Better Call Saul Post-Mortem: Michael Mando on “Gloves Off”

After the explosive events of tonight’s Better Call Saul, we dig in deep about what went down with actor Michael Mando.

Note: This interview contains Better Call Saul spoilers for “Gloves Off.”

Better Call Saul has done a good job of proving its independence during the beginning of sophomore season. The spinoff is rising from the shadow of the behemoth, Breaking Bad, by presenting its own distinct story of corruption in a patient style.   

Tonight’s episode, “Gloves Off,” was arguably the season’s strongest entry. We saw Mike and Nacho fostering a deal that takes them both to some reasonably dark places. We spoke with Michael Mando (Nacho) about what’s going through Nacho’s head right now, the continual parallels that the show brings up between him and Jimmy, and that bloody, painful conclusion to the episode. 

DEN OF GEEK: Mike has no doubt turned into one of the most beloved characters from out of the Breaking Bad universe, you must have been happy to finally get a solo story with him. 

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MICHAEL MANDO: I was happy to work with Jonathan Banks, who’s an actor who I respect very much. I learn so much from him every day, and I am very grateful to be working with, for sure.

Your story here does some really amazing stuff because there’s some pathetic fallacy involved where if you’ve seen Breaking Bad you know that Mike doesn’t pull off this hit, and yet it’s still a thoroughly engrossing and suspenseful mission.

When we found out that we were doing a prequel, I think one of the major questions is, “Well we know what’s going to happen, so why should we watch it?” What we quickly realized though is that this stimulated our brains even more because we were asking ourselves, “Well, how does he get there?” And I think it’s kind of that amazing thing of like when you’re watching a biography. We all know what the finished result is, but what it is that gets us there—I don’t know want to say is more interesting—but is definitely just as interesting.

It involves all of our senses and it forces us to imagine all of the possibilities from beat to beat, and then realizing the beat that is chosen, and remembering all of that moving forward. In this case, if anything it stimulates us more. If we knew that there’s a possibility that Tuco gets killed we wouldn’t be thinking of all these other things. So I think that makes it more exciting in a strange way.

Nacho’s decision to take out Tuco is a big power play for him. It permanently changes their relationship moving forward from that point. Is it exciting to have crossed that line between them now?

I think Nacho’s arc is very much a coming of age arc. Here’s a guy who does not have the cartel bloodline. He’s someone who’s been an outcast his whole life. And no matter how hard, or how well he performs as a lieutenant, he’s not getting bumped up. Meanwhile the people in charge are making very rash, very hasty decisions that are not profitable business-wise. Those people are risking everyone’s lives. In the case of Doug Paulson, someone gets their brains blown out after an exchange of a few words and completely messes up a business deal. In the case of Jimmy and the skater twins, it’s a case of something that could have put all of them in jail for a very long time but Nacho gets them out of it. 

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Now, Nacho finds himself at a point where he realizes, look: I probably will end up dead by Tuco, whether it’s accidentally by Tuco doing something harsh, or Tuco doing something that will get us put in jail for life. Worse than that, I could put my family in jeopardy. Finally, there’s this ambition in him that we haven’t really tapped into yet. Here’s this peasant that wants to be a king. He has the desire to take the hard work that his father has done and go beyond that. So it’s definitely the story of someone who realizes they need to take control of their own life.

On the other side of things, This episode is kind of a gold mine for Breaking Bad cameos between Jim Beaver’s gun dealer and even Krazy-8 and Tuco returning. The earlier episodes in the season have also been kind of indulgent in this area. You mentioned before getting a kick out of these Easter eggs, but has it been fun seeing the show really embrace it this season and show how small these worlds are? 

Absolutely. I think part of what made Breaking Bad so great was the involvement of Raymond Cruz, and Max–who plays Krazy-8–I mean these guys are all apart of the mythology of the show. They’re the walls. They’re part of the walls that makes Breaking Bad such an amazing experience. And having them come back is just as exciting as doing a prequel. I have to say, Raymond, Max, and I are all really good friends, so it was just a blast to have them on. I hope we get to see more of them. I mean, this is a prequel. It would be completely illogical to not see some of these people. Albuquerque is a very small city. If you and I decided to go out to dinner tonight, we would bump into at least one of the same people. 

The gun dealer’s a good example. Albuquerque is only so big that it makes sense that Walter and Mike would end up calling upon the same person, especially since they’re both perfectionists. This episode also really wisely shows Walter and Chuck at their worst in their relationship, just as Nacho and Tuco are kind of going through the same thing. Playing these two relationships parallel to each other works really well as you see these “Brothers at War” on both sides. It’s one of the stronger episodes thematically.

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are amongst the best minds in the business. They write such amazing, three-dimensional characters, and Gordon Smith did such an amazing job to pick the main thematic elements to play with each character. And you’re right, that’s a great example of two complete different worlds that have the same themes and internal struggles going on within them. 

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Even later on, Chuck almost has his own “Breaking Bad” Jimmy moment where you can tell that he wants to tell Jimmy to quit, but won’t submit to his urges like Jimmy does. Nacho’s story is all about the same sort of thing; finally giving into temptation.

Yeah, I think there are a lot of parallels between Nacho and Jimmy. Nacho is one of the first people to recognize “Saul Goodman” to the extent that we know him in Breaking Bad. He’s the first one to spot that. And I think the reason is that there’s a lot of Jimmy that Nacho can relate to. I think they’re both like the kids in the sandbox that no one’s playing with. No one’s playing with Jimmy because their parents told them that Jimmy’s not good enough. And no one’s playing with Nacho because their parents simply told them not to. And you have these two guys who both want to be kings and want to feel self-worth. And the confinement of their existences have been controlled in such a way that they need to find another way in. 

At this moment in the season, what do you think Nacho wants? If he had killed Tuco, would he want to be the one in charge after that? Would he want another boss, but just someone more stable? Would this be his opportunity to get out? What do you think? 

Look, there’s only three ways out for Nacho. 1. He tries to get out and is killed by the Cartel. 2. That he just remains quiet and lets Tuco do his thing, which could lead to him getting sent to jail or possibly killed because Tuco keeps doing very irrational things as well as more meth, and 3. He says to himself, “I want to make something out of myself. I deserve to make something out of myself. It’s my ambition. It’s my birthright, and I will do what I can morally to make that happen.” And I think at this point he realizes that Tuco’s got to go. He’s not a good leader. He’s putting my life, and everyone’s lives, in jeopardy. So I think Nacho’s transitioning and starting to realize that the only way he can survive is if he’s in charge.

That’s really interesting. That he almost doesn’t want this responsibility but needs to take it on, otherwise he’s going to die.

It’s very complex and so much fun to play.

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Better Call Saul’s second season continues to air on AMC on Sundays at 10 p.m.