SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read if you haven’t watched the third episode of “Better Call Saul” Season 6, titled “Rock and Hard Place.”
Like the title of Monday night’s episode says, Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) found himself between a rock and a hard place – Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) – and he paid the ultimate price. As one of the major “Better Call Saul” characters who doesn’t appear in “Breaking Bad,” fans have been wondering where Nacho would end up, and they finally have an answer. After playing the double agent for Gus against the Salamancas and aiding in the botched assassination of Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), Nacho was ready to meet a violent end at the hands of the Salamanca cartel, but instead he turned his gun on himself.
However, Nacho didn’t go down without a fight. He narrowly avoided the Salamancas’ hitmen, including the Terminator-like twins (Daniel and Luis Moncada), and he used some quick thinking up until the very end. In the pulse-pounding opening scene, Nacho held his breath and submerged himself in an abandoned oil tanker to evade his pursuers. And in the closing minutes as he waited to be executed by the Salamancas, Nacho broke free of his restraints and gave a vicious, final monologue where he revealed to Hector that he was the one who put him in a wheelchair.
“So when you’re sitting in your shitty nursing home and you’re sucking down on your Jello night after night for the rest of your life, you think of me, you twisted fuck,” Nacho growled.
He grabbed Juan Bolsa’s (Javier Grajeda) weapon and held him at gunpoint, but instead of taking out Hector, Gus or any of the other high-ranking cartel members with him, he died by suicide. He also protected Gus’ reputation and cleared up any suspicion (for now) that Gus was involved in the failed hit on Lalo.
Mando explained to Variety that Nacho’s final act was one of sacrifice, and by doing so he guaranteed that Gus would protect his father, who never approved of Nacho’s reluctant life of crime. The actor also discussed Nacho’s final meal, the episode’s symbolism and those (now-debunked) theories about Nacho being alive in “Breaking Bad.”
When did you find out Nacho was going to die?
I found out the winter before we started shooting. Peter [Gould]Vince [Gilligan] and Melissa [Bernstein] called me and they told me it’s going to be operatic, larger than life and it was going to break the internet. I immediately felt a tremendous amount of gratitude and was dialed in on making sure that this character sacrificed himself for the virtue and morality that he aspired to.
What was it like on the day you shot your death scene?
It was an unbelievable experience. The day we shot that scene, when we turned the cameras on Nacho, a huge sandstorm hit immediately and we had to run back home before our cars got stuck in the mud. When I came home, lightning struck the tree in front of my house and fell on my driveway; I couldn’t get into the house. There were all these weird things that were happening. The crew had Nacho shirts on and tear tattoos, and I couldn’t believe how much this character meant to so many people.
We know that all of the characters in that final scene, like Gus, Hector and the Salamanca twins, live to see another day in “Breaking Bad,” but was there a reason why Nacho didn’t take anybody else down with him?
Every single one of them is dead, if you think about 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. The image of Nacho is the image of sacrifice, true love and bravery. It’s not the image of revenge. The ultimate act that defines the character is the act of sacrifice, and not anger, but love.
What was it like shooting that final emotional phone call between Nacho and his father?
At that moment, Nacho can run. He’s free to go. But he’s staring at the sunset in his eyes, and he’s looking back at his father and saying “Come with me.” And his father says no. It’s at that moment that Nacho knows that he’s going to walk back into hell and sacrifice himself for the love of his father.
Before Mike (Jonathan Banks) roughs him up, we see Nacho get a final meal before he faces the Salamancas. Did you have any say on what Nacho would eat?
It was really important for me that he use a fork and knife and that he put salt and pepper on his food. It wasn’t about sustenance at this time, but it was about a man who was going out with a lot of love for life. And when you love life, you enjoy life. So Nacho didn’t lose his appetite for life, if anything he was filled with love and life at that point because he knew he was doing the right thing. It was a celebration of life, it was Nacho telling himself and the world not to cry for him. This was something he believed in and he was doing it with all his heart.
The episode starts with Nacho on the run from the Salamanca twins, and he submerges himself in an oil tanker to hide from them. What was shooting that messy scene like?
It was an incredible episode, beautifully written and directed by Gordon Smith, full of symbolism. The last meal, the last goodbye, the trial of a man’s heart, like when the ancient Egyptians would weigh your heart against the weight of a feather and figure out what is it you stood for. The writing had given me such an unbelievable opportunity to do a character that was going through something incredible physically, psychologically, emotionally, but also spiritually. It was amazing to seep my actual body into that darkness and to come out of that tanker in the middle of the night with the star-filled sky, to literally wash myself off and clean myself of all that darkness by this abandoned gas station on the side of a highway. To stand there in front of all these future-dead men and to look up at the sky and yell out what I believe in and to sacrifice my life for that morality and virtue, I feel like a really lucky actor who’s been given this dream role . I’m eternally grateful that it will forever live in pop culture.
This episode, in a strange way, is Nacho’s lowest and highest point at the same time. It’s the one where life treats him the most unfairly, but strangely it’s when he feels the most whole because he has no doubt of who he is at that moment.
In “Breaking Bad” Season 2 Episode 8, Saul briefly mentions Ignacio and a Lalo in one scene. People had made theories that they’re alive later on in “Breaking Bad” because of that one bit of dialogue. Did you ever discuss whether Ignacio and your Nacho are the same person?
I think in Season 1, Vince and Peter said that Ignacio was the Nacho because Nacho is short for Ignacio. So we knew since Season 1 that it was sort of going to be linked, but then again there could be another Ignacio as well. But I think now we’re pretty sure we’re talking about these two characters.
So does that mean that Saul never finds out that Nacho is dead, since he thinks he’s still alive in “Breaking Bad”?
You are trying to trick me with a spoiler here!
This interview has been edited and condensed.