As Breaking Bad has finally wrapped up, leaving me mostly satisfied and somewhat relieved to be free of the final season’s relentless tension, I’m realizing that something I’ve been waiting for throughout the series is never going to come to fruition: a truly rounded Latino character.
Yes, I am a Gustavo Fring aficionado; to be more specific, I experienced a phase in which I was more a Gus obsessive. For me, Gus is the most magnetic and elusive of all the Breaking Bad characters, but after his spectacular departure in the nursing home blast, I’m left wondering if part of his mystery was just carelessness on the part of Vince Gilligan. Fring’s Chilean identity and past coupled with the casting of non-Latino Giancarlo Esposito begged important questions without delivering real hints to answers, and while this may allow the character’s mystique to linger, it leaves the series’ most important Latino character incomplete, which might not be so problematic save for the fact that he is the only Latino character who we really went anywhere with.
Breaking Bad is Walter White’s show and it is a White show. I don’t argue with the premise and I’m not so bothered by depositing a White character into a world long experienced by others more by necessity than by choice.
However, I do see Walt as a Mighty Whitey, a character functioning in a non-White world with greater power and success than that world’s primary inhabitants. Walt revealed his ultimate goal rather late in the game: He wasn’t building a nest egg or a business or even a legacy; he was building “an empire” (think of the colonialist ramifications with this word choice!), namely meth production and distribution, and those primary inhabitants would be people connected to Mexican drug cartels and leaders like Gus Fring, who has proven the only true close match to Walt in business acumen, strategizing for supremacy, calculated ruthlessness, and duplicitous identity (mild-mannered high school teacher with cancer vs. impeccably mannered philanthropist and respected entrepreneur). That’s why I love Gus, even though his frozen glares send shivers to my core.
No other Latino character comes close to outwitting or outperforming Walt. Tuco – simply too fucking bananas. While I enjoyed Raymond Cruz as Tuco Salamanca, we never got any further with his character other than how he took good care of his bell-happy tío, and how he ruled his drug domain through ruthlessness and recklessness. I’ll accept the former but not the latter. Tuco needed more than crazy to have a lock on that much territory, but all we ever got from him was explosive violence that he could have picked up from watching Scarface too many times – or from Gilligan watching Scarface too many times.
Tuco is almost the anti-Gus. Though they’re both merciless and driven, only Gus has the self-control, shitloads of it, to be a regional trade leader. Just look how each of them handled a major problem with a subordinate: Tuco lost his temper and beat No-Doze to death in semi-public junkyard, creating a chain reaction of catastrophes that led to his downfall ; meanwhile, Gus, in the privacy of his own pristine underground lair, gets dressed to kill, literally, in a hazmat suit, before slashing Victor’s throat and having his body immediately disposed of.
Regarding the extraordinarily ill-fated No-Doze and Victor, what purposes do their Latino characters serve other than to show us how pitiless their Latino bosses are? Tuco’s No-Doze and the unfortunate Gonzo could have played out as the Latino Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Badger and Skinny Pete’s White R & G, or Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, if you like, had they been given more to supply the storyline beyond their horrible deaths.
No-Doze and Gonzo remind me of the Red Shirts on Star Trek: characters in always in red shirts introduced into the story for the sole purpose of dying. Eminently expendable, they appear to show us grave danger, to prove that the threat to the main characters’ survival is very real. The men in the red shirts themselves themselves matter very little to the ongoing story – and presumably to the audience.
And No-Doze and Gonzo are minor examples. What frustrates me most is that Breaking Bad is littered with loads of missed opportunities for Latino characters.
Andrea! She’s a struggling addict who could have been a hopeful counterpoint to the doomed Jane, but instead mostly serves to show how Jesse teeters between deception and vulnerability. Plus, she provides us with the child-in-jeopardy character of Brock, who Walt nearly murders in arguably his greatest moral nadir. Yet Andrea never attains the depth of Jane because she’s never allowed much more than to serve as a pivot for plot points and minor characters, such as the character of Tomás, her murderous, murdered younger brother. Had the actress playing Andrea, Emily Ríos, been working with more meat on her plate, she could have humanized Tomás considerably more, making his story, and by extension, hers and Jesse’s, even sadder.
Even her execution-style murder by Todd performs in service to another character, the bound and howling Jesse, who must witness the killing in retaliation for his attempted escape from meth-lab slavery. While we should be mourning the senseless death of a recovering addict, our sympathies are instead directed toward the White onlooker. We have to imagine her son Brock and the aftermath of his mother’s murder because we never see him again, though his function remains, as a continual warning to Jesse.
We came so close to opening up Andrea’s character when we very briefly met her disapproving, disappointed mother. Imagine if she had been afforded even half the time allotted to Jane’s father. There we would have had not only have had a Latino character with some depth, we could have gotten hold of a family dynamic.
Yes, I know we had a family dynamic of sorts with the Salamancas: Tuco, Hector, and the primos, but I’m thinking of one with even a whiff of typicality to offset the Salamanca brutality.
For typical we are left with Hank’s colleague Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada), who Hank jabs with racist remarks meant as playful, which I thought should have been met with at the very least a “knock that shit off” response. The writers missed their shot with Gomez, who could have been a more explicit cultural and linguistic liaison between the law and the street. I was not surprised to learn that the writers intended to kill him off earlier on. He emanates sacrificial expendable throughout the series and fulfills this destiny in the final season stand-off with the white supremacists.
Steve doesn’t get a spectacular death scene. He doesn’t really get one at all. He’s just lying face-down, dead in the aftermath of the shootout, unlike most of his Latino predecessors, who end up with shocking, sensationalistic deaths: Emilio, poisoned by toxic fumes and catastrophically/comically dissolved in acid; Crazy-8, strangled by Walt in the basement; Tortuga (a star turn by Danny Trejo), decapitated with his severed head serving as a DEA-lure astride an actual tortoise; Victor, his throat slashed in perhaps the series’ most terrifying, dread-inducing scene. Yet all of these characters lack depth, and compared with other, better developed but still doomed White characters such as Gale or Jane, their brief shelf lives don’t offer much and their deaths serve more to shock (Victor) or provide black humor (Tortuga), rather than evoke sympathy from the audience or remorse from the regulars.
How do people view the much-discussed deaths? On the Vulture sad-scale on deaths, Latinos don’t rank particularly high. How much of this is owes to the characterization and how much to the majority of the Vulture rankers’ racial identity in relation to Latinos? I think both. The racial empathy gap has shown itself in pop culture repeatedly, but perhaps never so explicitly as in the painfully honest cavalcade of tweets following the casting of a Black child in a key role in the film version of The Hunger Games. The presumed audience is mostly White, and said majority will likely focus empathy on White characters. That’s the audience. What about the writers and showrunners? How is their empathy – and engagement – with their own characters spread out?
Engagement didn’t stick till the close, as Latino characters had largely disappeared from the series by the final season. From the first episode of season six, it looked like Enrique was our last shot.
You know, Enrique – from the car wash. It was his birthday!
Remember, he was the one who was drying off Lydia’s rental car?
My sincere hope was that Enrique would turn out to be a DEA mole or perhaps the missing connection in the ultimate, undefined threat represented by Gus Fring’s past.
Yeah, that was a pretty slender hope, but honestly, I wouldn’t have cared if Enrique turned out good, or in keeping with the series in general, bad. I just wanted him to be more than a Spanish name at the car wash to embody cheap labor – or to serve an excuse for another horrifying death scene.
Enrique could have been the last-minute Latino character Breaking Bad missed all along. Instead, he was another fleeting brown face in Walt’s empire.