn’t necessarily a problem: both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have always understood that plot movement is always more meaningful if it’s deeply rooted in character, so this is an hour of deepening our understanding of these people. With its signature narrative efficiency we are soon made to understand that Hector was once Don Eladio’s top distibutor, that Gus’ business is quickly eclipsing him, and that despite Gus’ and Bolsa’s elaborate show of good manners, Hector is not taking it well, particularly as Eladio so relishes putting him in his place.

This leads to Hector staging a siege of Los Pollos Hermanos, demanding to speak to Gus, showing that whatever appearances may have been during Breaking Bad in terms of how quiet Gus was able to keep his operation, it wasn’t always that way. The terrified Pollos staff demands to know who just held them hostage and why, and Gus, cleverly clad in an extra-humbling short-sleeved dress shirt, is able to pass them off as a protection racket that has been hounding him since he first set up shop in Michoacan, and wins their admiration anew by telling how he ran them off: “In America, the righteous have no reason to fear.” Though Mike refused his payoff for interrupting Hector’s supply line in last week’s episode, Gus approaches him to work for him, presumably as a professional nuisance to the Salamanca operation.

Mike provides the connective tissue between The Gus Show and The Jimmy Show this week, infiltrating Chuck’s house (as part of a particularly Jimmy-like scam dreamed up by Kim) under the guise of a repairman fixing the door Jimmy broke down. In a hilarious juxtaposition of Mike’s chilling methods with the relatively low-stakes Jimmy/Chuck story, Mike backs Chuck off simply by revving a cordless electric drill, buying himself the space to freely photograph Chuck’s bizarre living conditions. Examining the photos, after a very funny critique of Mike’s composition — “At some point we should probably discuss the rule of thirds” — Jimmy is satisfied that he has what he needs to presumably question Chuck’s mental state in some kind of legal forum.

Exactly what that forum will be is still a mystery, as Jimmy and Kim agree to the PPD, offering a full confession that will presumably lead to Jimmy’s disbarment, paying full restitution (adjusted at the last minute to include the $2.98 cassette tape at Chuck’s smug insistence), and agreeing to keep his nose clean or face prosecution. Immediately after the hearing, Kim approaches Chuck and extracts an admission that he has another copy of the destroyed tape. It’s still not clear what Jimmy and Kim’s larger plan for Chuck is, but the big mystery of last week — why is Kim standing by her man after he so egregiously went against her wishes by using underhanded means to win her Mesa Verde? — seems to be answered by her small wince when Chuck condescendingly tells her what to expect in her first criminal trial. Jimmy may have his flaws, but at least he’s not a jerk.  

Observer’s Sean T. Collins sees both the similarities and the differences between the cold open and Breaking Bad:

It’s not a cold open so much as a cool, refreshing one: Don Eladio, the drug-cartel king played by the delightful Stephen Bauer, going for a dip in his lovely in-ground swimming pool. Several years later he’ll take a real dive into that thing, victim of a poisoning plot orchestrated by Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut that will leave him and the entire leadership caste of the cartel dead. So much of “Sabrosito,” this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, feels like a direct prequel to that stand-out episode of Breaking Bad that the end result is the most Breaking Bad-esque episode of BCS ever. That yellow south-of-the-border tint to the film, the constant dick-measuring between Eladio and his underbosses Hector Salamanca and Juan Bolsa, Gus getting in the good graces of Albuquerque’s public servants, a confrontation with Hector in the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant Gus personally manages designed to test his patience, a late-night deal struck between Gus and Mike as two wary men who each respect the way the other does business—it’s all straight from the BB playbook.

If you’re the sort who’s had your fill of Breaking Bad, or simply doesn’t think it should slowly assume control of its Better Call Saul host organism like the alien from The Thing, this might be cause for concern. I still think that concern is misplaced. The vibe may be familiar from BB, but it’s still unmistakably BCS in pacing and staging; as director Thomas Schnauz has noted, even the scene at Don Eladio’s compound, as direct a throwback as you can get, was shot with a more stationary and staid camera than they’d have used on the previous series.

Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx points out how the episode solves one of the (smaller) nagging mysteries of the earlier series:

As an aside in last week’s review, I wondered why Mike is still working as Saul Goodman’s investigator six years from now when he has a very busy, lucrative, and low-profile job as Gus Fring’s number two man. Would Jimmy/Saul do him such an important favor that Mike would feel indebted to him for years? Would Gus encourage him to maintain the relationship so Mike could be better plugged into what’s happening in Albuquerque’s criminal underbelly? Would Mike need some kind of front job to disguise some of his income? Or does Mike Ehrmantraut, deep down in places he would never, ever admit to, like this guy enough that he’d look for excuses to hang out with him?

Many of those theories are improbable — Mike has a police pension to live on and squirrels his Gus money away for Kaylee, and he’s not a good enough actor to hide his feelings about Jimmy — but “Sabrosito” offers us a more plausible theory:

Mike never really wanted to work for Gus, took the job because the money was just too good, but liked having an opportunity to not feel like a drug kingpin’s enforcer.

We figure this out over the course of a fascinatingly bifurcated episode. For much of its run, Saul has been split into the Jimmy show and the Mike show, with occasional intersections. With “Sabrosito,” it’s the Gus show and the Jimmy show, and there’s barely any cutting back and forth: a half hour with Gus, then a half hour with Jimmy, with Mike popping up in both halves. (There is one Gus/Mike scene in the second half, but it’s brief.) He’s not thrilled to be involved with either man — he refuses to accept the cash(*) that Gus wants to pay him for the sneaker stunt, and is only working for Jimmy again as a quid pro quo for Jimmy doing recon at Los Pollos Hermanos (and barely speaks to him at all while focusing on his diner breakfast) — but going undercover as a handyman at Chuck’s house at least felt closer to policework than when he was robbing drug shipments and playing desert sniper. Plus, the specific undercover role had a bonus: “Nice to fix something, for once.”

Donna Bowman of The A.V. Club takes a moment to appreciate Giancarlo Esposito’s performance as Gus:

Let’s pause for a moment to remember how lucky we are to have Giancarlo Esposito on our television screens. What a powerful actor he is. Whenever he stands face to face with Jonathan Banks, it’s like High Noon, but all the quick-draws and flying bullets are buried in their psyches. Not a face-off; an interior-off.

Tonight we get a glimmer of Gustavo Fring’s point of view, reminding us that although we meet him already deep in the criminal underworld, he too has a downward arc to trace during this series. Before his partner is killed before his eyes, before he declares war on the cartel, before the underground meth labs, the torture, the murder, he’s a star earner in the Eladio organization. He’s a fierce competitor and a compassionate boss. He treats his people like family. He won’t tolerate threats or mistreatment directed at them. And in return, his employees are loyal.

Yet even such a sympathetic portrayal comes with a dark side. When Hector Salamanca and his men (including Nacho! Hey Nacho!) crash Los Pollos Hermanos after the DEA raid of their ice cream front business, Gus’ employees are frightened—not just for themselves, but for their boss. Lyle, the gawky assistant manager on duty when Hector invades, can’t shake his concern. “Should I call someone?” he worries, lingering behind after Gus has ordered them all home. And when Gus promises that the Salamanca gang (whom he paints as shakedown artists whom he foolishly paid off during his early entrepreneurial days in Mexico) won’t succeed in the land of the free, Lyle might just hear that as an invitation to stand his ground against dangers he can’t comprehend. It’s possible to cultivate relationships with the community that are too good—that erode the bright lines protecting the hustle and the legit business from each other.

Over at the New York Times, David Segal follows on and adds a prediction:

Think for a moment about the self-control on display in the moment that Gus finds Hector puffing nonchalantly in his office. It’s not only that Hector might have just blown Gus’s carefully devised cover as a civic-minded entrepreneur — who is glad-handing the fire department right as his flagship store is being invaded. Hector is also the man who, years earlier, shot Max Arciniega, Gus’s original Pollos Hermanos partner and, by all accounts, the only man that Gus ever loved. (At minimum, we’ve never seen him with anyone else.)

We understand what Gus means when he tells Mike that a bullet to Hector’s head would not result in a sufficiently painful death. One of many blanks yet to be filled in this yarn is how, exactly, Hector winds up mute and in a wheelchair, speaking only by means of a bell he rings with one finger. It seems obvious now that Gus will have a decisive hand in whatever lands Hector in that terrible condition.

And Collider’s Allison Keene appreciates how the episode adds up to more than the sum of its often wildly disparate parts:

For the first time this season, all of Better Call Saul’s storylines matched not only thematically, but narratively. Gus and Hector, Jimmy and Chuck, Mike and Jimmy, Gus and Mike, and even Kim’s role in helping Jimmy tied together all of these elements in ways that didn’t have to connect exactly to give that feeling of connectivity. We know that Gus and Mike and Jimmy/Saul will work together in the future, so that’s not the tension here. It’s in these smaller moments, these new stories of how Mike and Gus came to work together, or how Jimmy works things out (or doesn’t) with Chuck, or how these rivalries between brothers and drug lords play out as complicated games of humiliation and power. These are the moments when Better Call Saul really shines. If we have to edge so closely to the start of the Breaking Bad timeline,“Sabrosito”showed us the way to do it.

New episodes of Better Call Saul air at 10pm ET Mondays on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.

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