During its fifth season, a conversation arose about whether Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul was actually a better show than its predecessor. Breaking Bad is my favourite TV show of all time, it blew my tiny mind but even I started to question it. What I loved so much about Breaking Bad was the world Vince Gilligan and his team had created. It felt solid, dangerous and visceral. Better Call Saul, which took its time in building out the world of happy-go-lucky Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) who would slowly be forced to become the ruthless lawyer Saul Goodman who we first met in season two of Breaking Bad has slowly built and built into a brilliant character study rivalling that of Walter White’s demise in the original series.
Cynics can say we know where the story ends, and that’s true to an extent, but Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have built Saul’s world up to such an extent that I’m so worried about what’s going to happen to the characters that we know don’t make to Breaking Bad.
As we enter the final season, I’m most anxious about what will become of Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Jimmy’s wife, who was created solely for Better Call Saul. I don’t want her to reach the awful end I’m sure she’s destined for. In the most recent episode, we did learn the fate of one of those characters created for Better Call Saul.
Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) gets a mention in Breaking Bad when Saul is first introduced. He mentioned the names “Ignacio” and “Lalo” to Walt and Jesse when they dragged him out to the desert to scare him. It was a masterstroke that the Better Call Saul team decided to bring these pivotal characters to life in the prequel.
Nacho started out as Tuco’s sidekick, but he was never as volatile or dangerous as his boss. He didn’t have the fear factor or stature of the Salamanca Twins but his calm demeanour echoed Mike’s (Jonathan Banks). It’s probably the reason the writers put the pair together so often. There was a sense that Nacho was the smartest man in the room. Pensive, cautious and with his ailing father always on his mind, Nacho was never the bad guy. He was someone who found himself at the heart of the cartel by accident rather than a desire to do bad things and make money.
I knew his story would likely come to a sad end after he turned on Lalo and Salamaca’s but I wasn’t quite prepared for the brutality of it. Rock and Hard Place is Nacho’s episode. For a series known for taking its time, building the tension brick by brick, the episode runs at quite a pace.
Having survived the horrific shootout at the hands of the Cousins in the motel parking lot, he continues to elude them by more clever means. Mainly the ability to hold his breath while submerged in a pool of oil at the bottom of an abandoned tanker truck. It’s a brilliantly tense sequence. Nacho holds his breath for a long time as one of the twins pokes his head through a hole just above Nacho’s head. Still, he gets away. He finds safety at a nearby mechanics. The only man who works there isn’t startled by this mysterious man covered head to toe in oil and offers him a shower and a phone call. Of course, Nacho makes a call to his father. The only person in the world who means anything to him now. Their short and muted conversation is the first sign that Nacho knows his time and luck have run out. His father is unaware that this is the last conversation he’ll have with his son but Nacho knows he’s calling to say goodbye.
His next call is to Mike. He wants his dad’s life spared and in return, he’ll sell any story Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) wants him to. He’s well aware he’s going to his death. Mike has Nacho smuggled over the border, gives him a final meal and beats him up so that looks believable when he meets the Salamanca’s again. Mike walks him through how things will go with Hector and Juan Bolsa. In discovering the shards of broken glass from the mess Gus made in “Carrot and Stick,” Nacho comes up with his own tweak to the plan. Juan offers him the choice between a good death and a bad one, and Nacho picks the best death possible for himself — one where he finally gets to tell all those Salamancas just what he thinks of them, gets to take credit for what he did to put Hector in that wheelchair, and then turns his gun on himself before the Cousins or anyone else is able to wound him.
It’s a brilliantly tense sequence that feels wonderfully reminiscent of the height of Breaking Bad. Gordon Smith’s script expertly builds tension before Nacho’s final moments.
Michael Mando is at its very best. Defiant but clearly deeply scared. Full of vitriol and anger for the men responsible for his impending death but also aware he’s sacrificing himself for his father’s safety. Nacho is perhaps the only person in the show who goes out on his own terms for the good of someone else.
Nacho’s story is so powerful it’s easy to forget that we’ve also got to follow Jimmy and Kim too. Smith’s script gives Nacho the bulk of the spotlight, but Jimmy and Kim’s plot to frame Howard (Patrick Fabian) moves along too with the re-introduction of Jimmy’s enforcer Huell (Lavell Maurice Crawford). He uses Huell to clone the keys of Howard’s car while he’s out to lunch.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Suzanne Ericsen (Julie Pearl) questions Kim over Jimmy’s connections to Lalo (Tony Dalton) and the cartel in general. She suspects Jimmy is covering for Lalo and is aware of the false identity he’s been using. With Lalo now presumed dead, Ericsen hopes Jimmy will pass along all the knowledge he has of the cartel and its key players. Predictably, Kim plays it cool. She suggests that if Jimmy was also fooled by Lalo’s alias, then he has the right to waive attorney-client privilege and tell the authorities everything he knows. Kim plays her cards close to her chest, but she’s visibly rattled. As if she’s just reminded of the dangerous encounter she and Jimmy had with Lalo towards the end of the last season. Later, when she tells Jimmy of the conversation, she poses an important question, “Do you want to be a friend of the cartel, or do you want to be a rat?” We know which way he eventually swings but we don’t yet know the collateral damage that took place to make him finally switch.
Rock and Hard Place is one of the best episodes of Better Call Saul and is one of THE best episodes of the year. Nacho may be gone, but I’m interested in how Gus and Mike recover from his last betrayal. I know Lalo, Kim and Jimmy will cross paths again, and I’m wondering whether it’ll actually be Kim who pushes Jimmy to remain “a friend of the cartel.” This episode, just the third of the series serves as proof (if we needed it) that the journey to the end will be a bloody and heartbreaking one. I’m not quite ready for where we go from here.
Better Call Saul Continues Tuesdays on Netflix.