Where’s Giancarlo Esposito’s “Breaking Bad” Emmy?

August 31, 2014

Gustavo "Gus" Fring, screen shot from Breaking Bad episode, Season 3, August 30, 2014. (http://geeknation.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws - lower resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Gustavo “Gus” Fring, screen shot from Breaking Bad episode, Season 3, August 30, 2014. (http://geeknation.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws – lower resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Last Monday, Breaking Bad, a drama series that finished its final season ten months ago, took away six Primetime Emmy Awards out of its sixteen total nominations. Despite the fact that the producers had stretched the show’s fifth season over two years (2012 and 2013), Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn all took home Emmys for lead actor and supporting actor/actress in a drama series —  again, in Cranston’s and Paul’s case. And all I kept thinking was, “Where’s Giancarlo Esposito’s Emmy?”

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, Season 5, September 2, 2013. (http://www.businessinsider.com).

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, Season 5, September 2, 2013. (http://www.businessinsider.com).

Giancarlo Esposito, for those of you who still remember, played Gustavo “Gus” Fring, a mastermind of a drug lord and pillar of the Albuquerque, New Mexico community. His character was on for a few episodes at the end of Season 2 of Breaking Bad, and for all of Seasons 3 and 4. His character was so serene yet so single-minded, full of rage like Walter White. Yet Fring’s was a rational, focused, disciplined rage, handed out and practiced, like an usher handing out programs at a Sunday church service. Esposito’s Gus Fring was the character upon which Cranston’s Walter White pivoted, rising and falling like a pirouetting ballerina on a spin top. Without Fring, Walter White and Breaking Bad doesn’t make it past Season 2. The character’s dead or in jail long before he has a chance to truly make his mark.

Joel Kinnaman as Det. Stephen Holder in The Killing (2011-14), Vancouver, BC, Canada March 29, 2012. (http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- relevance to subject matter.

Joel Kinnaman as Det. Stephen Holder in The Killing (2011-14), Vancouver, BC, Canada March 29, 2012. (http://www1.zimbio.com/).

But I guess the Emmy voters didn’t see how central Gus Fring was to the Walter White story. I mean, why else give multiple Emmys to a five-foot-four-inch version of Eminem in Aaron Paul instead? Yes, Paul as Jesse Pinkman is pretty good at being a conflicted affluent hip-hopster, but his Pinkman isn’t even on par with Joel Kinnaman, the taller Eminem-esque reject-as-cop on the series The Killing (which came to a conclusion earlier this month on Netflix). The idea that Paul and Esposito competed for the same award in 2012 was an insult to the acting profession, like comparing fresh squeezed, no-pulp orange juice to Orange Kool-Aid made with high fructose corn syrup.

Really, in thinking about Cranston’s Walter White and the arch of the character, one cannot do it without a serious consideration of Esposito’s Gus Fring. Without Esposito’s Fring, the show is what the Emmys and Hollywood says it is, a story of a man at fifty, a “brilliant yet foolish has-been-who-really-should’ve-been-somebody high school chemistry teacher.” One who became a desperate crystal meth maker and dealer while going through chemotherapy for Stage 4 or Stage 5 lung cancer. A man who turns bad, first in a dark comedic way, then later, as a just plain macabre and dangerously sad character, leaving a trail of bodies along the way.

That version of Breaking Bad, though, doesn’t become the most watched TV series of all time. The real version, with Esposito’s Fring, gave us the full complexity of Cranston’s Walter White, especially his White male angst. Though not as obvious as the White male angst of ’90s grunge as exhibited in Pearl Jam, Nirvana or Live, Cranston’s Walter White is one that until his cancer had lived a life of quiet but smoldering rage, a rage that found its outlet in making and dealing methamphetamine so pure that Ivory Soap and Nazi Germans would be jealous. Only to be second fiddle to an Afro-Latino who’s in control of a billion-dollar drug ring? If that doesn’t bring issues of White entitlement and White resentment to the fore, then we’re in an alternate universe.

2013 Emmy trophy, January 29, 2014. (http://radiodelta.fm).

2013 Emmy trophy, January 29, 2014. (http://radiodelta.fm).

That’s why Breaking Bad‘s Seasons 2-4 were so worth watching, and the extended Season 5 so anticlimactic. The very reason it was inevitable Cranston’s Walter White would get caught and lose everything is the reason why Esposito’s Fring never did while he was alive. Fring knew that he had to always be in control, to always look as if he was a part of an illusion of suburban White Americana, even though in reality his was a world of constant duality. Fring could never risk being as unabashedly arrogant as Cranston’s Walter White precisely because Fring lacked the protections that came with racial entitlement. As Fring knew, the assumption that Black and Brown skin equated with criminality was ever present, and Fring would never confirm that stereotype, even as he personified it.

Walter White, his resentment about how his career and life turned out, this sense that though he was part of the Whiteness club, he hadn’t reap the material benefits of it, left him hopelessly in search of wealth and respect. But more than that. Cranston’s Walter White couldn’t carry that wealth and respect quietly like Esposito’s Fring, at least once White obtained them both. No, White had to let the world know that he was Heisenberg, that he was in charge. That was one of the reasons why he came to resent Fring in the first place.

To play a character like Gustavo Fring as well as Giancarlo Esposito did, to camouflage as much as he revealed, to juxtapose Fring’s humanity and callous disregard for such was what earned Esposito an Emmy nomination in 2012, at least. To also juxtapose his sense of quiet triumph and control in the midst of the world of Whiteness against Cranston’s Walter White and the White resentment and rage that could explode at any moment? That’s Breaking Bad even in Season 5, even minus Esposito’s Fring being present.

Once again, a person of color’s genius has gone unrewarded, and others received rewards on the backs of our work, while we are to be forgotten by most, after being killed off. It’s such a shame.

Sometimes, I Am Walter White

July 17, 2011

Bryan Cranston as Walter White Screen Shot, Breaking Bad, Season 1, Episode 1. Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because picture is part of post describing the character and series.

Season Four of Breaking Bad begins tonight at 10 pm EDT on AMC in my part of the world. I’m a late comer to the show, and only because my wife had sat on her Netflix delivery of the first two disks of the first season back in March. But boy did I catch up, watching the first two seasons in a span of ten days! Overall, I find the first six episodes of Breaking Bad the most intriguing. Those episodes provide me the reasons for why I support Walter White (the main character played by Bryan Cranston), because I can see some of myself and my life in his.

For those of you who haven’t watched or aren’t fans, Walter White is a brilliant yet foolish has-been-who-really-should’ve-been-somebody high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s fifty years old, married for seventeen years, with a fifteen-year-old who has cerebral palsy, and with a surprise baby well on the way, as his wife’s in her third trimester. When he discovers after collapsing at his other job (at the local car wash) that he has advanced lung cancer and maybe six months to live, he decides through serendipity to use his training as a biochemist to produce high-grade methamphetamine, or crystal meth, in order to provide for his family before kicking the bucket.

I’m not terminally ill, at least as far as I know. Nor am I a biochemist. But like Walter White, I am an over-educated person with tons of skills and experience, but woefully under-applying them in my current work as an adjunct professor and consultant. I wasn’t pushed out of a venture with a biotech company in which the other partners made billions of dollars off of my ideas. But I’ve had people in my life who’ve attempted to keep me from expressing my ideas, from getting a job, even made up stories to derail my career.

Unlike Walter White, I’m at least teaching college students, if only in the technical sense that the students I teach are in college. Although, given the sporadic nature of my consulting when combined with my teaching, it may be time to do like Walter White and obtain certification to teach high school social studies. For unlike in Albuquerque, teaching at the high school level out here often pays better than being a college professor, and can yield better results academically for the students involved.

Given where Walter could’ve been in life by the time he reached middle age, it’s small wonder that he has a

The Hulk Screen Shot, May 1, 2008. (Source:Lawrence Cohen/http://www.apple.com/trailers/universal/theincrediblehulk/large.html). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws because its a low-resolution depiction of a character as described in this post.

deep well of pent-up rage to draw from throughout the series. I understand that rage because I’ve seen it in myself over the years. But my rage comes from a life of deprivation and working my ass off to overcome it, only to feel as if there’s still tons’ more work to do. With the struggle to become a successful writer, and not just an academic one with a book and a couple dozen articles to my credit, I’m already tired. But the struggle for more work in a field in which you know you’re well qualified and already have done a ton of work can lead to Walter White rages. Or, for that matter, Bruce Banner each time he turned into Hulk.

Really, I realize that on the whole, I’m not Walter White. I’ve been written off too often in life to see myself that way. But I can understand after spending the better part of three decades working to turn “No!” into “Yes!,” to prove myself as a thinker, educator, historian, manager and writer. Not only to myself, but to my God, and those manning the gates to jobs, publishing, grants and degrees. I get it as to how and why rage can build up. I guess that if I found myself with Stage 3 lung cancer, I could use my talents to write other people’s books and dissertations, or even to write scripts for porn, but that wouldn’t exactly be me.

No, under Walter White’s circumstances, I’d probably call in every favor that I’ve been owed since seventh grade. I’d contact every writer that I’m a fan of, every contact I know associated with publishing books, magazines, scholarly journals, and make myself a royal pain in the ass. That is, until getting a book contract for Boy @ The Window, publishing several pieces I’ve been working on with occasional bursts of writing for the past two or three years. I’d do whatever I could to make sure that Noah and Angelia were taken care of before I passed.

Come to think of it, what I’ve just written should be my mantra, impending death or otherwise. As Nickelback says in “If Today Was Your Last Day,” “against the grain should be a way of life.” That’s been me for the past thirty years. So I’m really only sometimes Walter White.

Rajon Rondo, ultimate against the grain drive before hard foul, 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, May 1, 2010. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images).


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