[Editor’s note: This interview contains spoilers from last night’s episode of Better Call Saul, “Rock And Hard Place” (season six, episode three). Please watch it before reading on.]
How much do Better Call Saul fans want to know what happens to their beloved Albuquerque citizens in the AMC series’ sixth and final season? When The A.V. Club was talking to actor Michael Mando, who plays Salamanca drug cartel lieutenant Ignacio “Nacho” Varga, on a Zoom call about “Rock and a Hard Place,” the season’s third episode, Mando asked us to excuse him for a few seconds. Turned out, a group of fans sitting nearby in the café he was calling from were trying to eavesdrop on our conversation. Not wanting to spoil the fun for them, Mando quickly changed of seats before unpacking his role on Saul, his TV home since the show’s first season back in 2015.
The A.V. Club: So let’s get into the episode. Nacho is someone who has always been several steps ahead of everyone. He had all that time on the run from the hotel in Mexico; he’s had a lot of time to think about his situation. When he called his dad from the mechanic’s shop, did he realize that was probably the last time they’d speak?
Michael Mando: What I love about the situation that Nacho was in, is that you can point to these moments that solidify the character. In that particular phone call, he’s free, he’s won, and he’s looking into the sunset. But his heart turns around and asks his father to come with him, indirectly, sub textually. And his father says no. So he willingly walks back into the fire and trades his life for the life of his father.
AVC: Is there anything that could have made him decide differently about that sacrifice?
MM: The only thing that would’ve made him change his mind was for his father to come with him. He knows that if he escapes, they will go after his father. And what I love about what Vince [Gilligan], Peter [Gould], and [episode writer] Gordon Smith have done with this character is that they’ve solidified what he represents. He represents true love, sacrifice, and bravery. And the only way that he can live up to that is by essentially doing what Romeo and Juliet did, or what you see in Greek tragedy, which is sacrifice yourself for the thing that you love the most. And if the thing that you love the most is pure, then you sacrifice yourself for a good cause.
AVC: Does Manuel, his dad, know what Nacho’s associates are capable of? We think that he does, but is it then naive of him to think Nacho really could go to the police about the cartel and survive?
MM: The incredible beauty of the man that is Nacho is that he never shares his torment with his father. He never allows his father to carry the burden that he has to carry. So I don’t think his father really truly understands how close to the edge Nacho really is, and how much he’s doing for his father.
AVC: When Nacho called Mike, Mike admitted that he knew Gus planned to leave Nacho in the motel in Mexico to be killed. Mike also admitted he did nothing to stop it. Still, Mike is the only one Nacho trusts to make sure his dad remains safe. Why does Nacho still trust Mike?
MM: There’s an unspoken code between Nacho and Mike. They’re both characters who have virtuous hearts. The tragedy of Mike is that he breaks bad along with all the other characters as the story continues. And I think the beauty of the character of Nacho, and the tragedy, is that he’s the only character breaking good. They intersect at their highest, where they’re most alike. And they’re most alike for a very brief moment, and then Nacho goes towards the good side and Mike keeps going darker and darker. Also, Nacho secures his father’s safety in that final scene [at the meet-up in the desert]. He takes it upon himself to do everything right, to make sure that the Salamancas and Bolsa believe his story and that it protects his father. So he also takes matters his own hands.
AVC: Mike and Nacho exchanged those little nods when Mike got out of the van at the meet-up. It became a crushing moment when we saw what Nacho decided to do with Juan Bolsa’s gun.
MM: I think [Mike and Nacho are] both parallels of each other. In a way, Mike is a father figure for Nacho in the cartel world, and Nacho represents Mike’s son in the cartel world.
AVC: Mike very much did want to save Nacho. Do you think the loss of Nacho, especially after Gus made Mike kill Werner, is what solidified Mike breaking bad?
MM: That’s a good question. I think we should ask Jonathan Banks that question. As a viewer, to me, I know that Mike tells Jesse in Breaking Bad, “I had a guy, and you’re not that guy.” And according to some fans, they think that Mike is referring to Nacho. But those are just fan theories that I read on the internet. You’d have to ask Vince and Peter the details of those questions. But our fans are incredible.
AVC: Nacho’s whole final speech at the desert meet-up is brilliant. What was his main motivation in telling Hector he was the one who caused his stroke?
MM: There’s a lot going on sub textually in that scene. For one, Nacho swears allegiance to the side of good and sort of revokes the privileges of the cartel. He turns down the highest position from Don Eladio, turns down the money and the power in order to protect the integrity and the virtue of his father. And there’s a community element to that, too, where Nacho kind of stands up for what he aspires for, for his father and his community. So he’s taking a stance, in that situation.
AVC: What was it like filming that scene?
MM: It was a really beautiful responsibility that the writer gave me. They told me this was going to be a performance that basically hit every note on the piano. It was going to be action-packed; it was going to be physical. It was going to be emotional, psychological, with an underlying spiritual current to it. So it was just an incredible challenge that I relished. And it gave me an appetite for the kind of characters and roles that I’d like to pursue in the future.
AVC: At what point had Nacho decided he was going to go for Juan Bolsa’s gun and pull the trigger on himself?
MM: I think Nacho decided that he was going to sacrifice his life for his father during that phone conversation with his dad. And he decided that he was going to take matters into his own hands when he found the piece of glass in the trailer. And he came up with the gun plan; I think he was speculating it, but he kind of tosses a quick look when Juan Bolsa is talking, and he realizes that everything’s aligned, and that’s what he’s going to do.