This Better Call Saul review contains spoilers.
Better Call Saul Season 6 Episode 3
The ballad of Nacho Varga ended not with a whimper, but with a defiant, indignant bang. Ever since Michael Mando’s Nacho graced our screens in the second episode of Better Call Saul, the character has always had a doomed quality about him that has felt more and more inevitable as time went on. Part of that feeling was due to the character’s solemnity for such a young guy, the way that he always dressed well, yet had a somewhat ghastly appearance, and how he rarely talked in a voice that registered above a whisper. There’s also Nacho’s dangerous profession and the company he kept. But mostly, it came back to the same question: How could Nacho survive the events of Better Call Saul if he never appeared or got more than a passing mention in Breaking Bad?
It turns out that our sinking suspicions about Nacho’s fate were correct: Nacho bites the dust in “Rock and Hard Place,” but like Walter White, he goes out his own way, on his own terms, with his dignity intact. It’s more than most in this universe can say. While the character certainly could have been given more screen time throughout the course of the show, his shifting loyalties, personal sense of ethics, and dedication to his family made him an interesting counterpoint to Jimmy. His relationship with Mike also makes him somewhat a mirror image to Jesse Pinkman, and now seeing how the arc of their relationship ended, deepens Mike’s stewardship of Jesse. I’m sad to say goodbye, but it was a proper ending for this tragic figure.
Nacho’s final hours dominate the majority of “Rock and Hard Place,” but the material is so tense and compelling that it never feels like we’re being cheated out of time with Jimmy and Kim’s evolving con on Howard Hamlin, which was arguably the stronger storyline in the season’s first two episodes. We begin in the immediate aftermath of Nacho’s shootout with the twins, as he travels down the road and decides to hide in an abandoned oil tanker. At first, Nacho’s decision to hide in the obvious landmark in an otherwise empty field doesn’t appear to be the smartest decision, but he uses what remains of the oil as a hiding spot and is able to evade the twins and Juan Bolsa’s men.
Eventually, the road leads Nacho to an auto body shop, where the kind proprietor offers Nacho a way to clean himself off, some fresh clothes, and a phone. Nacho calls his father to ensure that Gus or the cartel haven’t gone after his family to coax him out of hiding. When he hears his father’s voice on the other end of the phone, you can almost see the rush of relief. Mando has always played Nacho with an understated iciness, and that approach ultimately makes this scene that much more powerful. The simultaneous happiness and fear that Nacho feels is palpable. After hanging up with his father, he then calls Mike and demands to talk to Gus.
Nacho knows that Gus needs him dead. He’s aware that the Salamancas will torture him for information and likely will not accept any confession but one that implicates Gus. He also doesn’t trust Gus and knows that if he sells Gus out, his father and family will be in danger. Nacho decides to give himself to Gus in exchange for his father’s safety, but due to the lack of trust, he makes Mike promise to protect his father. It’s obvious that both Mike and Nacho have a code of ethics that they do not cross, and Mike honors Nacho’s last wish.
The plan is to make it look like Gus and his men have brought Nacho in after a struggle. Nacho is to implicate Alvarez and the competing Peruvian crew in the hit on Lalo’s compound, then immediately try to run away, where Tyrus will execute Nacho with a few quick shots. When the moment arises, Nacho’s anger and resentment toward the Salamancas comes bubbling to the surface. The scene recalls Walt’s phone call to Skyler in “Ozymandias,” in that it is mostly a performance to convince the Salamancas and Juan Bolsa that he’s being truthful, but there’s also a layer of truth coming out as well.
Nacho takes glee in the death of Lalo, calling the entire Salamanca family psychos and wishing that he was able to kill Lalo with his own hands. If that’s not enough, he also finally takes credit for Hector’s health issues that have left him nonverbal, as the ultimate middle finger. Using glass from his last meal with Mike, he then takes Juan Bolsa hostage, but before anyone can take any action, he turns his gun on himself, committing suicide. It’s an immensely powerful scene and an honorable ending for this double agent.
Meanwhile, Jimmy and Kim continue their Howard con with the help of an old friend, Huell. It’s unclear now what the pair have planned for Howard, but using a valet scam, Huell is able to make a copy of Howard’s car key undetected. The heat remains on Howard, but it also is back on Jimmy too.
Assistant District Attorney Suzanne Ericsen comes to Kim in an effort to appeal to Jimmy’s reasonable better half. After last week’s questions about “Jorge de Guzman” and Jimmy’s Lalo slip of the tongue, Ericsen determines that Guzman and Lalo are the same person. Given Jimmy’s history representing Nacho, a known dealer, and Tuco Salamanca, another member of the infamous cartel family, it appears that Jimmy is officially working as an attorney of the cartel. However, if Jimmy really was working with Lalo under false pretenses, then attorney-client privileges no longer apply, and Jimmy can help the DA’s office on some cartel-related cases.
Jimmy is essentially given the option of being a friend to the cartel, or a rat, in a classic Lose-Lose scenario. There’s danger inherent in both choices, but Kim and Jimmy’s relationship only seems to be functioning under “audacious” circumstances at the moment, so it seems unlikely that Jimmy will roll on the cartel. Ericsen tries to make the appeal that Jimmy is a lawyer, a human being, and knows what’s right, and while that is all true, we also know that Saul Goodman usually takes the path of least resistance, and if there’s money on that path, even better.
“Rock and Hard Place” is an immaculate episode of Better Call Saul, perhaps even an instant classic. Writer/director Gordon Smith expertly uses shadow and lightning throughout the episode to juxtapose Gus and Mike and add a cloud of impending doom to Nacho. It’s also interesting to see another episode in which past decisions or mistakes come back in to play so heavily, like Jimmy’s initial work with Nacho and Tuco and Nacho’s plan to swap Hector’s heart medicine. It appears that in our final stretch, anything can and will come back to aid or haunt or characters.