In the heyday of Breaking Bad, when the rivalry between Walter White and meticulous, malicious kingpin Gus Fring was at a fever pitch, there was always one burning question simmering just underneath all the rest:
What was it like to work at Los Pollos Hermanos, Fring’s cheery chain of chicken restaurants?
Now, with the return of Giancarlo Esposito’s Fring in Season 3 of AMC’s prequel show Better Call Saul, we have our answer, thanks to a concurrent digital campaign that has been dropping weekly Los Pollos Hermanos employee training videos on the network’s social channels.
The origin of the spots, which will total 10 in all by the end of the current season, can be traced back to January, when AMC teased Esposito’s return with an uncannily authentic fake commercial for Los Pollos Hermanos called “Taste the Family.” Both the commercial and the training videos were produced and directed by Bacon & Sons Film Co., who approached their parody elements by simply doing “something that felt honest to that paradigm,” said the company’s creative director and co-executive producer Dan Appel. “I really try to think, ‘OK, if I was going to make a training video, if I was Gus and I lived in Albuquerque in 2003—how would I do this…?’ I almost think that if we had thought too hard about it, we probably would have screwed it up.”
Where “Taste the Family” is so subtle it could almost be an actual commercial for a real-life restaurant, the training videos have their tongue squarely in cheek. Appel set Esposito’s live-action scenes against a green screen, then placed production stills of the actual Los Pollos Hermanos set behind him, “many of them with absolutely the wrong kind of perspective,” he explained. “It was important to me not to comp a good green screen because [actual training videos] probably wouldn’t comp a good green screen. I knew I wanted to have these stills, comp [Fring] against the still, and then cut to a close-up of him, but not change the background. I just knew that was going to be fun. Stupid in a good way.”
Aside from being humorous, the intentionally amateurish elements also have a mildly chilling effect, somehow magnifying Esposito’s sudden tonal switches from warmhearted manager to stone-cold assassin as he warns his employees against taking photos at work, or expounds on the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy.
Simply having Esposito talk to the screen in front of awkwardly superimposed backdrops would be more than enough to fill a whole series of spots, but the campaign kicks into high gear with its animation. Bacon & Sons created the purposely bland segments in collaboration with New York motion graphics artist Jay Marks, who had worked with AMC in the past on animation for the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast. Marks, Appel said, “has been a dream,” in part because of his uncanny ability to channel a style that looks like an employee safety manual come to life, and in part because his ample creativity has been instrumental in packing the spots with all-important “opportunities for Easter eggs and winks.”
The Better Call Saul fan base, as originally cultivated by Breaking Bad, is particularly attuned to the nuances of the show’s world, with some viewers’ knack—bordering on the obsessive—for picking up on subtle details. Both shows have had fun playing to this quality of their viewership. Last season, for instance, mimicking a trick that was also pulled during Breaking Bad’s second season, the Better Call Saul writers turned the first letter of each episode title into an anagram that spelled out a teaser for Season 3: “FRING’S BACK.” And shockingly, there were plenty of viewers “that somehow figured that out,” said Rob Knox, co-executive producer at Bacon & Sons. “That’s the kind of fans they have.”
At that level of passion and attentiveness, Easter eggs are not only appreciated but expected, and the Los Pollos Hermanos training videos gleefully oblige, packing frame after frame with hidden references from the Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad universe. Cameos by past characters are abundant, ranging from obvious choices such as Jesse Pinkman (who can be spotted standing in line to place an order) to obscurities only die-hards would remember, such as Breaking Bad Season 1 douchebag Ken Wins, a bluetooth-wearing loudmouth who features prominently in the training video focused on customer service.
One of Appel’s favorite hidden moments is a multi-layered nugget of visual trickery: As Fring lectures in voiceover on keeping photography out of the workplace, the animation illustrates his point by depicting an employee taking her family into the restaurant’s back room for some fun-filled selfies. There, the camera proceeds to zoom in on the phone’s screen to show us the picture being taken, only to reveal a meth lab seen bubbling away behind an unmarked door. At this point, animated Gus steps back into view, conveniently blocking our view.
Such moments have great fun with the source material, though Appel said that with a fan base as ardent as Better Call Saul’s, they can also be a double-edged sword.
“It’s fascinating when you find somebody who’s like, ‘Gus would never do that,’” he said. “‘He would never show his hand with the meth lab in the back room.’ The thing we keep coming back to is, this is not canon. This is a hundred miles from canon. The only way to have fun with these was to have as much winking as possible.”
Fortunately, the show’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and their writers are in on the joke too.
“Their engagement with stuff that we’re doing is off the charts, and while they’re making sure that everything respects the show in the right way, they have a sense of humor about what they’re doing,” Knox said. “It’s really a treat to be partners with a group of people like that.”