Better Call Saul Absolutely Breaks Great
Between A ‘Rock and Hard Place’, Nacho Still Triumphed
One week ago, in the midst of my review for the extraordinary Better Call Saul, I said that I cared what would happen to all the characters in this prequel series that didn’t make it to Breaking Bad. Last night in ‘Rock and Hard Place’, we got the answer to the final fate of one of those characters — and it was simultaneously heartbreaking, frightening and perfect.
Ever since Better Call Saul began, the series has focused on the life of Nacho Vargas, exquisitely played by Michael Mando. Nacho was a simple dealer in Albuquerque, who in Season 2 came to Mike with a problem — he wanted Mike (Jonathan Banks) to get rid of Tuco, the most hot-headed of the Salamanca clan. He knew what every viewer of Breaking Bad did –Tuco was psychotic and unhinged. Mike tried to ‘solve’ the problem, but Hector (Mark Margolis) aided by the Cousins managed to ‘persuade’ Mike to get the problem resolved. Nacho’s would only get worse.
For the next three seasons, despite everything he tried to get out of the mess he was, Nacho kept getting deeper. His plan to kill Hector by switching out his heart meds backfired when Gus Fring’s desire for a colder revenge led to him saving his life. Then he became a pawn in the fight between Gus and the cartel, eventually playing an increasingly dangerous game with Lalo that led to him being forced to go with him to Mexico to lead mercenaries into his compound — a mission that ended up killing everybody but Lalo.
If Nacho didn’t know he was a dead man walking from that point on, he sure as hell did the longer he stayed in a motel waiting for rescue that was never going to come. He managed to survive an assassination attempt by the Cousins but he knew it was a temporary escape at best. It was pretty clear early in last night’s episode when he called his father, unable to say the things he needed to because the man he’d done everything to keep out of this just couldn’t accept the path he had chosen.
Finally he called Mike and told Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) that he would do whatever he wanted as long as his father was protected. In the last half hour of the episode, Mike gently led Nacho through what was to come, giving him what we now know was a last meal, beating him up so that it would like Fring had tortured for information, going over his story one last time, including how he was going to die. Mike insisted on being there.
The final scene in ‘Rock and Hard Place’ is one of the great moments I’ve seen in TV this year. Set in the desert, I have no doubt that Gilligan and his writers were intending to set up a parallel to Hank Schrader’s death in ‘Ozymandias’, more than a decade ago in television time, three or four years in the future in the Breaking Bad-verse. And in a way Nacho managed to do something not even Hank was able to do: die on his own terms.
Told by the cartel boss that there are good deaths and bad deaths, he was given a choice. Nacho did his job and parroted the line that Fring had given him about being in the pocket of a Peruvian cartel. Then he went off script. Asked if Fring was responsible, he finally said what Nacho waited for his entire life to say: he told everybody what he really thought of them. He berated Gus Fring as ‘the Chicken Man’, saying he was too weak to do this. Then he told the Cousins and Hector that he would have done everything the Peruvians did: “for free…because I hated you psycho bastards!” Then he told Hector that he was the one who swapped out his pills and how pissed he was when he’d watched Gus save his life and that as long as Hector sat in his own shit, told him to think of him. Then he managed to grab the gun from the cartel boss — and shot himself in the head.
It wasn’t as defiant a message as Hank Schrader’s: “My name is ASAC Schrader and you can go f — — yourself” but considering the audience he was facing at the time of his time, it clearly was more unsettling. Gus Fring, renowned for being stoic in the face of violence — even his own death — walked away clearly shaken. Mike packed up the rifle he was carrying, looking like he might burst into tears. The Cousins looked utterly gobsmacked. And Hector was left in a statedof impotent fury, even as the Cousins carried him so he could empty his gun into a corpse. It was one of the most stunning deaths in the entire history of the Breaking Bad-verse, not because it was unexpected or violent (though I don’t know how much crap AMC will go through showing the bullet going through Nacho’s head) but because for one we knew was coming, the method was absolutely shocking. This is something unheard of almost in Peak TV, a pawn who spent the series maneuver by greater forces managing to take himself off the board before the kings can do it. Nacho got a good death even if it wasn’t how anyone watching would define it.
Though most of the episode was focused on Nacho and everything around him, ‘Rock and a Hard Place’ did find time to focus on the adventures of Jimmy/Saul. The plot to ensnare Howard continued, utilizing the skills of the very adept Huey (Lavell Crawford providing this episode with desperately needed levity) When he gave Jimmy the keys, Huey did something we wouldn’t expect. He reminded Jimmy he was a lawyer ‘mostly legit’, that his wife was a legit lawyer, and that both made good money. “Why this?” he asked. Jimmy went through his speech that this was for the greater good, something that Huey was buying. And when you can’t sell one of your lackeys on your good intentions, you’re really screwed.
Then Jimmy came home to Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and learned what she had spent this episode learning: Kim had been called aside by a friendly DA and learned the story of what the DA’s office and what they knew about Lalo Salamanca, that he was assumed dead, and that if Jimmy broke privilege, there might be a way out of the mess he was getting into. Now Kim, despite her plan for Howard, still has a moral compass. She gave the DA information that hurt her client in a case because it was the right thing to do. Just a few days ago, Lalo had a gun to her head. So when Jimmy asked her what he thought we should do, her answer was key: “Do you want to work for the cartel or be a rat?” Having been through Breaking Bad, we know very well the choice Saul Goodman ended up making. Was this the last turnoff before Jimmy passed the point of no turning back?
I would say that ‘Rock and Hard Place’ should be the episode for Emmy submissions this year for Better Call Saul, but we’re only three episodes into the season. I would say this is the greatest episode in series history, but as we know from Breaking Bad, Gilligan and his crew kept pushing the goal markers ahead with each season particular in the final episodes. But I think it’s safe to say this: Anybody out there who still thinks that Better Call Saul has moved too slowly at times, ‘Rock and Hard Place’ absolutely justifies it. If Gilligan, Gould and crew hadn’t measured everything involving Nacho, Gus Fring and the cartel at this deliberate pace, taking the time to show us how a basically good person like Nacho keeps getting deeper and deeper, last night’s episode would not nearly have had the same impact. Better Call Saul has firmly established that it deserves to dominate the Emmy this year. And if the Academy still thinks otherwise, well, to quote Walter White: tread lightly.
My score: 5 stars.