Inside ‘Breaking Bad’ Villain Gus Fring’s Explosive Return to ‘Better Call Saul’

Bob Odenkirk and Giancarlo Esposito on the return of ‘Breaking Bad’ heavy Gus Fring in Season 3 of ‘Better Call Saul.’ Plus, go inside the Los Pollos Hermanos pop-up at SXSW.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

AUSTIN, Texas — It didn’t take long for fans of the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul to figure out what co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were up to last season. If you lined up the titles of each episode in order and read off the first letters, an encoded message revealed itself: FRING’S BACK.

By Episode 7, the cleverest viewers had already figured out that Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, the most terrifying villain of the Breaking Bad universe, was coming back into the fold for Season 3, which premieres on AMC April 10. In the Season 2 finale, when Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut sees a written warning on his windshield that reads “DON’T,” fans speculated that it came from Gus.

“It hasn’t been corroborated, but I think there is no doubt that note was sent by Gus,” Esposito tells The Daily Beast during some downtime from promoting his shocking new directorial outing This Is Your Death at the SXSW festival. “Gus has a long history with Hector Salamanca,” he says of Mike’s intended target. “You’ll start to understand why the note was left after the second or third episode. He wants and needs to have his own revenge and doesn’t want anyone to get in the way.”

Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk says he found out about Gus’s return “just like everybody in America” when “somebody in the Midwest” deciphered the creators’ hidden message. It wasn’t the first time Gilligan and Gould have used episode titles to hint at what’s to come. In season two of Breaking Bad, they named four consecutive episodes, “Seven Thirty-Seven,” “Down,” “Over,” and “ABQ,” teasing the plane crash that would end the season. “Maybe I’m not the biggest Breaking Bad nerd,” Odenkirk admits, sheepishly.

The show’s creators weren’t thrilled that someone figured out their Better Call Saul message prematurely, but Odenkirk says, “I think they should give out more spoilers. I mean, that just makes you excited to see the season. They always want to keep it a secret until you see it on that episode.”

What’s even more remarkable is that Esposito did not know he was returning as Gus before the “FRING’S BACK” message was revealed. Gilligan and Gould must have “hoped for the best,” he says, and were “lucky that I love them and they love me.”

“When they did that, I went, well, we don’t even have a deal. What are they thinking?” Esposito adds. “I guess they were just trusting that it would happen.” Once he decided to revive the character, he insisted that it not be just a one-off gimmick but rather a deeper exploration of the “vulnerability” in Gus that viewers never really got to see during his arc on Breaking Bad.

He can also confirm that Better Call Saul is “absolutely” edging closer to the action and thrilling pace of Breaking Bad, after two seasons that occasionally dwelled a bit too much on the intricacies of eldercare law.

Better Call Saul is the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman and, to a degree, we are going to see how Gus evolved into the meth kingpin who ominously texted “pollos” to Walter White in season two of Breaking Bad. “Gus is more Gus than Jimmy is Saul, but he’s still got a ways to go,” Odenkirk teases. “One of the big stories of season three is him progressing to who he became in Breaking Bad.”

With the cat out of the bag, the show decided to give fans their first glimpse of the re-animated Gus with a deadpan parody ad for his fictional Los Pollos Hermanos fast food chain. “Come in and try our new curly fries!” Esposito’s Gus says in the promo, flashing an unnerving smile. “We are so sure you’ll like them. And if you don’t, they’re on me!”

Attendees of SXSW got to do just that when AMC erected a full-scale Los Pollos Hermanos pop-up restaurant in the middle of downtown Austin that served up free curly fries to anyone would could brave the long lines to get in. Fans got an extra treat on Monday, when Esposito and Odenkirk stopped in for an hour-long selfie-fest.

After Gus — spoiler alert — had half of his face blown off in Breaking Bad’s season four finale, Esposito did not think he would ever return to the role that still gets him recognized more than any other. “I felt like I had done everything I could with the character,” he says. Unless, of course, there was a prequel.

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He imagined the hypothetical project as “The Rise of Gus,” not Better Call Saul. Gilligan apparently considered that avenue as well, but ultimately decided he would prefer to tell Saul Goodman’s origin story. Esposito is conscious of the fact that Better Call Saul is Odenkirk’s show just as Breaking Bad belonged to Bryan Cranston, praising those actors for their nuanced work in both series.

The admiration is mutual. “Giancarlo is a great actor,” Odenkirk says. “I get great compliments on my performance, but I steal so much in craft and focus from [Bryan] Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Giancarlo, Michael McKean, Jonathan Banks. I basically just do my impersonation of real actors.”

And while Better Call Saul was ostensibly designed as a comedy, don’t expect to see the ever-terrifying Gus crack jokes in the new season. “He’s the cutting edge that’s going to bring the edge to the show,” Esposito says. Gus’s evolution into a criminal mastermind may start off with a “slow burn,” but Esposito teases that by the end of the season, “You’re going see Gus really on fire.” Presumably, he doesn’t mean this literally.