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.

On Lena Horne

May 12, 2010

Maybe this isn’t the right time or place to be bringing this up. I’ll probably be vilified by my slightly older-than-me readers who’ll claim that since I didn’t grow up when Ms. Horne was in her prime, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That, of course, hasn’t stopped me before, and won’t stop me now. But two things have to be said about the late Lena Horne that most reporters and commentators on her life have either overemphasized or glossed over completely. One, that there’s a huge difference between breaking down barriers and commenting on injustice and full-fledged civil rights activism. Two, that Horne represented the issue of double-consciousness in Hollywood and entertainment in ways that few want to discuss now that she’s no longer with us.

Yes, I have seen Horne on the silver and small screen, even in my limited years on the planet. Yes, I know what she did on behalf of Black soldiers during World War II, the ground she broke in film and music, the use of her position in entertainment to speak truth about discrimination, exclusion and harassment in Hollywood. That makes her a groundbreaking icon. It makes her a bit of a civil rights activist. But it doesn’t put her in the same sentence as Dorothy Height, Paul Robeson, or Ella Baker. Maybe that’s unfair and unrealistic, but the journalists and commentators have exaggerated Horne’s impact in this area.

I’ve always found the stories of the mesmerizing Ms. Horne interesting. Not that I didn’t understand, between the beauty and all of that talent, evident as late as her appearance on, of all things, The Cosby Show in ’89 or ’90. But a radio commentator recently suggested that the late Horne could’ve passed for White, but decided to be one of the rare ones to stand up for her race instead. Really? Really? Mostly light, bright and almost-White Blacks didn’t pass for White, even when it would’ve been convenient for them to do so. Although Horne was light, I don’t think it would’ve been easy for her to pass, for a whole variety of cultural, familial, and other reasons. She deserves credit for this, I suppose, but no more credit than the likes of Walter White, Nella Larsen or Mary Church Terrell.

Which brings up the one unspoken, complicated fact that has gone unmentioned, especially among Black pundits and writers. That Horne benefited from her looks — her light, bright and almost-Whiteness — as much as she had to fight discrimination because of them. Her beauty and her skin served as the embodiment of double-consciousness, in Hollywood and in mid-twentieth century African America. She was Black and yet not Black in the eyes of MGM and its execs. Yet she was also a Black icon who represented the ideal in terms of her lightness, at least as far as the times themselves dictated in African America. I’m not suggesting that the late Ms. Horne took full advantage of this reality — far from it. But I do believe that she gained advantages that didn’t fall so easily toward others, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.

Was Lena Horne one of the great Black female  — heck, American — performers of the twentieth century? Of course! Did she entertain like few others could? Absolutely! Was her impact on race relations, African American civil rights, and our understanding of race and skin tone far more complicated that is being portrayed in commentaries and obituaries? You betcha!


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