Better Call Saul “Rock and Hard Place” (S6E03)

Ignacio Varga has been ducking and weaving and running from the overbearing blowback of his decisions on Better Call Saul for the better part of its run, having drawn the attention of the illegal drug trade’s most powerful, ruthless players. It’s a dangerous predicament Nacho got himself into a long time ago but one he has moved heaven and earth to escape out from under. On the game’s board, Nacho has proven capable to maneuver (or a lack for better term; survive) between encounters with Tuco, Hector, Gus, Juan, Tyrus, Victor, the Salamanca twins, Lalo, and Don Eladio.  All of whom in one way or another have served as an obstacle. Nacho has run from the consequences of his own choices that lead him here for so long now to the point where his choices were no longer his own. Perhaps there was hope with the original plan to lam it to Canada under a new identity, when the opportunity presented itself. But what’s the point if his father declines to come along?

Anyone in Nacho’s shoes could easily have died a long time ago and while Nacho has made poor decisions to get him where he is, he’s still no chump. He’s smart, cunning and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the bottom line is met, being his father’s protector. If there was ever an epiphany to take place during this episode, it’s when he retreated to the oil tank and submerged himself in oil to hide from the Salamanca twins. The extraordinary lengths he takes to evade capture is impeccable, but at what cost? If Nacho wants, he can play the bottom-dwelling oil monster for the rest of his life, as conveyed brilliantly by the overhead shot of the oil tanker rotating like a clock’s rotating hand through the use of timelapse. He can join the sewer people or become a runaway in the circus. At the end of the day though, who is he truly when there’s no accountability to be taken? The image of him covered completely in black is almost reminiscent of ink penned by the show’s writers. The script of Nacho’s life has been written for so long, but up until now Nacho has refused to follow it and take charge of who he is, leaving him to be a strange, unrecognizable creature.

Even if he’s successful in preserving his own extended time on Earth, there’s never any assurance that his father will be okay if he doesn’t meet the demands of the more powerful players. And even then, he will always have to spend his life looking over his shoulder. The Salamancas will never be satisfied until they torture answers out of him. Gus will never be satisfied with a loose end roaming free. After cleaning himself up and being taken in by the good samaritan (faith in humanity isn’t all lost), he calls his father to hear his voice once more. Michael Mando plays every beat of this moment with such emotional defeat and unreserved fondness for his dad, all the while swimming in self-reflection. Manuel may stand firm on his unfavorable stance for Nacho to go to the police and that there’s no further discussion of what Nacho has to do beyond that, but it all comes from an undeniably loving and caring place. Nacho knows the police won’t solve his problem, but there is advice to be heard in what the police stand for. It’s the notion of owning up to your mistakes in the effort to take control of the problem. Dictating terms with the belly of the beast is Nacho’s best option. He was never a law-abiding citizen, but a criminal who got caught up in the world he’s always known. Pretending otherwise is only another form of running and hiding.

When Nacho calls Mike, he’s no longer in “yes sir, no sir” mode. He rightfully calls Mike out for going along with setting him up for certain death at the motel and demands to speak to Gus. Nacho knows that Gus is compelled to have Nacho killed or else it only leaves Gus prone to exposure after the Lalo hit which Nacho assumes went accordingly. When Nacho calls the situation for what it is and how screwed Gus is if Nacho lives, you can see Gus wants to argue, but can’t find the defense. Nacho’s in control and uses this upperhand as leverage to protect his father with the promise that he’ll make the story go in any direction Gus wants. He also undercuts Gus trying to dictate terms with his father’s survival by using his allied history with Mike as an emotionally unveiled proponent. Mike cares for Nacho and has been an advocate for his father’s survival ever since Nacho revealed that Gus was holding a figurative gun to his father’s head.  When Mike proposes that “anyone who goes after him, we’ll have to come through me”, Nacho trusts his word as his bond.  It’s the only word that matters to him as his trust in Mike is more abundant than his fear from Gus.

There’s is an outpouring sense of peace as Nacho delivers himself to the Chicken Man. When eating his last meal, Mike doesn’t seem to be watching him out of fear he’ll flee, but out of awe, respect, and concern. It upsets Mike when Victor comes marching down the stairs to report that the boss thinks Nacho isn’t bloodied up enough. The mental and physical hoops that Nacho has been through is admirable, so it’s insulting when even after accepting his death and playing the game as promised, he’s still subjected to bullshit. The smirk Victor expresses when Mike tells him he’ll handle Nacho’s bruises is enough to contrast how much less respectable Gus’ company is to a man like Ignacio Varga. Nacho is no stranger to making Gus’ narrative come off as real as possible, so he’s unfazed. When Mike pours two drinks, it’s not just a moment of making it easier for Nacho and treating him like a human being, but Mike is indulging in his own vice when faced with a soul-shattering conflict. He doesn’t clink his glass with Nacho, even when Nacho raises because this is not a celebratory moment. Mike can barely muster up respect for himself in this scenario, let alone match the respect he has for Nacho.

Mike is loyal enough to follow Gus’ orders, but he’s off-balance throughout the hour. When Nacho and Mike wait in the chicken farm break room, he’s staring into space. Not in a stoic, ‘on-call’ manner, but just plain daydreaming. When Gus enters the room, he’s startled by the door opening. Mike is rattled because Nacho, in many ways, is another son to him. Another son with admirable standards who he can’t save and who now sees Mike to be just as much a scumbag (who goes along to get along) as the company Gus keeps, even when Nacho still trusts and respects him back. Gus on the other hand, still feels cold and calculative when wanting to know what Nacho plans are when questioned who’s he’s working for by Juan and the Salamancas. Nacho tells him, as promised, that he’ll pin his actions under the orders ofa  man named Alvarez and a Peru gang, Los Odios. When Gus and Mike exit, Nacho looks into the broken glass to see multiple reflections of himself. There’s many interpretations to be made here, but one might read it as Nacho realizing that the outcome of his promise may stay true, but how he fulfills that promise is completely in his own control. Ignacio is a multi-faceted character who can go out any way he wishes. His last task when looking in that glass is to figure how to do so without compromising his father’s rescue.

When it comes down to the final scene, it’s Nacho who is the star of the show, finally given a platform to use as he sees fit. Everyone in the desert expects Nacho to go out in protest but he takes this opportunity to make everyone else the ones who squirm. When dragging out his false confession as to who ordered the hit on Lalo, periodically looking in Gus’ direction, he’s reveling in Gus’ vulnerability in trusting the word of someone he treated like a dog for the better part of two seasons.  Not to mention, he gets to insult the Chicken Man as nobody more than a mere joke, all while owning his actions against the Salamancas as something he would have done for free outside of Alvarez’s or anyone’s orders. Nacho gets to reveal his true loathing for this family of Salamanca psychopaths with an absolutely menacing speech which makes everyone involved look like fools. The act of causing Hector’s stroke is the act that doomed Nacho to his fate, but he only ever did it to save his father when Hector thought it wise to force Manuel’s upholstery shop as a front and deemed him untrustworthy when Manuel wasn’t having it. Whether Nacho’s decision to swap Hector’s heart meds was the best choice or not, he owns it and rubs Hector’s face in it.

Nacho achieves the best of all worlds. He shakes everyone to their core when he breaks free from his zip-tie using a shard from the very glass Gus broke in the episode prior and gives Juan Bolsa a swift stab to the leg.  The ensuing chaos that is at stake when he holds Juan hostage is just as paramount as when Kim prevented Mike from having to assassinate Lalo on the North side of the border. By finally shooting himself rather than go forth with Mike’s plan of running away, Nacho gives nobody the satisfaction of putting him down, quick or otherwise. He fulfills his promise to Gus and then some, by doubling down on the story with such vitriol while marginalizing Gus in the process. Hector may hate Nacho in this moment, but he likely feels validation that Gus is made to look small, even if he knows the actual truth.

It’s not enough to stop Hector from taking free shots at his dead body, which is something Gus cannot bring himself to bear. In the end, I think he gained Gus’ respect beyond Gus saying so a couple of episodes back for the sake of talking down Mike’s desire to save him. Nacho died saving Gus which probably echoes how Max died with the same intent even if Nacho didn’t do so out of love. If Gus has any intention on selling the story that he was in no way involved with the attempt on Lalo’s life, he would have stuck around to save face, especailly after the physical scare Bolsa just experienced, but he immediately turns his back on all of them. This is a clear indication that Gus has been sideswiped by Nacho’s final actions. Not only does he respect him, but I think he’s now coming around to how short-sighted he was in how he treated him. Instead of instilling fear, he could have groomed Nacho as a trusted ally. In many ways, Nacho’s story is so much more legendary in how he conducted and composed himself than how Gus’ meticulous revenge plot on Hector can ever be. Gus can throw all the money he wants towards a super lab and go head-to-head with his cartel rivals, but it will never be as virtuous, nor as well-played in comparison to the lengths Nacho was subjected to or the odds which were stacked against him. Even Mike is too ashamed to keep his eye on the scope of the sniper rifle after what has happened.

From a conceptual standpoint, I don’t think Nacho was ever meant to escape. If the show is to remain true to its reputation as a bold, dramatic crime thriller, there’s no satisfying ending for a character so in over their head amidst a war between drug lords to the point where they still get to run and hide. If the show wanted, it could have given us shootout after shootout like what unfolded in the previous episode, but we already got our fill of that. We know Nacho is capable to endure, but the point of enduring is what matters most in which there was none. Nacho’s story has always been one of a character with limited to no choice who got to where he is based on who he is and what little choices he had. It was about coming to terms with that. Therefore, this is one of the more rewarding resolutions for Ignacio, proving as a whole to be one of the most deserving character additions across both universes. We’ve already seen the story of a beloved character escape against all odds so we can only be grateful Better Call Saul continues to surprise in the approximate fifteen year run of its universe.

Usually when characters in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul present a plan and follow through with that plan, it never goes fully according to plan. In “Rock and Hard Place”, the plan is Nacho dies. As longtime viewers of this universe, we await deaths for characters in penultimate episodes or finales. We’re conditioned by the seasonal structure across many of the most renowned dramas, so even the most skeptic viewer of Nacho about to sacrifice himself for the betterment of his father, knows it won’t happen in episode 3. After all, the quiet, understood nod between Mike and Nacho can be easily misconstrued as these characters have something up their sleeve. We’re even flashed the shard of glass in Nacho’s hand before Tyrus restrains him in the van, implying there may be a way he lives we haven’t considered. The way this show sets audiences up and knocks them down in the most unexpected way is impressively slick.

“I think the better word you’re looking for is audacious” – Kim/Jimmy

Whereas Nacho courageously meets the reckoning he brought upon himself, Kim and Jimmy seem to be repeating his mistakes by getting into deeper trouble with both eyes open. The only difference is Nacho made his choices under duress and desperation. They continually justify their plan to sabotage Howard with the sentiment that it will bring happiness to a lot of people and in the end, they’re doing the lord’s work. But couldn’t they leave happiness of others up to the universe and just hustle for money legitimately like they’re fully capable of doing? Nobody gets hurt? I suppose in that case, they wouldn’t have a fun heist to orchestrate with Huell and a key master tasked with replicating Howard’s car keys before the valet realizes they’re missing. This scene, masterfully directed by Gordon Smith as it intercuts between the valet’s descent down the stairs and the key master cutting a new copy, is thrilling to the point where it’s no wonder Jimmy and Kim can’t resist. It’s Huell who doesn’t understand why they do it though. For Huell, this is his trade. It’s who he is, but for Jimmy and Kim, why such duality between legitimate and illegitimate? Why lead a life of complete enigma where moral benefits are leaned on to excuse bad behavior when you can just call it for what it really is?

When Suzanne Erickson takes Kim aside down at the court house and blows Jimmy’s involvement with Lalo Salamanca wide open (most likely derived from Jimmy’s slip-up in the premiere), the moral hypocrisy for both Jimmy and Kim truly presents itself. The way Suzanne correctly retraces Jimmy’s history with the Salamanca associates is a fantastic display of continuity. After all, Suzanne’s season 2 introduction to the show was as Tuco’s prosecutor, in which Jimmy held a meeting with so Mike can take the heat for Tuco’s illegal gun charge. That’s enough for Suzanne to do a little digging and realize Jimmy has also represented Ignacio Varga earlier in the first season. Kim is wise to Suzanne as it sounds clear that she’s building a case against Jimmy. Suzanne counters that with an offer to help Jimmy as she believes his dealings with the Salamancas might not be sinister, but just Jimmy getting in over his head and possibly threatened. She promises Kim that there will be no blowback on Jimmy if he’s to help in the investigation as to why Salamanca’s associates are popping up all over Albuquerque, but Kim takes offense.

Back in season 4, when Suzanne was defending the plain clothes detective who was hit over the head with a bag of sandwiches by Huell, she referred to Jimmy as a scumbag lawyer who peddles drop-phones for criminals. Kim makes a fair point that Suzanne may not have Jimmy’s best interests in mind and that having Jimmy choose to rat out a client, even if deceased, is not a career move he should make. Lalo may be “dead” but fishing to see if Jimmy will take the bait as to how Lalo was so conveniently set free, is seen as a trap to Kim. Suzanne has good arguments though especially when stressing the severity of Lalo’s crime, having murdered a 22 year old kid. How can Kim justify sabotaging Howard because it’s doing the right thing in the end, when she actively turns a blind eye to a young man’s murder? She seems more preoccupied in defending the namesake of Saul than anything else. Can’t Kim just admit that her choices to hurt Howard are more selfishly cruel rather than selflessly noble?

What’s most interesting about Suzanne’s final summation of Jimmy is that despite the bad run-ins she’s had with him in the past, she believes that underneath all his showiness, he’s a lawyer and a human being who knows what’s right. Ever since the beginning of Better Call Saul, characters have called Jimmy out for how they see him and no matter how much he paddled against the current of the man they claim him to be, he becomes that man. Slippin’ Jimmy. The type of lawyer guilty people hire. Morally flexible. A chimp with a machine gun. Fold that all into one and you get Saul Goodman, who has now readily embraced every trait. But as we have seen so far this season, Jimmy is visibly conflicted with taking Howard down in the fashion they are going forward with. Even when he defended Lalo in court, he was completely beside himself. The way Jimmy handles moral conflict is he bottles it up and allows his soul to deteriorate. He doesn’t know any other way, but he certainly feels remorse before he swallows it. What if Suzanne is projecting Jimmy McGill’s redemption? What if there’s hope for Jimmy and she’s actually seeing the good in him and the potential for him to change, even if it takes place late into the Gene years?

Or is Kim the one who’s going to corrupt and snuff out any chance of redemption for Jimmy’s soul? When Jimmy comes home, she reveals the news of Lalo’s death which Jimmy has to pretend is a surprise to him. Kim has met an unusual adversary in Suzanne as for once it’s someone unattached from the McGill brother drama (which Howard falls under) who is actually speaking the truth of Jimmy’s predicament without ego or strong-arming Kim to think a certain way. She simply presents Kim with the facts and what’s right and gives Jimmy the benefit of the doubt on his character. Jimmy and Kim are left to really look at themselves and determine where their values lie. Should Jimmy be a rat on a deceased client or continue to be a friend of the cartel?

Back when Jimmy first disclosed his involvement on a cartel case, it was something Jimmy considered something he didn’t want to tell Kim but chose to anyway based on their marriage agreement. It took some wheels to turn in her head, but Kim begrudgingly accepted this. Then she was frightened for his life when he was about to embark on a trip to the border to retrieve Lalo’s bail money and rightfully so. After her fears of danger were confirmed, you’d think any further association with the cartel would be something to stray from, but perhaps it’s not so much a moral decision as it is a logical one. Who knows who Lalo’s associates are and if word got out that Saul ratted on one of their own, Kim and Jimmy would have to go on in life always looking over their shoulder. Ultimately the choice is up to Jimmy, but how much influence does Kim have on him? Look who they have become. Is it too late? It seems like Jimmy would love to relieve his conscience and bring closure to Fred Whalen’s grieving family, but being a rat? Either way, it’s a rock and a hard place and lets not forget Lalo lives.

Other things to note:

-The cold open is host to the most mysterious style of camerawork ever performed across both shows. If the universe had something to say, how can it tell you? The slow pullbacks, the deliberate stop and start of the camera’s panning as it changes directions is poetic and mesmerizing. The blue flower blooming in the dry desert terrain accompanied by rolling thunder and the pitter patter of rain on the shard of glass… If only we knew what happened here. Now that we do, it’s all the more beautiful. Perhaps there’s hope for all these characters no matter how bad things get. Even in death.

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