Editor’s note: The below interview contains major spoilers for Better Call Saul Season 6 Episode 3, “Rock and Hard Place.”
The long-running AMC series Better Call Saul might technically serve as a prequel to breaking bad, but has carved out a storytelling niche all its own in the realm of drama television thanks to unexpected twists and phenomenal performances. The show chronicles the journey of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a former conman who aspires to become a decent lawyer, through his seemingly-inevitable descent into the role of crooked criminal defense attorney Saul Goodman. Throughout the prior five seasons, Jimmy’s backstory has played almost in tandem with flash-forward scenes from his post-breaking bad life, as we learn more about the people who played such a formative role in shaping his burgeoning professional career in law (like his now-wife Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehornor his now-late older brother Charles McGill, played by Michael McKean). We also learn how Jimmy’s path first crossed with that of former police officer and security expert Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks), and how he ultimately became a “friend of the cartel” rather unwittingly, thanks to tangling with members of the deadly Salamanca crime family, spearheaded by the unpredictable Lalo (Tony Dalton), who frequently clashes with rival drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
Ahead of the premiere of Better Call Saul Season 6’s third episode, Collider had the opportunity to speak with Michael Mando, who plays cartel lieutenant Nacho Varga, about his character’s most pivotal moments from “Rock and Hard Place.” Over the course of the interview, which you can read below, Mando spoke about when he first learned about Nacho’s sendoff from the series and why the episode is rich with symbolism for his character from him. He also revealed what Nacho is thinking during that phone call to his father de el, what the final drink between Nacho and Mike symbolizes, how a sandstorm interrupted shooting the episode’s final moments, and more.
Collider: As I watched this episode, I found myself thinking, “When is Nacho going to get a break in all this?” and then the ending happened, and I guess I have my answer. At what point over your time on the show did you first learn about what Nacho’s fate was going to be? Was it between seasons, or was it prior to filming? What was that conversation like?
MICHAEL MANDO: I had a call the winter before we started shooting, and Vince [Gilligan]peter [Gould]and Melissa [Bernstein] told me that they’d been cooking this operatic, larger-than-life sendoff for Nacho and that it was going to break the internet. I just felt a tremendous amount of gratitude, and I was excited to play this character that was essentially… as the whole show was breaking bad, he was doubling down and was going to break good.
At the beginning of the episode, Nacho has just escaped that firefight and climbs into that rusted-out tanker, and then he basically has to submerge himself in oil to hide. What actual substance did they have you getting into for that scene? Do you remember what it was?
CONTROL: Yeah. That whole episode was beautifully written and directed by Gordon Smith, and it was full of symbolism. Him descending into that dark stuff was actually a… it’s oil in the show, but in real life, it’s a vegetable-based substance. And it was just beautiful to come out of that, the womb of that metal thing in the middle of the night, with the star-filled sky. For Nacho to have his last goodbye and his last meal and that final trial scene with the open sky, almost as if he’s speaking to the heavens, it’s just such a beautiful episode.
I’m glad you brought up the last meal scene because I think there’s something really lovely in that it’s the final scene we get between Nacho and Mike alone together, sharing that drink before Mike has to convincingly rough him up for the cartel to buy what’s happened. How was it to film that final moment with Jonathan Banks?
COMMAND: Jonathan Banks is a dear friend of mine. It was a beautiful scene that really meant so much in the symbolism of it. It was the moment where Nacho and Mike are closest, but it’s the last moment that they’re… It’s almost like they’re both crossing. Mike is veering to the bad side and Nacho has decided to go to the good side, and this is the last moment where they can really look at each other in the eyes and say goodbye as they’re metaphysically heading into opposite sides of the spectrum.
Another goodbye is the scene that we get with Nacho on the phone with his father. Do you think that he had already made up his mind about what he was going to do at that moment, he had resolved himself that he was heading toward the end?
MANDO: You ask very specific stuff, and I love it. You’re bringing me back to these moments, and they’re great. In that moment, Nacho is free. He’s escaped. He’s won. He’s looking at the sunset, and he’s looking back and telling his father, “Come with me,” and his father says, “No,” and it’s in that moment that Nacho makes the decision that he’s going to sacrifice his life for that of his father. That’s the defining moment in Nacho’s life and in his iconography of him, and then, at the very end of the episode, he has to put that… He has to basically stand up for what he believes in, but he makes the decision in that phone call.
Why do you think Nacho makes the decision by the end that he’s going to go out, as opposed to maybe trying to run with Mike’s help? He gets in that one last jab at Hector, too, which also really feels like something that he is able to unload before the end.
NACHO: The last moment where Nacho and Mike are seeing eye to eye, I think, is when they drink together. Mike has sworn his allegiances to Gus and not to Nacho. Mike’s presence of him in that final scene is not to back up Nacho at all. It’s really to back up Gus. Nacho transcends every… relationship with everybody in the cartel, including Mike. He becomes the only person who’s really breaking good at that point, and he’s really essentially all on his own.
The reason why he doesn’t turn his gun on any of the other men is because these characters are not real. They’re iconographies, and the iconography of Nacho is that of true love, sacrifice, and bravery in the face of adversity, so it’s essential that his last act be an act of sacrifice and not an act of anger or vengeance, but an act of transcendence.
I do want to ask you about filming that final scene because it brings a lot of characters together in the same space for the first time in a while. What was the mood like on that day with cast and crew?
MANDO: It was an unbelievable episode to shoot. The episode was full of symbolism, and our life experience was full of symbolism. That first day they had the cameras on the Salamancas and Fring and his men from him, and right before they turned around on Nacho, a huge sandstorm hit us, and we had to leave and run home before our cars got stuck. When I got home, lightning had struck the tree in front of my house, and it fell in front of my driveway.
The next day, when we turned the camera on Nacho, the crew was all wearing Nacho T-shirts and had the eardrop tattoos, and I realized that the character meant so much to so many people, and it filled me up with a tremendous sense of gratitude and responsibility. I think in the same way that the character was transcending himself, we were all understanding the final iconography of his character, and we were all celebrating him as well.
Season 6 of Better Call Saul airs Monday nights at 9 PM ET/PT on AMC.
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