Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Better Call Saul, Season 6, Episode 3, “Rock and Hard Place”

“Rock and Hard Place” is the first episode of this season to feel like Better Call Saul is coming to an end, since it resolves one of those longstanding unanswered questions we’ve had since season one, this time concerning the fate of Ignacio “Nacho” Varga. Like the title of the episode implies, Nacho is caught between Gus and the Salamancas, both of whom want him dead, just for different reasons: Gus because Nacho could divulge that Gus was behind the attack on Lalo, and the Salamancas because Nacho betrayed Lalo.

After narrowly escaping from the Cousins once again at the start of "Rock and Hard Place," Nacho next calls his father. It’s a necessary scene, since it reminds us of how important Nacho’s father is to him, but it’s also a bittersweet one, drawing out a range of emotions from Nacho. Nacho’s relief that his dad is still okay, and his happiness to hear his voice, is followed quickly by sadness over Nacho’s realization that this will likely be the last time they speak with each other, and that he can’t tell his dad why. It’s a great scene for actor Michael Mando. 

Nacho next calls Mike, and we get the other half of the conversation we only heard from Mike’s side in “Carrot and Stick,” followed by Nacho spelling out what we’ve already inferred from last week about Gus’s poor position in the aftermath of the attack on Lalo. Surprisingly, Nacho agrees to cooperate with Gus’s plans for him on the promise that Mike (and by extension Gus) will protect Nacho’s father. What’s nice about this scene is that we know from “Carrot and Stick” that Mike already made this promise, more or less, even without Nacho having to ask for it, simply by standing up to Gus and refusing to let him use Nacho’s father as leverage to bend Nacho to his will. 

Really, this episode is as much about Mike’s code of honor and his affection for Nacho as it about Nacho’s steely integrity. We see as much in their next scene together. Gus smuggles Nacho back to Albuquerque via a Los Pollos Hermanos delivery, and when Mike pries Nacho from the smuggling compartment in the truck's floor, he offers Nacho his hand. The gesture is a practical offer of assistance, but it’s also a handshake, a gesture of Mike’s respect for Nacho. 

Something similar happens in the following scene. Gus decides that Nacho needs to be beaten up to make his capture look more convincing to the Salamancas, and after scoffing at Gus’s continued callousness toward Nacho, Mike insists on doing it himself, recognizing that Gus is also probably right. Before roughing up Nacho, however, he first pours himself and Nacho a drink. Once again, there’s a dual purpose here. The drink is to relieve some of the pain Nacho will endure, sure, but it’s also a sign of respect, and we can tell because Mike joins Nacho in drinking. It’s not much of stretch to argue that Nacho has become something of a surrogate son to Mike, replacing the one he lost to crooked cops.

We soon learn that Gus’s plan is for Nacho to sacrifice himself for Gus by confessing to Juan Bolsa and the Salamancas that he was paid to betray Lalo not by Gus, but by someone named Alvarez, operating out of Peru (thus the Peruvian wire transfer Gus planted in Nacho’s safe in “Carrot and Stick”). Upon confessing, Nacho is to run toward Gus, ostensibly looking like he’s trying to escape, and giving Gus’s men the chance to murder him cleanly, without the torture the Salamancas would undoubtedly inflict.

Before this plan can come to fruition, however, Nacho is left alone in Gus’s office on the chicken farm, and spots something in Gus’s wastebasket that draws his attention. Eagle-eyed viewers will recall that this is where Gus deposited shards of the broken water glass from “Carrot and Stick,” and suddenly “Rock and Hard Place” has left room for doubt about what Nacho actually intends to do at the meeting with the Salamancas.* Might he use a shard of the glass to find a way out of this mess?

* Even if you don’t recognize that he’s looking at the glass shards, Nacho’s behavior indicates that he's found something useful here, making us curious about how whatever it is might help him.

It’s not out of the question that Nacho could escape this situation, given the show’s serial contexts. We’ve become accustomed to characters on Better Call Saul (and Breaking Bad) figuring out ways to wriggle out of jams, and it seems like the climax between Gus, the Salamancas, and Juan Bolsa could be yet one more instance of a character squeezing out of a tight spot. And indeed, that seems to be where the scene of the confession is heading: as Bolsa urges Nacho to identifying who hired him, we see a shot of blood dripping out of Nacho’s squeezed fist. Here it becomes clear that he’s using the glass to cut the zip tie binding his arms, although it’s still unclear what his plan is once he escapes his bonds. 

However, before Nacho makes his move, first he unleashes a righteous airing of grievances, telling Hector and the Cousins not only that he betrayed Lalo, but that the Salamancas are psychopaths and that he was the one responsible for Hector’s stroke, having replaced his heart medication with placebos. His speech reminded me somewhat of Walt and Jesse’s confrontation in Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” when Walt tells Jesse how Walt watched Jane die. Both scenes take place in the desert, seemingly at the end of a major character’s life, and are spiteful revelations meant to hurt their recipient. However, the difference is that unlike Walt, Nacho’s revelation is cathartic, since Nacho is so sympathetic and Hector so despicable, thus it’s easy to relish in Nacho’s viciousness. 

More than this though, in the process of cursing the Salamancas, Nacho also proves his value to Gus once again by going above and beyond to sell Gus’s lie about working for Alvarez. Hector rightly doesn’t believe Nacho’s initial confession, ringing his bell frantically and pointing an accusatory finger at Gus. Nacho laughs off the accusation, calling Gus “the chicken man” and an “asshole” for saving Hector’s life during his stroke. Nacho is doing all the work of making Gus’s plan work here, and in the process, perhaps he finally makes Gus appreciate what an asset he is (Gus seems rather nervous, after all, knowing that he’s trusting Nacho with a lot here).

This scene offers viewers multiple surprises. The first comes earlier, when we see Nacho’s bleeding fists, and we discover that Nacho is working on his own plan, offering a glimmer of hope that Nacho has somehow figured out a way to escape this situation alive. Then the scene surprises again when Nacho uses his speech as a distraction to make his move: he severs his bonds, and then stabs Bolsa in the leg and steals his gun, taking him hostage. Suddenly, that glimmer of hope enlarges. It seems like he might really be on the verge of enacting an escape, even though he has a two pairs of killers pointing guns at him, psychopaths on one side, ruthless killers (Tyrus and Victor) on the other. 

Should we invest in this hope of an escape? After all, he has Mike as backup; watching from afar through his sniper rifle, Mike encourages Nacho to “do it” while Nacho's gun is pointed at Bolsa. However, in the scene’s third and final surprise, our hope is snuffed out when Nacho shoots himself in the head. Rather than an escape, Nacho’s plan was merely to die on his own terms, by his own hand. Nacho is not Jimmy, nor is he Walt or Jesse; no quick thinking or fast action will save him. It’s a tragic fate for one of Better Call Saul’s most sympathetic characters. Rest in peace, Nacho. You were often underused on this show, but your plots were always compelling.

Nacho's death has the immediate effect of finally forcing Gus into learning something. Way back in the second episode of season four, “Breathe,” I wondered whether Gus’s experiences with Nacho would eventually be a factor in how Gus treated Walt initially on Breaking Bad. Gus wanted Walt to work for him, but Walt was hesitant, so Gus plied him with flattery and money rather than threats or intimidation. Gus literally told Mike at one point on Breaking Bad that he didn’t think fear was an effective motivator. Fear did work on Nacho, but Mike’s resistance to this tactic, along with Nacho’s actions in “Rock and Hard Place,” have perhaps taught Gus that the carrot (protecting Nacho’s father) was more effective than the stick: he looks somewhat shaken while departing the scene. Or perhaps Gus has also been influenced by Mike’s defense of and respect for Nacho. Mike ended up being right about Nacho in the end: loyalty was more effective than intimidation. 

Of course, Gus keeps no council and rarely clarifies his motivations, so it's impossible to tell if this experience has changed him. It's also impossible to tell if he has Nacho on the mind in any of his interactions with Walt in Breaking Bad (particularly because Nacho didn't exist as anything more than a name back when Gus was introduced). Unfortunately, Nacho's fate doesn't do much to enrich Gus's behavior on Breaking Bad, which is somewhat surprising, given how good Better Call Saul is at doing this very thing, but it's also understandable, given the high degree of difficulty it entails. 

Finally, Nacho’s ploy with the shard of glass also makes sense of the episode’s enigmatic prologue. “Rock and Hard Place” begins with the camera surveying a desert landscape, including a blossoming flower, before the onset of rain reveals a shard of glass emerging from the dirt. The climax reveals that this was the glass shard Nacho used to free himself, and the flower seen earlier becomes almost like a grave marker: a natural occurrence of what has become a cultural symbol of mourning. Nacho deserved more of course, but when you're in "the game," perhaps a dignified death this is the best you can hope for. 

Over on the Jimmy/Kim half of the show,  Jimmy also finds himself stuck between a bit of a rock and a hard place. The authorities have figured out that “de Guzman” was really Lalo (perhaps aided in part by Jimmy accidentally calling him Lalo in front of ADA Khalil), and in “Rock and Hard Place,” ADA Suzanne flags down Kim at the courthouse with a proposition: convince Jimmy to forgo attorney-client privilege in his defense of Lalo (which he can do if he claims he was unaware that “de Guzman” was actually Lalo), and tell the DA what he knows about the cartel. It’s a difficult proposition, because in theory, there isn’t much reason for Jimmy to turn down Suzanne’s offer. With Lalo supposedly dead, the risk to Jimmy is minimal (even though Lalo still has associates in New Mexico), and rejecting Suzanne’s request makes him look like he’s trying to hide what he knew. Of course, Jimmy likely wants to do neither of these things: talking to Suzanne is risky, but not talking to her is faintly damning. 

I doubt Jimmy will actually talk with Suzanne; later Kim will phrase Suzanne’s request as a “fishing expedition.” However, the scene is interesting because it’s just as much about Kim as it is about Jimmy/Saul. Notably, Kim phrases Suzanne’s request in gangster rather than attorney terms when she incredulously asks if Suzanne wants Jimmy to “rat” on his client (rather than describing it as waiving attorney-client privilege). And when Suzanne presses her case, she appeals to Kim’s sense of morality, emphasizing the wrongness of defending a coldblooded killer like Lalo, and that underneath Saul’s showmanship, “he’s a lawyer, and a human being. And I think he knows what’s right.” 

Kim from seasons one-through-four would have likely agreed with Suzanne here, but new-look Kim from season five is resistant. Remarkably, here Kim uses the Saul Goodman persona as a shield, correcting Suzanne by telling her that Jimmy practices under that name now, and then throwing back in Suzanne's face an earlier remark Suzanne made about Jimmy being a “disbarred scumbag lawyer” from way back in season four’s “Something Stupid.” Kim is trying to discredit the benefit of the doubt Suzanne is supposedly extending to Jimmy now, yet underneath it all, Kim knows that Suzanne is right: the system did fail here (Jimmy stacked the deck so it would), and it is wrong to aid someone like Lalo, and most importantly, Kim does still seem to have a voice in the back of her head telling her right from wrong (or at the very least, a voice that is concerned over Jimmy landing in hot water).

Meanwhile, the rest of Jimmy and Kim’s business this week concerns the next stage in their con to discredit Howard, this one having something to do with his car (perhaps planting drugs in it). Jimmy enlists Huell to pick the pocket of the valet parking Howard’s car, and has him quickly copy the key (and its electronic components) before the valet returns to search for the key he thinks he dropped. It’s yet another nifty suspense scene, notable mainly for the conversation Huell has with Jimmy afterward. Huell asks Jimmy why he and Kim are involved in such risky business when they both have high-paying jobs. Without going into specifics, Jimmy gives Huell a pat answer about how they’re doing it to help the Sandpiper plaintiffs get their money, but we know the truth: Jimmy is doing it for Kim. It’s not something he would have pursued on his own, at least not at this point in his life. His desert misadventure has made him risk averse, but it’s made Kim risk inclined. 

Jimmy reminded me of Walt here, since he too always lied about his reasons for his actions. The difference, though, is that unlike Walt, Jimmy is more willing to admit to himself his real motivations. Moreover, perhaps a part of him wonders if Kim would love him less if he were more resistant to Kim’s desire to push this con further. Doubtless he’s figured out by now that a part of what she loves about him is the thrill she gets from the cons they pull, and even though he’s begun to question the influence he’s had on Kim’s morality, he still loves her, and likely doesn’t want to give Kim any reason to reflect on his negative influence.

One last point of interest in this episode: in something of a callback to the prologue of “Wine and Roses,” Jimmy removes the landscape painting from their living room wall to reveal that they’re using the back of the painting to hide their planning out of the timeline of their con. Some of the icons are recognizable: a golf course obviously refers to what we saw in “Wine and Roses” while a frowning face and a carrot likely represent their options with the Kettlemans in “Carrot and Stick.” This week is focused on “NAMAST3,” which is Howard’s license plate, and upcoming columns include notes that read “costume” and “casting,” the meaning of which will probably be revealed in upcoming episodes. 

Overall, I can’t help but see this timeline as yet another reflexive reference to the writers’ own plans for the series, given that this timeline looks an awful lot like the whiteboard of a writers’ room, where seasons are broken down episode by episode, sometimes even using post-it notes to demarcate what happens in a given week. It’s like Jimmy and Kim are themselves looking at the breakdown of their season-long arcs, with each column in their con’s timeline corresponding to an episode of Better Call Saul

Another reflexive aspect of this timeline is that upcoming columns are mostly empty, which is like a nod to how the writers of Better Call Saul (and Breaking Bad) planned each season piecemeal, breaking each season as they went along. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have been very open about how they repeatedly wrote themselves into and out of corners, and how their plans for certain characters would change significantly as the series progressed (notably, both Jesse and Nacho were originally supposed to die early on). So, here, with this diegetic timeline, the writing of the show becomes a bit like the con Jimmy and Kim are planning: they have a destination in mind, but they’re figuring out how to get there one piece/episode at time. 

Other thoughts:

- This is the third episode in a row where the goal in the next stage of Jimmy Kim's con has been withheld from us, and I’m starting to wonder if this is going to be a narrational pattern that we see every week: Jimmy and Kim work on some part of their Howard con, and we have to slowly piece it together through context clues. The show is really leaning hard on restricting our range of knowledge this season, and it’s extra evident because the show is doing it in both the legal and cartel halves of show, when previously, it was often reserved mostly for plots involving the cartel characters. 

- Jimmy will never learn of Nacho’s death, given that he guesses Walt and Jesse might have been sent by Nacho when he first meets them on Breaking Bad

- Neither Better Call Saul nor Breaking Bad were ever shows that liked to skip steps in processes. Here, we see many of the steps Nacho takes after escaping from the Cousins in “Carrot and Stick.”  Particularly poetic is his needing to hide in an abandoned and nearly empty oil tanker once his shot-up truck craps out. When the Cousins catch up to him, Nacho hides by submerging himself in what little oil is left in the tanker. The image serves as a fitting metaphor for all of the shit he’s gotten himself into by working for the cartel. The same goes for the money he leaves for a kindly mechanic who helps him scrub the oil off and lets him use his phone: the money is literally dirty. 

- I’m still bothered by the sloppiness of Gus’s plan for Lalo, although I suppose in Gus’s mind the possible blowback of being suspected of orchestrating Lalo’s assassination was outweighed by the necessity of removing Lalo from the picture. As we learned last season, Gus is under some pressure from Madrigal to get the super lab up and running, and he only feels it will be safe to do so once Lalo is dead. Thus the completion of the lab is worth the risk of being suspected for Lalo’s murder. Once again, part of the problem is that Gus keeps no confidants, so there isn’t really an organic opportunity for him to convey this to viewers.

- Add one more shot to the long list of creative Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul POV shots: a forklift POV. 

- Nacho gets a meal upon arriving in New Mexico, and it looks very much like takeout from Los Pollos Hermanos. 

- Bolsa tells Nacho that he’s going to die, but that he can choose how – a good death or a bad death – based on his willingness to confess. While he speaks, we can see some torture implements out of focus in the foreground, an obvious allusion to a “bad” death.

- Mike lobbies Gus to be present -- from a distance -- at Nacho’s confession on the premise that he will act as insurance if something goes wrong, but this is just a thinly veiled excuse for his affection for Nacho, and for wanting to be there with him in the end. In fact, he might insist on coming in order to make sure Nacho gets the clean death he’s been promised – should it come to it, Mike would likely shoot Nacho himself to spare Nacho any suffering.

- One more comparison between "Ozymandias" and the climax of "Rock and Hard Place": both scenes seem to show us the demise of a beloved character (Nacho, Jesse), except that Jesse survives his scene when it seems like he won't, while Nacho dies despite seeming like he has an ace up his sleeve (or rather, a shard of glass in his hand) 

- Shooting scenes takes time, and you can’t always control for weather when you’re outdoors on location, but I found very distracting the drastic changes in weather and lighting from shot to shot during the episode’s climax. Shots of Nacho and Bolsa featuring harsh, direct sunlight were cut together with evenly-lit shots of Gus in front of overcast skies (meanwhile, other shots of Gus also featured harsh, direct lighting). I suspect they had to do some reshoots on a different day. 

- Too bad Nacho never expressed how he felt about the Salamancas (“psycho sacks of shit”) to Gus directly prior to the climax of this episode. If he had, perhaps Gus would have been more willing to try to use the carrot on Nacho instead of the stick. Then again, Gus likely knew how Nacho felt, considering he knew Nacho was responsible for sabotaging Hector’s heart meds in the first place.

- No Lalo for the second episode in a row. Now that Nacho is off the board, I wonder what evidence he could possibly be seeking of Gus’s involvement in the attempted hit. Perhaps we’ll learn this next week.

- Adding to the tragic waste of Nacho’s death, and to the despicable nature of the Salamancas, the Cousins carry Hector’s wheelchair over to Nacho’s corpse so he can shoot it a few times himself. What a pathetic old man.

- Evidently Jimmy and Kim smoke in their apartment now, when before it was always on the balcony. Their giving up on the pretense of a “clean” apartment in their personal life is perhaps meant as a parallel for what’s happening in their professional lives. 

- Kim’s scene with Suzanne is somewhat like Howard’s scene with Kim from “Something Unforgiveable,” where Howard tried to warn Kim about Jimmy’s erratic behavior, although instead of Suzanne being concerned over Kim’s welfare, instead she’s dresses up her request for Kim's help as concern for Jimmy. Kim sees through it though her, somewhat like her dismissal of Howard. 

- Suzanne manages to work a suit metaphor into her description of Jimmy/Saul, stating that being a cartel lawyer “isn’t a suit that fits him.” It’s an appropriate metaphor, considering Saul’s wardrobe, even if Suzanne couldn’t be more wrong about him.

No comments:

Post a Comment