Spoilers for this week's Better Call Saul after the jump:
I guess the first thing to note here is that "Rock and Hard Place" is the first episode of Better Call Saul in a long time to provide an exception to my longstanding opinion (one I reiterated in last week's review) that the show is almost always at its best whenever Kim and/or Jimmy are on screen. The last episode to truly test that idea was "Winner," which concluded a riveting fourth-season story arc for Mike with a scene in which he's ordered to kill Werner, the man he's formed a friendship with over the previous few episodes. That was devastating stuff, and while it happened in an episode that was also overflowing with great moments for Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, I would happily (well, not happily because again... devastating) admit that it was every bit the dramatic equal as any scene involving those two.
"Rock and Hard Place," on the other hand, isn't stacked with great Wexler/McGill scenes. It has some very good ones, of course, including the latest step in their Howard scheme, which involves a wonderfully constructed heist sequence involving a valet and a set of car keys. (What they plan to do with those keys remains unknown for now, but considering the angle they're using here, I'm thinking they may do something to his car that makes Cliff and others think he was driving around while high.) And as expected, Jimmy's slip-up with regards to Lalo's name now has the DA's office sniffing around him, with Suzanne Ericsen approaching Kim to suggest that "Saul" may have a way in which he can turn on Lalo and the cartel, should he want to. All of that stuff: excellent.
But this is an episode that's going to be remembered for one thing and one thing only: being the final hour for Michael Mando's Ignacio "Nacho" Varga. It's an extraordinary episode right from the start—that cold open is a classic Breaking Bad universe opening, showing you one of their trademark gorgeous desert landscapes (the way those blue flowers stand out against the background sure is something) before settling on an image of a piece of glass that doesn't yet make sense but seems full of portent. And indeed it is, foreshadowing the deal Nacho will make over the phone with Gus after his second narrow escape from the Salamanca cousins. (A sequence that manages to be almost as tense as the motel showdown despite the fact that we know Nacho is going to escape this time.)
Credit the show for acknowledging the obvious here: Gus is basically fucked unless Nacho plays ball, a fact that Nacho clearly relishes pointing out to the man who's been threatening him and his dad for the past two seasons. I don't think this necessarily makes the underlying building blocks of this storyline any less questionable—Nacho could've easily been captured in "Carrot and Stick," so it remains bizarre to me that Gus's plan up to this point has been to leave him twisting in the wind—but the logic here is stronger and lands with sickening clarity. The only way that Gus can be cleared of suspicion in the attack on Lalo (at least in the eyes of Bolsa and Eladio) is if Nacho voluntarily pins the blame on someone else—something he's willing to do, despite the fact that it means his death, as long as his father is kept safe.
Mando, great throughout his time on Better Call Saul, is nothing short of a powerhouse in this episode playing a man who's finally decided to reclaim some small amount of power back for himself after spending much of the series forced to serve the whims of others. He's heartbreaking in that phone call with his dad, which was the first thing that clued me in as to what might be coming, and the aforementioned way he speaks to Gus on the phone (before insisting that Mike, not Gus, be the one to guarantee his dad's safety) is a masterclass in venomous line delivery. His scenes with Mike, who offers him a nice meal and pours him a drink before he submits to a beating to sell the deception, are quieter but no less affecting for that. (They're also just as well played by Jonathan Banks, portraying a weary man who's about to lose another guy he's improbably come to care for.)
Beyond the impact of its performances and visual style, the episode's greatness strikes me as twofold. The first is the way that, despite the fact Nacho's doom feels all but guaranteed at this point, it still gives you just enough hope during these moments to keep you wondering if maybe there's another narrow escape somehow coming. When Mike insists on being present with his sniper rife for the exchange with the Salamancas, there has to be a small part of all of us that hoped it meant he'd find a way to help engineer Nacho's survival from his perch on high (even though everyone who's watched Breaking Bad knows that nobody else in that scene dies at this moment in time). It wouldn't have made sense, really, but the hope is still there until the moment it's fully gone.
The second is that, while the final scene of "Rock and Hard Place" may in some respects be the saddest moment in Better Call Saul's run so far, the monologue Nacho delivers moments before his death is so thrillingly righteous that I don't think it can be described as a complete downer ending. After sticking to the script initially, he's pressed for more information by Bolsa (doing Hector's bidding) and goes off-book, turning toward Gus before laughing at the very idea that the "chicken man" could be responsible for any of this and proceeding to convey the depths of his hatred for the Salamancas. It's one of those classic "lie mixed with enough truth to be believable" moments—he leaves out Gus's blackmail, but there's no doubt he means every word otherwise. Mando is simply unreal here, his voice dripping with disdain and rage as he tells Hector to his face "I put you in that chair," taunting the other man before breaking free of his restraints, grabbing Bolsa's gun, and (after a brief standoff) shooting himself in the head. And all Hector can do after that is be carried over to uselessly fire a few more bullets into his body.
It's as triumphant a finale as Nacho's story was probably ever going to have, in all honesty (much as I'd hoped otherwise). And yes, it's also a triumph (like "Bagman" before it) against the conventional wisdom that Better Call Saul doesn't do itself any favors when it tries to be too much like Breaking Bad. I still believe that's mostly true of the show's greatest hours, mind you, but I'm thinking about that old screenwriting adage that every so often you have to know when to break the rules. Ignacio Varga is a character you break the rules for. I'm devastated, but at least the man went out in legendary fashion, while also giving this great series another hour for the history books.
- Tough to get a complete read on what Kim is thinking during the conversation with Ericsen, because there's a part of her that's clearly affected by some of the things Suzanne says. But she also makes a point of calling Jimmy "Saul" and throws Suzanne's "scumbag" remark from season four back in her face. (Presumably she also hasn't forgotten about the fact that Suzanne tried to throw the book at Huell for no good reason other than because a cop wanted her to, or the way other prosecutors have tried to screw over her pro bono clients.)
- More from Nacho's final parting shot to Hector: "So when you are 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." The way Mando's voice turns into a growl on those final few words: incredible stuff.
- Huell is a good friend for realizing the scheme he was hired for probably won't end well and trying to talk Jimmy out of it.
- Next week's episode is titled "Hit and Run," which I think furthers my theory as to what Jimmy and Kim might want with Howard's car. I'll probably be wrong, though.