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‘Breaking Bad’ and the Gus Fring issue

Loyal viewers of “Breaking Bad"know that we bid adios to drug kingpin Gus Fring in “Face Off,"the final episode of the series’ slow burn of a fourth season (and anyone not yet up to that episode should quit reading now). Series creator Vince Gilligan and his writing team had effectively, and with great reluctance, signed El Pollo Hermano’s death warrant a year earlier in the Season 3 finale. Series protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had defied Gus, and with egos this big clashing, Gilligan says, “it’s like the tagline from ‘Highlander’: There can be only one.”

The chess game between the two strong-willed, controlling men played out over the course of the season’s 13 episodes with the meticulous Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) seemingly holding every advantage — right up until the moment he dropped dead in one of the most glorious, mythic exits in television history. The Envelope convened the principal parties — Cranston, Gilligan (who wrote and directed the episode) and Esposito — to share their thoughts on the planning and execution of what may be “Breaking Bad’s” finest hour to date.

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‘You can’t shut the door’

In the waning days of Season 3, Gilligan and his writing team batted around scenarios that could keep both Walt, the chemistry teacher turned expert meth maker, and Gus, his lethal boss, on the show. They came up empty. One of them had to go.

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Cranston: It was like there were two boyfriends vying for one girl. It could have gone either way, though Walt had the advantage of being around from the start.

Gilligan: It’s definitely Walter White’s show. The trick was making Walt’s position as precarious as possible and leave you guessing how he’d outsmart Gustavo Fring.

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Esposito: We were about to start the third episode of Season 4, and Vince asks to see me in his office. We talked about story line. He tells me how pleased he is with the work. Then he gets up to shut the door. “No. You can’t shut the door right now.”

Gilligan: I was nervous about telling him, and he didn’t exactly help.

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Esposito: So he didn’t shut the door. We talked some more. Then he gets up again, and I say, “What’d I tell you? You can’t shut the door right now.”

Gilligan: I started laughing, probably out of discomfort. But I did eventually shut the door.

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Esposito: Look.… I figured it was inevitable. Walt’s the hero. The one thing I said to Vince was, “If you’re going to take him out, he should go out big.”

GRAPHIC: When TV characters die

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For whom the bell tolls

Going out big is one thing. Taking out Gus, a keen-minded criminal possessing serious Spidey sense, in an organic, believable fashion was another.

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Gilligan: I knew for sure I didn’t want Gus to get stupid in the eleventh hour just so Walt could prevail. I’m lucky that I have six brilliant writers, and we just sat around in a room for months banging our heads against the wall. In the end, Gus’ failure is not of intelligence. His Achilles’ heel is emotion, his need for revenge against this elderly, wheelchair-bound former drug lord [Tio, played by Mark Margolis] for killing Gus’ business partner.

Cranston: When I read it, I was pleased with the brazenness of Gus’ death. I hate stories where you see the protagonist and antagonist battling it out, back and forth, back and forth, and then suddenly the antagonist does something stupid, out of character, and the protagonist wins. It’s like “Noooo! You’ve just ruined the whole thing for me!”

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Gilligan: Tio [who can’t speak and communicates only by ringing a desk bell] was never intended to become crucial to the life of the series. Neither was Gus. It happened because the writers and I loved the actors who played them so much.

Cranston: To be able to use Tio’s iconic desk bell as the triggering device for the bomb that blows up Gus was just perfect. It was just so rich. What was so great about it is that I know when they were creating the character of Tio, that he’d had a stroke and couldn’t speak and he’s in this chair and rings the bell, Vince didn’t know how that little item, duct-taped to a wheelchair, would become so instrumental in his storytelling.

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‘Face Off’

Gus and right-hand man Tyrus go to the nursing home where Tio lives. Tyrus sweeps Tio’s room for listening devices but misses the bomb Walt has strapped to the old man’s wheelchair. Ring-a-ding-DING! An explosion rips through the room, Gus walks out the door, straightens his tie and the camera shifts to reveal the wordplay behind the episode’s title.

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Gilligan: That was actually two different shots married together digitally. Our special-effects crew did the explosion in one take, blowing the door off its hinges with these immense dump tanks filled with pressurized nitrogen. Then we reset things and proceeded to do 19 takes of Gus stepping out into the hallway. I was probably being a little persnickety, but I wanted the camera to hit the right spot at just the right moment. I was probably trying to be Stanley Kubrick a little too much, given our schedule and budget.

Esposito: I showed Vince three or four mannerisms I always do with Gus. Straightening the tie was the best, the cleanest. With Gus, it’s all about order.

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Gilligan: In the script it read: “He’s a man to the last.” Perhaps it’s just muscle memory that the last action Gus Fring would take would be to straighten his tie.

Cranston: When I was a kid, I lived with my grandparents for a year in Yucaipa. My grandfather was an old farmer and he made me and my brother cut the heads off chickens. And yes, sometimes they’d get out and run around without a head. That’s the image I had of Gus. Even without half a head, he’s still moving, straightening that tie, defiant until the end.

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‘Dead is dead’

After fans speculated that Walt’s partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), hadn’t actually murdered apprentice chemist Gale at the end of Season 3, Gilligan didn’t want there to be any doubt about Gus’ demise. And yet …

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Esposito: People didn’t believe Gus could be killed! There were all these theories on Facebook and Twitter. “Remember how he dealt with the poison when he killed Don Eladio? He had a doctor and blood and teams of people working on him.” Uh, no.

Gilligan: I wanted Gale’s death to be as concrete as possible, but it confused some people. I figured this time around, I better make it damn clear that this guy’s a goner. We blew off half his face! He’s not coming back! Bank on it!

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Esposito: Immediately after the episode, people ask me, ‘Are you dead?’ And I’d go, ‘Dead is dead,’ and I’d give them a wink. I don’t do that anymore. Dead is dead to me. Yes, it’s possible Gus might turn up in a flashback. I haven’t heard anything.

Gilligan: [Long pause] Anything is possible. [Nervous laugh]

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Esposito: I’ve changed. I’ve moved on. I’m not saying it was easy. But Gus is an icon. I don’t want to mess with that because it’s characters like that, ones where everything in the universe lines up just so, that shouldn’t be messed with. Let him rest in peace.

calendar@latimes.com

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