A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Rock and Hard Place,” coming up just as soon as I take care of you and the Key Master…
“Adios, papa.” —Nacho
The writers of both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are proud to admit how much each show has been made up as it has gone along, and how many aspects of each were happy accidents. Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die within a few episodes of introducing Walter White to the ABQ drug scene, for instance; then Vince Gilligan got to watch Aaron Paul at work.
Few characters in either series are more symbolic of that improvisational quality than Nacho Varga. Nacho only exists at all because in Saul Goodman’s first appearance on Breaking Bad, he mentioned the names “Ignacio” and “Lalo” to Walt and Jesse when they dragged him out to the desert to scare him. So when they decided many years later to do a Saul prequel series, Gilligan and Peter Gould had to come up with an Ignacio to explain why Saul would name-check him in such a tense moment. The funny thing is, that never quite happened. The initial plan was for Nacho and Jimmy to be frequent antagonists in Season One — but then, the initial plan was also for Jimmy to turn into Saul Goodman before the end of that first year. As the creative team fell in love with Jimmy McGill, Nacho became an early storytelling casualty, disappearing from most of the season’s second half before he and Mike briefly crossed paths in “Pimento.”
But Gould and everyone else liked Michael Mando’s work, for obvious reasons, and they clearly liked having someone on the cartel end of things who didn’t fit neatly into the franchise’s pre-existing archetypes. Nacho started out as Tuco’s sidekick, but he was never as volatile as Tuco, nor did he have the swagger of any of the Salamancas. There was an understated certainty similar to Mike’s — it’s one of the reasons the two of them got along so well, and why Mike has been willing to stick his neck out for the kid(*) — but Nacho has generally come across as a scrapper more eager to get out of other people’s messes than to seek power for himself.
(*) On a show where Odenkirk, Banks, Esposito, and others are 15 years older than when we met them on Breaking Bad but playing around 20 years younger than they currently are, Mike treating Nacho (played by an actor on the verge of turning 41) like a young adult sticks out less than it would on a show where the ages weren’t so visibly weird.
He’s been a fun and fascinating character to watch for five-plus seasons, even if he’s not at all what was planned at the start. He started interacting a lot with Mike, Hector, Lalo, and eventually Gus, and never really made his way back to Jimmy (other than some brief interactions last season when Lalo needed a defense attorney). So why, a few years after the events of this episode, will Saul Goodman drop Nacho’s given name while fearing he is on the verge of being murdered? Maybe because Saul knows that Ignacio Varga is long ago dead and buried, and thus the perfect scapegoat for any perceived offenses?
Nacho’s story comes to a tragic, powerful, and ultimately fitting end in “Rock and Hard Place.” Having escaped the Cousins in the motel parking lot shootout, he continues to elude them by demonstrating the ability to hold his breath while submerged in a pool of oil at the bottom of an abandoned tanker truck. (Nacho is not as clever or talented as some, but he has all the willpower you could want.) He understands, though, that he has earned himself a reprieve and not a commutation of the death sentence Gus arranged for him. After a final, painfully muted phone call with Mr. Varga — the father oblivious that this will be their final conversation, the son unable to think of anything else — he calls Mike and offers a deal: He will sell whatever story Gus wants, then die, so long as his dad is left out of this ugly business. Gus and Mike are at extreme loggerheads on everything — Tyrus is literally holding a gun on Mike when he takes Nacho’s call, just to ensure Mike’s affection for Ignacio doesn’t interfere with the boss’ plans — but it’s an acceptable compromise. Mike has Nacho smuggled over the border, lets him enjoy a final meal — and a final drink to take some of the sting out of the beating he has to deliver to make the whole scam look real — and talks him through exactly 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, but otherwise goes along. 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 blows his own brains out before the Cousins or anyone else is able to wound him and set him up for torture. (For that matter, he spares Mike the sniper from the unfortunate task of having to kill him.) The Cousins help Hector riddle his corpse with bullets afterwards, but a dead man can’t be hurt anymore.
It’s one hell of a farewell scene, and an entire episode that serves as a reminder of why the show worked so hard to keep Nacho in play even when there didn’t seem to be any necessary plot function for him. Mando is fantastic throughout — so tired, so defeated, and yet so insistent about ending things on something resembling his own terms if he can. It is a tour de force, particularly the phone call sequence and Nacho staring down the Salamancas for the last time.
As Saul plots go — especially compared to last week’s convolutions with duplicate safes and whatnot — it’s incredibly straightforward. (The messiest aspect is mainly how Gus will repair things between him and Mike after the Tyrus gunpoint incident.) But the emotions of Gordon Smith’s script and direction are so potent that twists and turns feel beside the point, even as Nacho’s impending death takes up the bulk of the hour.
The rest of it advances Kim and Jimmy’s scam against Howard slightly — this time with a jaunty, classical music-scored caper where Huell and a friend copy the keys to the Namaste Mobile while Howard is out to lunch — and finally gives Kim some pause regarding Jimmy’s brief “friend of the cartel” phase. Thanks to Jimmy’s verbal slip last week, Suzanne Ericsen from the DA’s office is dismayed to realize they had Lalo Salamanca in custody and let him get out on bail (even multimillion-dollar bail) because he was using a fake name. She attempts to get to Lalo’s attorney through the allegedly more respectable Kim, suggesting that if Jimmy was also fooled by the “Jorge De Guzman” alias, then he has the right to waive attorney-client privilege and tell the authorities everything he knows. Kim responds to the news with shock, but not the kind Suzanne assumes. Kim is mainly startled to be reminded of that whole dangerous escapade, since she has thrown herself so thoroughly into the Howard sting. Whether or not she rushed into such a sketchy idea in response to the trauma of being threatened by Lalo, she was able to put that all out of her mind, until Suzanne brings it rushing back. And she ultimately frames Suzanne’s offer to Jimmy in a way that could make it easy for him to say no: “Do you want to be a friend of the cartel, or do you want to be a rat?”
Earlier, while Jimmy is paying off Huell and his accomplice, our favorite pickpocket asks Jimmy why he is continuing to do criminal stuff like this now that he has a successful and legitimate life as an attorney. Jimmy borrows Kim’s line about how they will be doing a lot of good for a lot of people: both the Sandpiper victims who might not live to see the class action play out at normal speed, and the potential future clients of Kim’s pro bono defense firm. But you can see that even Jimmy has lost sight of that a bit — that, as always, he is caught up in the game itself, and not really thinking about the potential damage he could cause to himself or others.
It’s a much more cavalier attitude than Jimmy’s occasional associate Nacho Varga was allowed to have over the years. Nacho and Jimmy didn’t get to interact as much as anyone had planned, but you have to think that the scrapping, hustling part of Nacho would be impressed — or, at least, ruefully amused — to know that Saul Goodman was invoking his name to get out of unexpected trouble years later. This obviously was never the plan for Nacho, but he long ago learned what happens to men who try to plan anything.