Better Call Saul
It’s hard to identify the exact point when Nacho realizes he’s meant to die — that it’s an absolute certainty, part of the plan — but it’s before “Rock and Hard Place” begins, perhaps at the motel where he’s being monitored. Watching him fight for survival throughout the episode turns poignant, then, both because it’s important to him to set the terms of his own death and because of his regrets over the short life he’s chosen to lead. Movies and television don’t often give us the stories of henchmen like Nacho, who are usually the disposable minions of more charismatic heels, and truth be told, his stoicism has made him a less accessible character than the other comparable players during his run on Better Call Saul. He was an extremely capable drug dealer who got himself into a spot and now can’t get out of it. And it humanizes him.
“Today, you are going to die,” says Juan Bolsa to Nacho. “But there are good deaths, and there are bad deaths.” Nacho would agree with that statement, but their ideas of what constitutes a “good death” differ, and it’s important to Nacho that he depart on his own terms rather than the ones set by Gus or the Salamancas. And that’s the “rock and hard place” of the episode title: Nacho was sent to Mexico to carry out a hit on Lalo, but he could never be allowed to live no matter what happened in the operation. The Salamancas obviously want to kill anyone responsible for Lalo’s murder (or attempted murder), but Gus cannot allow Nacho to get captured and reveal he ordered the hit. Though little else unfolds how Gus scripted it — most conspicuously, Lalo lives — the way Nacho goes out does more or less follow the plan. If he’s the one to deliver this traitor to the Salamancas and offer a false confession, then the whiff of betrayal is off Gus for now.
None of these monsters deserves the courtesy, but Nacho makes the simple calculation that he has one playable card in his dwindled hand, which is to save his father from the forces that have engulfed him. What stands out in this moving episode are the extensions of kindness and connection that greet this condemned man as he stares into the abyss. It starts with a mechanic at a service station who has every reason to fear and reject the stranger hosing oil off his body but instead offers him a rag to clean himself up and a phone to use free of charge. This leads to a devastating scene in which Nacho calls his father just to hear his voice, even if all he gets back is a familiar, scolding speech about how he needs to go to the police. (That last, tender “Adiós, hijo” hits particularly hard.)
Once Nacho gets smuggled back to the States, he’s a death-row inmate, getting his final meal in a carryout box with plastic silverware before Mike, his jailer and chaplain rolled into one, escorts him to the chamber. Mike is not a sentimentalist by any measure — when Nacho angrily accuses him of knowing he was sent to Mexico to die, Mike gruffly responds, “Not my call” — but he does have a lingering sense of honor and human dignity that separates him from Gus, who could have Nacho’s father killed and not lose a wink of sleep over it. When the order comes down that Nacho looks “too pretty,” it’s Mike who takes responsibility to rough him up, but not before sharing some liquor first. And when Mike is dropped off at a sniper’s nest above the meeting place where Nacho is to be delivered to the Salamancas, the two have an extended moment of acknowledgment together. Mike is the last sympathetic face he’ll ever see.
Last week, a hairline crack started to develop in the relationship between Jimmy and Kim over their treatment of Kettlemans. Jimmy, the carrot, wanted to give them financial incentives for moving forward on their scheme to paint Howard as an addled coke fiend. Kim, the stick, threatens to expose them for running a phony, exploitative tax-preparer operation. She’s Mike to Jimmy’s Gus: It matters to her more that the little guy is getting ripped off, and she’s going to get aggressive about seeking justice regardless of whether it affects their plans for Howard or not. Kim usually leaps to Jimmy’s defense at every opportunity, but in “Rock and Hard Place,” she listens intently when a prosecutor, Suzanne, asks her to convince Jimmy to break his lawyer-client privilege from Lalo and talk about his associates in the area.
Later, Kim poses Jimmy’s dilemma to him: “Do you want to be a friend of the cartel, or do you want to be a rat?” She tells him he should do whatever he wants, but Jimmy is the guy who did take cartel money in the first place and did not know that Jorge de Guzmán was a made-up guy with a made-up family. He’s not going to help the authorities, but Kim clearly wishes he would. Saul Goodman can pretend to be a man of the people and still take Lalo Salamanca’s money, but is Jimmy all the way there yet? And once Saul Goodman stops being a role he’s playing, what will be left of the Jimmy who Kim cares about?
We can guess Kim will find out the answers to those questions and not like what she hears. For now, though, we have to wait in agonizing anticipation for that shoe to drop.
• Some really subtle work with time in this episode, starting with the opening sequence, a long shot in which the camera maneuvers around the desert brush as a storm approaches before setting first on a blue flower then on a piece of broken glass as it’s pelted with rainwater. Later we learn that’s the spot where Nacho has died, and life has bloomed in his place. There’s also a little trickery in looping back to a scene between Gus and Mike where Nacho is on the other end. We finally hear Nacho’s part of that conversation.
• Nacho’s head emerging from the oil sludge seems to be a visual reference to one of the most famous shots of Apocalypse Now, when Martin Sheen’s Willard pokes up from the water with his face camouflaged. In both cases, the men know that their fate is sealed. “This is the end / My only friend, the end.”
• Jimmy’s moral equivocation is well demonstrated by a brief conversation with Huell, who wonders why he and Kim, two legit lawyers, are getting themselves involved in shenanigans like boosting Howard’s car. “A couple months from now,” Jimmy replies, “there are people whose lives are going to be way better because of this.”
• Nacho’s last words to the Salamancas recall the scene in True Romance in which Dennis Hopper, realizing he’s about to be killed, loosens his tongue for a nasty, racially loaded monologue aimed at his attackers. “Alvarez has been paying me for years, but you know what?” Nacho says. “I would have done it for free because I hate every last one of you psycho sacks of shit.” Here’s to going out with a bang.