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Giancarlo Esposito Has Become a Master of TV Villainy

Esposito spent 2020 playing sinister roles on ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘The Boys,’ and ‘The Mandalorian’—and our TV viewing experience was better for it

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Some actors take pride in their chameleonic ability to slip into various roles, keeping viewers on their toes with each and every performance. Watch Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here and Joker back to back, and it’s like looking at two completely different people who happen to be extremely violent. (It also helped that Phoenix was absolutely yoked in the former.) Other performers, however, don’t seem to mind becoming typecast. We’ve had so many period dramas starring Keira Knightley that you can make an entire listicle ranking them.

There isn’t an exact science to determining when an actor has officially achieved notoriety for a certain on-screen brand, but in the case of Giancarlo Esposito, a hilarious November headline from The Onion will suffice:

Even for 2020, Esposito has had an eventful year, pulling triple duty on television in Better Call Saul, The Boys, and most recently, The Mandalorian. Despite Esposito’s antagonistic standing in all three, these series couldn’t be more different: Better Call Saul is the brilliantly understated prequel to one of the best dramas of the century; The Boys is a profane, gory takedown of superhero culture; The Mandalorian is a series about a bounty hunter learning to nurture the cutest merchandising opportunity in the galaxy and has become a much-needed bright spot for the Disney era of Star Wars. Esposito hasn’t always assumed sinister roles—his early career highlights include a wholesome turn on Sesame Street and appearances in several Spike Lee films, most notably Do the Right Thing. But as far as the 21st century goes, Esposito serves a familiar purpose within these three shows: His eerie presence signals that shit’s about to go down.

In Better Call Saul, Esposito is essentially playing the greatest hits of the character that cemented this reputation in the first place. He might not yet be the Gus Fring of Breaking Bad lore, but the slightly younger version that Esposito portrays in the prequel is in the process of growing his meth empire (along with his fast food chain!) and is no less intimidating for it. In fact, this iteration of Fring is in some ways even more frightening since he hasn’t totally mastered hiding his emotions behind a steely facade. Consider the way that, in the show’s latest season, the character psychologically torments one of his Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant managers because Fring was anxious about his goons leading the DEA on a wild goose chase and not getting caught.

Granted, for a character like Fring, a slight eyebrow raise would count as legit expressiveness. But therein lies the brilliance of Esposito’s performance: It takes only a second for the character to flip, and because of his zen-like disposition, you rarely see it coming. We saw what Fring did with a box cutter in Breaking Bad; his use of a plastic bag in Better Call Saul delivered the same ruthless efficiency (without making as much of a mess to clean up).

But while Esposito’s prequel work is in no ways disappointing, the performances of his costars have generated more fanfare—whether it’s Bob Odenkirk doing his best “I am the one who knocks!” impression, Rhea Seehorn continuing her yearslong run of being the most underappreciated performer on television, or Tony Dalton’s infectious, scene-stealing enthusiasm as the charming sociopath Lalo Salamanca. There’s nothing wrong with being very good on a show where everyone else is doing great, career-best work—especially when Esposito’s own career-best work came from Better Call Saul’s predecessor. It’s like Esposito was coaxed out of retirement after being an All-Star, and while he isn’t that level anymore, there’s no shame in being an overqualified glue guy.

One of the qualities that allows Fring to blend in like a wolf among sheep is how good he is at keeping up appearances. (I’m convinced Fring cares enough about Los Pollos Hermanos that the fried chicken could rival Popeyes.) And Esposito portrays that same businessman-with-a-hint-of-malice type on The Boys as Stan Edgar, the CEO of Vought International, the global conglomerate that feels like a twisted combination of Lockheed Martin and Disney. In the world of The Boys, Vought manages real-life superheroes, and values them less by the good they do in the world than by their social media engagement and public approval ratings and how they affect the company’s stock price. (Naturally, most of the superheroes are vain, attention-craving sociopaths.)

As The Boys cynically (but perhaps realistically) illustrates the corporatization of superheroes, Edgar, by virtue of being in charge of Vought, is arguably the most powerful individual on the planet. Very few characters in the show’s universe would stand up to Homelander—a terrifying spin on Superman—and even fewer could live to tell of it. But Edgar understands that Homelander’s massive ego requires the public’s adoration, even as he despises the people he’s supposed to protect. Edgar has the ability to take that spotlight away, and so Homelander and the rest of the show’s superheroes begrudgingly fall in line to a man in a suit. Even capitalism trumps mythical powers.

It takes an imposing figure for the viewer to buy into anyone giving Homelander a cold-eyed stare, which is exactly why Esposito was such a perfect casting for the series. Edgar’s confidence in his own influence—and by extension, the conglomerate he’s in charge of—is so assured that he’s willing to let an actual Nazi join the ranks of the Seven (The Boys’ equivalent of the Justice League) because it’s better for Vought’s bottom line. But what prevents Edgar from leaving as big an impression as Homelander or the other superheroes on The Boys isn’t a matter of him (presumably) being powerless—instead it’s how little he’s appeared on-screen. Edgar has been in only five of the series’ 16 episodes so far, and being such a peripheral figure is perhaps owed to the fact that Esposito is stretched so thin on the small screen.

That certainly extends to The Mandalorian, where Esposito’s Imperial officer Moff Gideon has appeared sparingly, but efficiently. Through two seasons, Gideon has become the closest thing the live-action Star Wars series has to a big bad, and Esposito makes good use of his limited screen time. He doesn’t wield the Force but still possesses a creepy all-knowingness as if he’s always two steps ahead of his enemies. Like most Imperial leaders, Gideon is ruthlessly devoted to the cause—if he’s not killing his lackeys by hand, he’s expecting them to take the intergalactic equivalent of a cyanide capsule in service to the Empire.

And then, of course, there’s Gideon’s wielding of the Darksaber—an objectively kick-ass piece of Star Wars lore—and his terrorizing of Baby Yoda, which is the kind of move that will forever put an actor on the audience’s shit list. It’s obvious the character takes a twisted pleasure in imprisoning the little fella, and I can’t imagine many actors would want to invoke the internet’s collective wrath by putting the most adorable infant in a galaxy far, far away in harm’s way. But when Moff Gideon is played by the same guy who once told Walter White, with horrifying assuredness, that he would kill his infant daughter, well, it’s clear that Star Wars found the right guy.

Gideon’s reign of Baby Yoda–inflicted terror would appear to be at an end since the character—Death Star–sized spoiler alert—is defeated by Mando and his ragtag crew in the Season 2 finale, with a helpful assist from de-aged Luke Skywalker (low-key one of the scariest things I’ve seen all year). But Esposito has implied that the character will return in the third season, and I doubt The Mandalorian would bring Gideon back if he wasn’t going to cause more trouble for our heroes. After all, once you introduce Giancarlo Esposito in a TV series, it’s only a matter of time before everyone is totally fucked.