Breaking Good – The Burdens of Management in a Criminal Enterprise

I’ve been watching a lot of gangster movies lately (I blame AMC’s mob week), and I’m struck by how often things end badly.  In the Godfather duology (you have a problem with that?), Michael gradually loses everything chasing the illusary concept of going legit just after he settles some family business.  In Scarface, Tony loses everything in a mad chase of power, money, and control.  In Goodfellas, Henry loses everything chasing more money and bigger percentages.  Of course, when I say “everything”, I mean “everything that is important to the character.”  Tony literally loses everything, including his life, but even Michael loses the love of his wife, sister, and murders his own brother, and Henry has to live out the rest of his life as a nobody after a lifetime of being a bigshot.

Now, the cynic in me is skeptical about how badly things really end in a criminal enterprise.   I’m sure there are many wise old gangsters and drug dealers who die in their sleep and leave behind massive fortunes to their heirs that have been carefully laundered.  It probably doesn’t happen very often, because the same impulses that cause a person to “break bad”; ambition, a sense of entitlement, greed, attraction to power, and paranoia, are not very stable impulses and lead to overreaching and making mistakes you can’t come back from.  Also, in absence of the rule of law and a police force that enforces it the only thing keeping the strong from taking from the weak are morals.  Combine these facts and you get bodies.

Potential spoilers are coming up below.  

But I don’t know.  I’m only a gangster of love, so I’ll confine myself from here on out to commentating on the fictional gangster world, which I’m pretty familiar with thanks to Puzo, Copolla, De Palma, Scorsese and Simon.  In the fictional gangster world, there are some hard and fast rules.  1) Dead men tell no tales.  2) Dead men don’t ever know they’re dead men.  3) Nobody ever runs a drug business like a business.  4) If they buck #3, they’ll eventually end up overthrown by more ruthless, less careful, less rational types.

With the character of Gus Fring, I thought the show was throwing us a curve, offering for our consideration a calm, rational, businesslike drug lord that had actually managed to be successful with this format. He contrasted nicely with the small minded and openly vicious Crazy 8 and Tuco.  I should have known this was too good to be true.  Why do rules #3 and #4 have to hold true in gangster stories?  Because these enterprises lay outside the law, which means the only thing keeping other outlaws from taking everything from them is their own power.

Why didn’t Microsoft just assassinate Google back in the 90’s? Or for that matter, why IBM didn’t massacre Microsoft or Intel when they got out of line?   Because of the risk that they’d all wind up in jail, and wealthy executives in legitimate businesses don’t need that risk.  They move on to the next company, or retire with a pile of dough.  If Microsoft and Google were rival drug gangs, it would be different.  Google would attract Microsoft’s attention, and be given the choice to work for Microsoft and pay tribute, or be eliminated.  Why would Microsoft allow a rival to over take them?  If they did, Google would eventually be the ones offering them the choice between servitude and oblivion.  In a perverse way, Microsoft would have no choice.  They either must act decisively, or be taken out by others that do.

Apply this to Gus.  What are the odds that he is a “professional”, “business-like” drug dealer?  From what little we know of his backstory, he has risen from a small time operator Tio Salamanca dismissively refers to as the “dirty South American” “chicken man”, to someone who rivals the power of the mexican cartel he used to work for.  Do you think he got there with hard work, six sigma, ISO 9000 certifications and management efficiency?

Hell no.  Gus is a gangster.  Any doubt to that should have been swept away when he slit Victor’s throat.

So what’s my point in all this?  Walter this week laments to Saul, “when did this stop being about business” and how he can’t just walk away after his job is done knowing what he knows.  But I think walking away was never a possibility, from the moment that Walt attracted Gus’s attention.  I suspect that had Walt rejected his offer, Gus would have had him killed sooner or later — if the cousins by some miracle had not killed the man in his own bedroom.  I suspect that had Walt left after the original three month contract to cook for Gus with Gale by his side, he would have been killed then, too.  He certainly will not walk out of this situation alive now.  Walt was trapped from the moment he worked for Gus to either continue to do so for the rest of his life or to eventually destroy Gus and take his place.

Why?  Rule #1; dead men tell no tales. Maybe Walt won’t ever rat out the location of his super lab, but that possibility is not zero.  Sure, Walt is probably going to die in a year or two of cancer, but what if he makes a death bed confession?  What if he recovers long enough to continue to cook meth and grows to be a legitimate player?  What if he trains up Jesse to take his place?  Gus can’t have that, he’s already fighting a one man war against the cartel.

Remember rule #2, dead men never know they’re dead men.  As Henry said in Goodfellas, the guys that come to wack you are the people who are your friends, who’ve been there for you, who have cared for you.  There isn’t going to be a huge blowup and argument. They’re all smiles and pats on the back until the axe falls.  You never see it coming.  So of course Gus was going to flatter Walt.  Of course Gus is going to have Walt over for dinner.  Gus was going to make sure Walt is well paid and compensated, and would tolerate a little prima donna behavior from the chemist who is making him oh, so much money.  He doesn’t want to arouse Walt’s own sense of ambition, wound his pride, or feed his paranoia.  He wants Walt complacent, so he won’t see the end coming.

The second Jesse ruined that plan by trying to save Andrea’s brother, and Walt sided with Jesse, the gloves have come off.  But I don’t think this represents a change in Gus so much as a revelation of what was already there.  Walt is moaning about a sequence of events that were set in place the moment he came in contact with Gus, really, the moment he came in contact with Crazy 8, and really, the moment he decided to cook meth in the first place.

A brief aside, this is why I personally support drug legalization.  Of all drugs.  Do I like drugs?  No.  Do I ever want my kids using?  God no. But I think that you’re always going to have meth heads, main-liners, coke snorters, and pot smokers.  Legalization brings the rule of law into play so the associated violence in the drug trade will be eliminated.  The drug dealers can compete and control territory legally without making bodies, they pay taxes on their product, and we can divert these funds plus the money we’ll save on maintaining our vast paramilitary police force to sick people addicted to drugs.  They can get the medical treatment they need without stigma.  I mean, it worked with Al Capone and booze, right?  It’s always worked with tobacco. But I realize this makes too much sense, and the government and drug dealers make too much money off the game, so it will never happen.

So, where does that leave Walt?  Well, Walt is going to die at Gus’s hands sooner or later.  If he doesn’t like this, he needs to take out Gus.  But Gus is no Crazy 8 or Tuco, and killing Tuco caused quite enough problems.  If he eliminates Gus, who takes on the cartel?  How does the vast sums of money get laundered, and huge shipments of meth get transported, without the Empire of Chicken?  Without that infrastructure and money, how can you pay for muscle and weapons for protection?  Muscle willing and able to kill can’t be found on every street corner.

Walt has sympathetic muscle in the form of Mike.  I’m pretty sure that Mike for whatever reason sees Walt as a kindred spirit.  Whether he joins him remains to be seen, but it’s a possibility.  But, on the other hand, Mike ain’t getting any younger.  Walt might be getting some proto-muscle in the form of Jesse.  But that ain’t going to be enough.  You know who has that kind of muscle?  The Drug Enforcement Agency.  

Stick with me here.  I’m fairly convinced at this point that Hank is going to get involved in Walt’s caper.  But I think that’s thinking too small.  I think he’ll marshal the forces of the federal government to bring wrath upon anyone who endangers or opposes Walt.  My only question is whether he does so wittingly or unwittingly.  After all, the DEA wants nothing more than to take down drug dealers.  They have the men, the weapons, and the money to do so.  What they don’t have is information.

Walt is loaded with intelligence, in every meaning of that word.  It looks like Walk is going to be involved in his brother and law’s investigation, and from what we’ve read his role will only keep expanding in that.  Why can’t Walt use his “insights” to manipulate Hank?  Send the DEA after the “right” targets?  Maybe Hank will be convinced that Jesse, Skinny P, and Badger are bigger players with Walt whispering in their ear, and they’ll cooperate on wearing wires and fingering people in the cartel and in Gus’s organization.  Which in the end, will leave Walt and Mike standing alone, with the DEA ready to pounce on anyone they get wind of trying to compete with them.

How’s that for some speculation?  Like it, hate it, let me know what you think!