Gustavo Fring, Businessman

Tue Aug 14, 2012

The writers of Breaking Bad probably had something in mind by making Gustavo Fring a Chilean. Don Salamanca contemptuously refers to him as “generalissimo” at one point, and Don Eliado reminds him pointedly that he’s in Mexico now in the flashback where Fring’s chemist-partner is murdered. He apparently had the power to sponsor this chemist’s education, though I don’t remember if that was in Chile or Mexico. [Update: It was in Chile.] Fring calmly tells a suspicious Hank Schrader that record-keeping was not always very reliable in Pinochet’s Chile. So, what was it?

Fring is, with one fatal exception, a practical and efficient businessman. He does not shy away from violence, including the murder of no-longer-employable children, when necessary; but these are sound economic decisions and generally less extravagant than the post-coup Chilean regime’s measures in defense of liberty and free-market principles. But why did Fring leave Chile? Does “generalissimo” mean that he was actually a member of Pinochet’s military? Or, perhaps more likely, was Fring a leftist revolutionary forced by circumstances to out-Herod, etc.?

Fring has the asceticism of a committed revolutionary. He drives a Volvo and takes significant interest in the daily maintenance of a fryer. Walter and Jesse work out that the wholesale value of the meth they produce in three months is close to 100 million dollars, of which Fring would have to clear a significant portion. Add in that he’s been doing this for quite a while, albeit distributing for a Mexican cartel rather than producing it on his own, and it seems clear that Fring is very wealthy.

But he is driven by revenge, and he wants to establish enough power to destroy the cartel. He has a good reason, of course, but I think the writers invite us to consider that the murder of his partner by the cartel might have paralleled an incident in Chile. Fring’s furious insistence to never have something like that happen to him again would explain his single-mindedness and one lapse in caution. Without this weakness, Fring would never have become who he is, of course.

Is there any political commentary here? I don’t think so, at least not consciously. The writers are very interested in process and practical details. The narrative arc consistently explores unanticipated consequences and avoids, for the most part, many of the most obvious political issues raised by the subject matter (border politics, immigration, drug policy, health insurance, public education, legal ethics, etc.) This avoidance makes it inviting to write about from a symptomatic perspective, and, while I haven’t read any of the scholarly literature on the show as of yet, it seems a likely enough analytic topic.