4 out of 5 stars

Nacho (Michael Mando) was one of Better Call Saul’s original characters, in a show where the ensemble quickly grew to encompass many Breaking Bad favourites to explain their backstories. After the death of Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) brother Chuck a few seasons ago, Nacho Vargas became one of only two significant characters on the series alongside Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), but it’s always felt like he’s been living on borrowed time. As mentioned last week, Nacho wasn’t a part of Breaking Bad and he’s danced close to the fire for a long time on this show, so it was somewhat inevitable he would meet his maker… sooner or later. I just didn’t expect it to be only three episodes into the final season.

“Rock and Hard Place” primarily concerned Nacho’s difficulty escaping the vengeful Salamanca crime family, with the Cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada) chasing him across Mexico as he tries to get across the border to relative safety. The episode, written and directed by Gordon Smith, continued last week’s tension of seeing Nacho go to extraordinary lengths to stay alive, including hiding inside an abandoned oil tanker he discovers in a field. The sequence where Nacho submerged himself in the black gooey remnants inside, blind and holding his breath for as long as possible beneath the stinking oil, with the Cousins dangerously close to finding him, was another masterclass of visual storytelling. The great joy of Better Call Saul has always been how it takes it time over things, so you really get into the headspace of the characters and understand everything that’s going on even without dialogue.

I also enjoyed the reveal that these early scenes had happened before the phone call Nacho was heard making to Mike (Jonathan Banks) in “Carrot and Stick” last week. And when the deal Nacho makes with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) was revealed it made perfect sense: in exchange for safe passage back to the US and the guaranteed protection of his beloved father Manuel (Juan Carlos Cantu), Nacho will agree to convince the Salamanca’s that Gus had nothing to do with the attack on Lalo’s homestead, by implicating another rival drug family instead. And while doing this will still result in Nacho’s torture and death for the role he played in events, Gus agrees to have mercy and will have his man Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) shoot Nacho dead after he tries to escape during the handover.

Of course, things go exactly to plan, but intentionally so, as Nacho can’t trust Gus to keep his side of the agreement. So when the exchange went ahead out in the desert, Nacho relished the opportunity to make his true feelings about Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) known to his face, including revealing he was responsible for switching his medication and paralysing him. And when he slipped his bonds, before Victor could act it was Nacho who took his own life, ending things on his terms and saving his father in the process. (One presumes Mike will ensure Manuel isn’t victimised by the Salamanca’s as a way to honour Nacho, whom he formed a bond with in a similar manner to Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.)

Michael Mando has been an unsung gem of Better Call Saul and a character that, rather like Jesse, perhaps wasn’t intended to be so prominent when the show started. But Nacho’s sly charm, sex appeal, and the deepening of his character has been one of the better parts of the show, as Nacho started off as a glorified henchman for Hector Salamanca and later found himself torn between Gus (the rock) and Hector (the hard place). This culmination of his character arc was beautifully handled, although not quite as emotional as similar shocks in in Breaking Bad. Maybe because it’s always felt more inevitable Nacho wouldn’t get a happy ending. And as Mando has mentioned during interviews since this episode aired, his final scene was particularly chilling because every other character there dies during the course of Breaking Bad, so it’s almost like Nacho is the first domino to fall. (Hmmm, maybe that scene with the hooker at Nacho’s apartment playing dominoes was supposed to symbolise the repercussions the final season will have on Breaking Bad?)

The storyline for Saul and Kim was greatly reduced this week because Nacho was the clear focus, although we did get some development with their plan to ruin Howard Hamlin’s (Patrick Fabian) reputation and force a resolution of the Sandpiper case. The next step in their plan involves obtaining duplicates of Howard’s vanity car license plates, plus his car key and keyless entry system, but it’s unclear what their intention is right now. We also saw Suzanne Ericsen (Julie Pearl) connect the dots that Lalo Salamanca, a notorious cartel criminal, was the man Saul represented in court and had released on bail under a different name. And while she now strongly suspects Saul is now dirty and knew what was going on, Kim still has a veneer of respectability and so Suzanne wants her to convince her boyfriend to inform on the Salamanca’s.

I must admit it remains strange to me that, in the last season, we’re already three episodes in and Saul is this detached from the bigger and more exciting things happening elsewhere. However, seasons of Better Call Saul have a tendency for things to coalesce later on in unexpected ways, so I’m not worried just yet. Although there is perhaps a problem the writers have with the show’s ending, in the sense Saul exists in Breaking Bad and was introduced as a contented lawyer doing dirty work to make money. This show can’t upend that fact, so the only question is whether or not Saul was hiding a heartbreak over losing Kim back when we first met him. And the question about Kim’s absence in Breaking Bad has been asked for years, only now the death of Nacho makes me think they won’t have her meet a similar fate.

So maybe it’s a straightforward romantic breakup that’ll be the big emotional moment for Saul here? Unless they end the show’s narrative early and spend the last few episodes in the post-Breaking Bad era we’ve only seen in flash-forwards occasionally, with fugitive Saul’s new identity getting blown and him having to pay the price for everything he did in both the shows? That’s where my money is, anyway.

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