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Better Call Saul S6E3: Nacho’s Bad Choice Road Dead-ends in “Rock and Hard Place”

Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

The following article contains spoilers for Better Call Saul S6E3 (“Rock and Hard Place”), written and directed by Gordon Smith.


Any Better Call Saul fan knows that when you see “written by Gordon Smith” attached to an episode, it’s gonna be a doozy. Smith is the writer who gave us some of the series’ most memorable moments in (among others) “Five-O” (S1E6) “Gloves Off” (S2E4), “Chicanery” (S3E5), “Something Beautiful” (S4E3), and “Bagman” (S5E9). The fact that Smith also directed this episode of the show’s final season…well, I knew something big was coming, and yet I still wasn’t prepared.

But maybe I should have been, because when you think about it, there was never going to be a way out for Nacho Varga. He’s one of the Better Call Saul characters who doesn’t appear in Breaking Bad, although that’s not necessarily a death sentence (I’m looking at you, Team “Kim’s Gonna Die”). But unlike characters like Kim Wexler or Howard Hamlin, Nacho is and has always been a bad guy, although we might better classify him as one of Mike’s “good criminals.” It’s worth revisiting that scene from “Pimento” (S1E9) because Mike’s words are appropriate here.

I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word.

We know that, whatever else he is, Mike Ehrmantraut is a man of his word, and this has been bringing him into conflict with Gus of late since Mike is not particularly keen on the way Gus has been using Nacho as a pawn. Mike knows that, despite the fact that Nacho has kept his word to Gus every step of the way, he’s going to kill him anyway, and it simply does not sit right with Mike—nor does the fact that Gus is willing to kill Nacho’s father, Manuel Varga, if necessary. Mike took a stand on that at the end of last week’s episode, “Carrot and Stick”—he said “no” to Gus Fring, which isn’t something most people survive. While Nacho didn’t know he did this, he does know that Mike is the only person he can trust to ensure his father’s safety, which is why he called him at the end of last week’s episode.

This week, we see that call happening again, but first, it’s worth discussing the cold open to “Rock and Hard Place,” which I know is going to haunt me for quite some time. It’s very simple: just the camera moving across some remote desert scenery, but in the background we can hear a gathering storm. We see a beautiful blue flower—the only sign of life in the arid landscape—and then it begins to rain. The camera pans down to show us a half-buried piece of broken glass, which the rain washes clean.

On first viewing, you don’t know what any of this means, but you know it means something—something happens here, something big, and the gathering storm is about to break over the course of the episode. It’s somehow the calm before the storm, the storm, and the calm afterward, all rolled into one, and once you’ve finished the episode and you know exactly what took place on this spot—that that blue flower is growing on the exact spot where Nacho took his last breath—it’s chilling to watch again, and it proves yet again that no one is doing it like the Better Call Saul team.

A blue flower in a desert landscape with storm clouds in the background

“Rock and Hard Place” opens long after it’s already over, but let’s rewind and discuss how we get there. Nacho has escaped the Salamancas for now, but with a flat tire on his truck from one of The Cousins’ gunshots, he’s not getting far. Instead of going out in a firefight when they inevitably catch up to him, Nacho finds an abandoned oil tanker to hide in. He goes so far as to submerge himself entirely in the hot sludgy remnants in order to avoid capture. The baptismal imagery is relatively obvious here, but instead of Nacho’s sins being washed clean by water, the oil seems to be symbolic of sin itself. At this point, Nacho has accepted all his wrongdoing—he knows there’s no salvation for him and that the end is near—but he can’t let the Salamancas get to him before securing the safety of his father, and the only person that can do that is Mike. 

Nacho finds a kind mechanic who allows him to wash himself clean with his hose and use his phone. Nacho’s first call is to his father, and it’s absolutely heartwrenching—one of many moments in “Rock and Hard Place” where Michael Mando showcases his considerable talent. Nacho knows this is the last time he will speak to his father, and he just wants to hear his voice one last time. He doesn’t let on that anything is wrong because what’s the point? It’s a foregone conclusion, and Nacho doesn’t want to upset his father when there’s absolutely nothing to be done. And he knows what his father will say anyway—he does say it because he can sense that something’s not right with Nacho, but as far as Manuel Varga is concerned, there is always something not right with his son, and the only remedy is the police.

Manuel is almost too innocent and virtuous for someone who is even tangentially familiar with the cartel and what they are capable of, and his continued insistence that Nacho’s salvation will come from turning himself in to the police is a bit naive. One does not simply rat on the cartel and get away with it, and on some level, I feel Manuel has to know this, but perhaps he truly believes in the idea of justice, that the police will do their jobs and that the truth will set his son free. Of course, that’s not the case, and Nacho knows it, but at this point, all Nacho wants to do is hear his father’s voice one last time and make sure that this man, who is so pure of heart, doesn’t come to a bloody end because of his actions. Because in the end, as Manuel tells Nacho, “We’ve been through this so many times. What else is there to say?”

Manuel Varga holds the phone to his ear as he talks to his son Nacho in Better Call Saul S6E3

And so Nacho makes one more call, to the one person who he thinks will help him save his father’s life. He calls Mike, and this time we hear Nacho’s end of the conversation. He confronts Mike about knowing that Gus’s plan was always to let him die in Mexico, and Mike responds that it wasn’t his call but that what happens next is entirely up to him. Nacho demands to speak to Gus and plays the last card he has. He knows that Gus needs him dead in order to get out from under the suspicion of the Salamancas, and Nacho accepts his fate. He tells Gus he will go along with whatever story he’s concocted to get himself out of his mess, but that he needs assurance that his father will be safe—assurance that only Mike can give. We already know that Mike has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to Manuel, but Nacho needs to hear him say it, and he does, telling Nacho that anyone who tries to get to his father will have to go through him.

It’s been interesting to watch the relationship between Mike and Nacho develop over the course of Better Call Saul’s six seasons. It’s been contentious at times, but in the end, I think that Mike feels something of a twisted father-son bond with Nacho. At the very least, Mike understands Nacho because they share a very powerful motivation: both Mike and Nacho ended up where they are because they want to protect their families. Nacho went off-course and got into Gus’s crosshairs after Hector threatened his father’s life, and Mike got tangled up with Gus because the Salamancas threatened Stacy and Kaylee. Mike was lucky enough to have a skill set that Gus finds incredibly valuable, but Nacho is totally expendable to Gus. At this point, he’s actually a liability, and Mike knows there’s nothing he can do to stop that train.

Mike knows he can’t save Nacho’s life—he’s in the game and thus he’s fair game—but it’s enough that Mike cares how Nacho dies even if there’s nothing he can or will do to stop it. We see this in the way he takes care of Nacho after his extraction from Mexico. After Nacho essentially rides to his own execution in a coffin (i.e. the hidden compartment of one of the Pollos trucks), Mike takes care to give him a last meal, insists on being the one to rough him up when Gus claims he looks “too pretty” to deliver to the Salamancas, and shares a drink with him beforehand.

Gus, on the other hand, has no desire to make Nacho comfortable; all he wants is to make sure he’s got the story straight and that everything goes off without a hitch the following day. We learn that Gus’s plan is to blame the Peruvian cartel, Los Odios, and have Nacho tell Juan Bolsa and the Salamancas that he’s been working for a man named Alvarez for almost a year. This tracks with the bank transfer paperwork that Mike planted in Nacho’s safe in “Carrot and Stick,” and Gus thinks it should be sufficient to put them off his scent. As for Nacho’s death, the plan is for him to make his confession and then make a run for it past Victor, who will then put him down humanely, saving him from whatever gruesome death the Salamancas inevitably have planned for him. 

A beaten Nacho sits with a lamp shining in his face as Gus and Mike stand in the background

It’s simple enough, but Mike insists on being there when it goes down—out of sight, of course—because, when the Salamancas are concerned, things can always go sideways. I think it’s more than that, though; I think Mike needs to bear witness to what happens to Nacho, to make sure that Gus keeps his word and gives him an easy death. Mike’s trust in Gus is seriously compromised at this point, and I don’t think he would believe things went according to plan if he didn’t see it with his own eyes.

As for Nacho, he seems content with letting things play out as Gus wants them to—that is until he spies a piece of broken glass in Gus’s trash can. This shard is a piece of the glass Gus broke in “Carrot and Stick,” which makes it the perfect implement for Nacho to use when he decides he’s going to go out on his own terms. The broken glass is symbolic of Gus’s loss of control—he broke it when he was learning that Nacho had escaped the ambush by the Salamancas—and what better thing to use to wrest control from Gus once again? At this point during my first viewing, I hadn’t put the pieces together that this piece of glass is the same one that we see in the cold open, but the realization that they are one and the same makes the opening sequence even more poignant.

Nacho looks down into the trash can in Gus's office

Before we get to Nacho’s last stand, let’s discuss this week’s installment of Mr. and Mrs. Goodman and The Very Very Bad Plan. The very fact that the culmination of Nacho’s storyline actually makes Jimmy and Kim something of an afterthought in Better Call Saul S6E3 is a testament to what a compelling character the BCS team has created in Nacho, but there are a few important points to discuss as far as the rock and hard place that Jimmy and Kim find themselves between.

They are still rolling along with the Hamlin scam, and we get a glimpse of their master plan outlined in Post-It notes on the back of a painting in their apartment. It’s all very organized and Kim loves her Post-Its, so you know this was all her. I spent more time than I care to admit looking at screenshots of various angles of the board and it doesn’t really give any new information as yet (at least not that I can make out—some of the Post-Its are far more visible than others). We do see the first two phases of the plan all laid out, though. The first column of notes relates to the planting of the fake cocaine in Hamlin’s locker, and the second relates to the Kettlemans’ involvement (and I cannot get enough of the angry frowny face that I have to assume Kim drew to represent Betsy).

The third column relates to the plan we learn about in Jim and Kimmy’s first scene in this episode: something to do with Hamlin’s beloved NAMAST3 Jaguar. I’ve examined the Post-It at the top of this column (which is the position of the note that describes the goal of each phase), and I still cannot make out what the drawing on it is. I think part of it is the car, and there’s something to the left of it that I can’t quite figure out. However, in the preview for Episode 4 (“Hit and Run”), we see Howard’s car pull into the Crossroads Motel—a location Breaking Bad fans will recognize as a notorious drug den and the home of sex worker Wendy. We’ve already seen Jimmy enlist the help of some working girls to publicly embarrass Howard in front of Cliff Main in “Wexler v. Goodman” (S5E6); might we see Wendy make an appearance in the Better Call Saul universe?

Post-Its outlining the Hamlin scam

Jimmy has major concerns about the timeline of the next phase of the plan. Originally, they had intended on using a replica of Hamlin’s car for whatever comes next, but they simply don’t have time to do that. When Kim suggests they just use his actual car, Jimmy thinks it’s far too risky, but he just can’t say no to Kim, however audacious her suggestions might be. He figures they can run a valet scam using Huell’s pickpocketing skills to get a copy of Hamlin’s key (and it remains to be seen how they plan to steal and return Howard’s car), and Kim is very pleased that Jimmy is on board. Kim always gets a little frisky when a plan comes together, and this time is no different.

The way the Jimmy/Saul & Kim dynamic is playing out so far this season is absolutely fascinating to me. It’s a bold choice—one might even call it audacious—for the writers to have Kim be the one pushing Jimmy past his limits and not the other way around. Because it’s very clear here (and in the two previous episodes) that Jimmy is just going along with the Hamlin scam to make Kim happy. At every turn, you can see him questioning whether this is a smart choice, deciding it really isn’t, and then doing it anyway because it’s what she wants. He can try to rationalize it all he wants, as he does later when even career-criminal Huell asks him what the hell he’s doing running scams when he and his wife are both legit, gainfully employed lawyers.

Jimmy tells Huell that it’s a scam with a higher purpose, that it’s ultimately going to help people—Jimmy’s usual ends-justify-the-means rationale. But even though that’s true, that this will actually help the Sandpiper residents in the end, Jimmy knows damn well that’s not why they are doing it. They are doing it because Kim wants to take Howard down several pegs and because there are millions of dollars at the end of this particular rainbow. He can dress it up in whatever kind of morally righteous clothing he wants to; at the end of the day, it’s Kim’s plan and Jimmy is going along with it out of his love for her and his love of money.

An exterior shot through the front window of Huell and Jimmy sitting in Jimmy's car

Jimmy knows Kim far better than we, the audience, do, and so I believe he has far more insight as to her motivations. This is, I think, why we don’t see him really questioning her even when he probably should. I discussed Kim’s motivations a bit in my review of “Wine and Roses” (S6E1) but I think it bears repeating here that Kim Wexler is her own woman. She knows her own mind and she makes her own choices, and everything she does, she does for a reason. What Season 6 is making abundantly clear is that she’s no longer just reacting to Jimmy; she’s taken the lead. We will be getting more of Kim’s backstory this season (which I cannot wait for), and I think that what we learn about her past will inform the choices she’s currently making, which do seem a bit extreme. Because scamming as Giselle St. Claire was one thing, but Mrs. Goodman is entering unknown and dangerous territory and I’m excited to learn more about what is driving her to do so. 

Speaking of dangerous territory, as expected, Jimmy’s little slip of the tongue regarding the true identity of Jorge de Guzman did not go unnoticed. DA Suzanne Ericsen, who we know is no fan of Saul Goodman, calls Kim into her office to have a little chat about Jimmy’s latest client. Kim learns that the DA’s office knows that Jorge de Guzman and Lalo Salamanca are one and the same, and Kim’s relief upon hearing about Lalo’s “death” is short-lived because Suzanne wants to discuss Jimmy’s status as a cartel lawyer. They’ve put all the pieces together: first, he represented Nacho, then he got Tuco’s sentence reduced, and now he’s representing Lalo under a false name. While Suzanne claims they are not currently building a case against Jimmy—and it’s important to note that she refers to him as Jimmy throughout this conversation—she does make it clear to Kim that the DA’s office plans on pursuing the cartel connection in order to figure out what major players from Mexico are doing in Albuquerque.

Kim plays it cool the whole time and gives Suzanne nothing, but she listens closely as Suzanne makes her case, telling Kim that, while the others believe that Jimmy was fully aware that his client was Lalo Salamanca, she would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, allowing him to talk without breaking privilege and assuring the both of them that there will be no blowback. Everything that Suzanne believes about the situation is completely true—that he never intended on becoming a cartel lawyer, that he got in over his head and couldn’t get out—and Kim knows it, too. She also knows that Suzanne is 100% correct when she says that these are dangerous people that murder innocents and it’s not right to allow them to get away with it. Suzanne tells Kim, “you know it’s wrong, and Jimmy does, too,” at which point Kim corrects her and tells her, “Saul”—Kim’s way of separating the Jimmy she loves from Saul Goodman, friend of the cartel.

Because it is wrong and it is dangerous and Kim knows it from personal experience, in ways Suzanne could never even imagine. During moments like these, it’s hard for her to rationalize Jimmy’s work for Lalo and the other cartel guys even though she knows he didn’t have much of a choice. Kim hasn’t completely lost her moral compass; she just knows that Jimmy is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to his cartel connections.

Kim sits in profile in the DA's office with Suzanne Ericsen in the background

One thing I find really interesting about this scene is the way that, of all people, Suzanne actually seems to see Jimmy for who he really is. This is the same woman who, in “Something Stupid” (S4E7), insulted Jimmy to Kim’s face and called him “a scumbag disbarred lawyer who peddles drop phones to criminals,” but here she is far more sympathetic in her assessment of him. She tells Kim, “I admit I’ve had my problems with Saul… but I also believe underneath it all, underneath all of his showiness, he’s a lawyer and a human being and I think he knows what’s right.” This stands in stark contrast to Chuck’s feelings about Jimmy, which he expressed so memorably in “Pimento” (S1E9). Chuck tells Jimmy, “you’re not a real lawyer” and proceeds to berate him, setting Jimmy on the course that ends in a mall Cinnabon in Omaha. Of course, the truth is more complex, because Jimmy is all of these things: a lawyer, a human being, Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree, a chimp with a machine gun. He does not hold the law sacred. He abuses its power. He does know what’s right, but he can’t always act accordingly (even though sometimes the circumstances are beyond his control).

It’s heartbreaking to think that Suzanne is able to see Jimmy’s humanity when his own brother could not, and I think Kim appreciates that she’s trying to do right by Jimmy while also making sure that justice is done, but it’s not that simple. When Kim waits for Jimmy at home, we see her smoking (indoors, no less), which always signifies her moments of extreme stress. She tells Jimmy about what went down in Suzanne’s office and he immediately defers to her. He wants her to tell him what to do, but she doesn’t. She just poses the question, “do you want to be a friend of the cartel, or do you want to be a rat?” And, of course, there is no right answer to that question—it’s the ultimate rock and hard place, and Jimmy isn’t the only one stuck in between. So, leaving Jimmy to ponder which side of the fence he wants to be on, we return to Nacho’s final moments. 

The end of Better Call Saul S6E3 is the end of the line for Nacho, a character whose entire arc has played out over the course of this series. We met Nacho out in the desert with Tuco, when Jimmy had his first run-in with the cartel back in “Mijo” (S1E2). When you think about it, Saul Goodman does not exist without Nacho Varga. In fact, I would go so far as to say Breaking Bad doesn’t exist without Nacho. Nacho is responsible for dragging Jimmy into the cartel’s business and he’s responsible for getting Mike and Gus together. These relationships are crucial to the events of Breaking Bad, and Nacho is the catalyst.

Before delivering Nacho to Bolsa and the Salamancas, Mike is dropped off at an overlook to keep an eye on things and he and Nacho say their wordless goodbye—just an extended look and nods of their heads. Just as it was with Manuel, there’s nothing left to say. It is what it is, and neither man can do anything to change it (although Nacho does have one final trick up his sleeve). 

While I’m not 100% sure, I spent some time comparing this location and the location that was used in “Klick” (S2E10) and I think that Mike is at the same sniper perch he was at in the Season 2 finale when he planned to kill Hector and was stopped by Gus. This is interesting for several reasons. During Mike’s failed assassination attempt, Nacho stands in between him and Hector so he can’t get a clear shot, and then Gus (or more likely Tyrus or Victor) sets Mike’s car alarm off and leaves him a note that merely says “DON’T.” Nacho only ever had two shots at getting out of the life without putting his father in jeopardy, and Gus foiled both of them. When Mike wanted to take Hector out, Gus stopped it. When Nacho almost successfully killed Hector with the fake heart pills, Gus stopped it again. Nacho may have once believed that Hector Salamanca was the biggest threat to him, but Gus had already killed him twice before he dumped him in the desert for his last stand.

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At this point, Nacho has decided to deviate from Gus’s plan. When Juan Bolsa tells him that “there are good deaths and there are bad deaths,” Nacho has already decided on a good death for himself, and it’s not the death that Gus has designed for him. We get the first inkling that Nacho has his own design when Bolsa asks him who he works for; instead of repeating the script, he takes a beat and stares Gus down, putting the fear of God in him for a minute before finally telling the concocted story of Alvarez and the Peruvian cartel. Hector doesn’t believe it, though. He is the only one present who knows that Lalo is still alive and looking for proof of Gus’s involvement (assuming he didn’t tell the Cousins, which I don’t believe he has), and when Hector starts dinging away and pointing at Gus, Nacho takes the opportunity to get a dig in at Gus, scoffing and saying, “You think him? The Chicken Man? What a joke.”

Even though it aligns with his plan to appear innocent of all involvement, it has to irritate Gus to hear Nacho use the demeaning nickname the Salamancas have for him, to hear himself being referred to as a joke—as if someone like him could ever pull one over on the Salamancas—and have to pretend like it’s the truth. The absolute disrespect of it all must have him crawling out of his skin, but he has to remain steady and stolid in the face of Nacho’s insults. It’s one very small way that Nacho can express his agency—to make it clear to Gus that he hates him just as much if not more than he hates the Salamancas.

Gus eats it all and waits for Nacho to make his run for it, but that isn’t the good death Nacho chooses for himself. Instead, he gives a final monologue for the ages.

Alvarez has been paying me for years… but you know what? I would have done it for free because I hate every last one of you psycho sacks of sh*t. I opened Lalo’s gate, and I would do it again and I’m glad what they did to him. He’s a soulless pig and I wish I killed him with my own hands, 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 sh*tty nursing home and you’re sucking down on your Jell-O night after night for the rest of your life, you think of me, you twisted f*ck.

It’s one of those jump-out-of-your-seat-and-cheer moments, and you so desperately want to see Nacho win up until the very end. I found myself hoping that maybe he and Mike had hatched a plan, or Nacho had figured something out on his own—something, anything to save himself—but no. He’s reached the end of the line, but he has one last move. He’s cut his zip-ties with the glass shard from Gus’s trash and uses it to stab Bolsa in the leg and steal his gun. He puts the gun to Bolsa’s head and we get a shot of Mike watching through his sniper scope. Mike says, “Do it,” and then Nacho turns the gun on himself. The episode ends with the Cousins carrying Hector over to Nacho so he can empty a clip into his dead body, and even though they defile his corpse, it doesn’t take away from the good death that Nacho chose for himself—the sacrifice he made to save his father’s life.

I find myself wondering if Mike knew what he was going to do, and I go back and forth on it. Mike didn’t give him the glass shard; Nacho found it himself (and the look on his face when he sees it tells me that Mike didn’t tell him to look for it there). I suppose it’s possible that at some point after finding the glass, Nacho told him he was going to go off-script, but I’m not certain. What I am certain of is that Mike is visibly disturbed after watching Nacho die, whether he knew it would be happening that way or not. It’s obvious Mike cared for Nacho, and I can’t help but think that a part of him must have seen some of Nacho in Jesse later on. There are some similarities—two young guys in over their heads, being used and manipulated by older men who don’t care what happens to them—and when you think about how Mike tried to get Jesse out of the game when he had the chance, it makes it even sadder. Because he’d seen it all before, and while Nacho had no way out, Jesse could have taken the money and ran. And he did, eventually, but Mike just wasn’t alive to see it.

Which brings us to one final point, one that Michael Mando discusses in his interview with Variety. Every single person to a man that appears in the final scene of “Rock and Hard Place” is dead. All the Salamancas, Bolsa, Victor, Tyrus, Gus, and Mike are all dead by the time Breaking Bad comes to an end. As Mando puts it, “There’s an ominous thing to this scene, where these are all dead men walking, watching the first man die. But they’re already dead, they just don’t know it yet.” It echoes the feeling one gets watching that opener—that the oncoming storm has already happened, we just don’t know it yet. That blue flower is blooming in the desert long after all these men are in the ground, and it all starts right there, on that exact spot.

Nacho kneels next to Juan Bolsa in the center of the frame in front of a shack with Gus, Victor, and Tyrus on the left side and Hector and the Cousins on the right

See you next week!

Written by Ali Sciarabba

In addition to her position as TV Editor and Writer for 25YL, Ali Sciarabba is a freelance editorial consultant and author of numerous nonfiction reference books for middle school and high school students. In her spare time she enjoys obsessing over various television shows, especially Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. When not overanalyzing TV shows, she is wrangling her Corgi, Cassidy, who is inarguably the cutest dog that has ever existed.

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