REVIEW: Better Call Saul – “Rock and Hard Place”

The following is a recap and review of the third episode of the sixth and final season of Better Call Saul, available on AMC in the U. S. and on Netflix internationally. Expect story spoilers.

In the third episode of the sixth season of Better Call Saul — titled Rock and Hard Place — Nacho (played by Michael Mando) makes a definitive decision about his future while he is on the run south of the border. Meanwhile, Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (played by Rhea Seehorn) try to gain access to Howard Hamlin’s car to further damage his reputation. Rock and Hard Place was written and directed by Gordon Smith, the writer-director behind such incredible episodes as Five-O; Chicanery; and others. I’ve been known to really praise his episodes, and, in a way, this episode rivals some of his best.

Let’s get the big headline from this episode out of the way early. This is a Nacho-spotlight episode, and, sadly as a result of the events of this episode, Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Varga is no more. All those years ago in Breaking Bad when his name was uttered by none other than Saul Goodman, it probably didn’t mean much. But now it does. He has been a highlight whenever he has appeared thanks to dedicated and sometimes nuanced work from Michael Mando, whose performance will echo into every subsequent rewatch of Breaking Bad. Saying goodbye to Nacho means that Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan can cross off one of the last major tasks that they had to complete. They had to explain why he doesn’t ever appear in Breaking Bad, and they’ve done exactly that.

You don’t know any of this when the episode begins, obviously. The beautiful cold open, which carries a lot of weight and meaning once you’ve completed the episode, shows the ground that Nacho died on. It is in the middle of the desert. A no man’s land. No one will ever find the body, surely. But here in all of this harshness is a glimmer of goodness and brightness. We have this beautiful blue or purple flower symbolizing both Nacho’s rebirth and the mark he left on the world. When everyone else is tripping over themselves to break bad, he actually decided to break good, to end the struggle, and to save his father once and for all. And best of all, he did it on his own terms.

Before I get back to that, I do have to talk about how he got there, though. After the shoot out from the previous episode, Nacho is driving a truck that is on the verge of being caught up to thanks to the holes in his tires. Eventually, he has to make a stop and decide whether or not to make a stand against the Salamanca cousins. He decides against that. Instead, he runs across a field, and hides in an abandoned oil tanker. It sounds insane and grueling, and it really is. It shows the determination that this character has to get back to safety, or really to get his father to safety. That is what he has to live for. Hearing the little air bubbles pop up out of the oil makes it especially tough to watch and wait for to be over. but he does successfully wait it out, and so the Salamanca cousins lose track of him.

Once he thinks it’s safe, he makes his way to a garage, where its owner is kind enough to let him drink from his water hose, to get some new clothes, and take a shower. He even gets to make a few phone calls. I think it is pretty clear that this hard-working individual in the middle of nowhere — but surrounded by dangerous criminals — reminded him a lot of his own father. In any case, he gets to have one last conversation with his father on the phone. Here Michael Mando is sensational. The pain on his face as he both wants and doesn’t want his father to ask to run away with him is just heartbreaking to see. He knows that he can’t get through to his father. He has tried before. He knows that he can’t open up to him. So he has to make peace with the fact that his father will never understand his life, and he counts on Mike to keep him safe, which is something he makes Mike swear to over his second phone call in which he makes an awfully sad deal: to keep his father safe, Nacho essentially agrees to be caught, to die, and to keep Gus’s secret. He’s going to meet his end, but first Mike has to get him out.

“Adios, papa.”

Mike’s men smuggle Nacho back into Albuquerque. Because of the deal, though, it is a very brief relief for Ignacio Varga. Sure, he gets a last meal and a drink, but he also has to be beaten up for it to be believable that he isn’t Gus’s hire. And Mike has to do the dirty work. He has to make it look real. For what it’s worth, I think Nacho is glad Mike is the one doing the job. He’s the only man in this dirty game that he trusts.

Gus meets with Nacho to make sure he’ll say exactly what he needs to say, and they agree to a plan for how he should die. He is to run away at the scene so that Victor can kill him. Because you just know that the Salamancas might want to torture more information out of him. Once Gus and Mike leave the room, Nacho spots the broken glass that Gus knocked over in the previous episode. That’s how he’s later able to get out of the zip ties.

“And you know what else, Hector? I put you in that chair. Oh yeah, your heart meds? I switched them for sugar pills. You were dead and buried, and I had to watch this asshole bring you back. So when you are sitting in your shitty nursing home and sucking down on your jello night after night for the rest of your life, you think of me. You twisted fuck.”

Mike and Nacho share one last acknowledging look at each other before Nacho is driven away to the place where he is to meet his end. I’m sure Mike regrets not finding a way to get Nacho out alive, but I’m also pretty sure that Nacho doesn’t blame Mike one bit. Once there, Nacho gets to say his piece, and he even gets to make both Gus incredibly nervous and the Salamancas incredibly upset. His angry taunt of the Salamancas is absolutely brilliant. He even gets to tell Hector that he’s the reason he’s in the chair. It’s going to go down in the show’s history as one of the most intense and badass final monologues. And, like I mentioned, it makes sure that Nacho echoes throughout Breaking Bad. What happens next goes very quick. Nacho gets out of the zip ties, he stabs Bolsa, and he threatens Bolsa with his own gun. But instead of taking Bolsa out, Nacho decides to take his own life. It’s an incredibly sad end to Ignacio’s life. And it’s a punch in the gut to us as viewers.

But that’s not everything that happened in this episode. Jimmy and Kim’s elaborate plan to character assassinate Howard Hamlin (played by Patrick Fabian) for the purpose of an early Sandpiper settlement payout has moved on to the next stage. But for everything to happen on schedule, they need access to his car. For that to happen, they need Huell Babineaux, who Jimmy hires to help them. So, Huell and a partner make duplicates of Howard Hamlin’s car key and the remote unlock button. It feels like a classic Saul Goodman operation that would feel right at home in Breaking Bad. It’s good fun to watch. Finally, though, someone asks the important question. Huell questions why Jimmy and Kim — who make good money and who have good jobs — would want to do this. What do they get out of this? They’re happy, right? It should tell you a lot about Jimmy’s headspace that he doesn’t have a good answer for him. Jimmy is lying to himself and Huell, when he says he’s doing the ‘Lord’s work.’ No, Jimmy. You and Kim are just doing it because you think it’s exciting.

“Do you want to be a friend of the cartel, or… do you want to be a rat?”

In an earlier scene, Kim is confronted by a colleague, who informs her that she knows that Lalo is Jorge de Guzman and that she is worried that Jimmy might’ve also known and thus committed a crime. This isn’t the first time that Kim has been confronted by someone who wants to tell her that Jimmy is doing something wrong, and once again her confidence in Jimmy is unwavering. In this conversation, Kim is brought up to speed about Lalo’s death — or, rather, the death of Lalo’s decoy, but obviously Kim doesn’t know that — and I think the news makes Kim even more calm about supporting her husband (and referring to him as Saul Goodman). Because if Lalo is out of the game — which he isn’t — then they’re safe. When she tells Jimmy, he’s relieved about the Lalo news. And, heck, he’s almost willing to spill the beans at the courthouse, but Kim makes a good point. At that point, he would just be a rat, and that would be a death sentence.

The Jimmy and Kim scenes are good, but it is the sound of Hector firing his little gun into Nacho’s dead body that sits with you as the episode ends. It is a pitch black and haunting ending to the episode that is balanced by the flower in the cold open. It is a fantastic episode. Excellent direction and writing from Gordon Smith, as well as an unforgettable performance by Michael Mando. An unforgettable near-masterpiece.

A

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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