Better Call Saul star Michael Mando breaks down Nacho's fate
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Warning: This story contains plot details from Monday's episode of Better Call Saul, "Rock and Hard Place."
Let us now raise a broken glass to Nacho Varga. You can skip the farewell speech, though, because you won't top his.
The crafty criminal with a conscience — who became a Salamanca right hand man-turned-Fring informant — survived too many close calls (and two bullets) in the treacherous cartel games of Better Call Saul. But the third episode of the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad prequel would prove to be the end of the dirt road. At the conclusion of season 5, Nacho (Michael Mando) had no choice but to facilitate a plan by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) to assassinate Juarez cartel player Lalo (Tony Dalton), and as that mission went up in gun smoke, Nacho went on the run (and found a suboptimal submerged hideout in an oil tanker). Set up with shelter at a Mexican motel by Mike (Jonathan Banks), he deduced that he was being, actually, set up: He was a wanted/dead man by all sides. But there was one thing he had in his favor: He could divert the heat and suspicion away from the Chicken Man. And he used that leverage to guarantee the safety of his father, Manuel (Juan Carlos Cantu), who had long urged his son to turn himself into the police. And to whom Nacho would make a final emotional call.
The plan was simple and grim: Gus would deliver a ziptied Nacho to Hector (Mark Margolis) — who was flanked by the Cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada) — Nacho would confess a concocted story about who ordered the hit, and as he'd try to escape, Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) would shoot him dead, saving him from a tortuous end. But after his last meal, Nacho improvised a new plan when Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) ordered him to spill the details. He delivered an epic, electric speech to Hector that doubled down on the assassination attempt of Hector's nephew ("He's a soulless pig and I wish I had killed him with my own hands"), revealed that he was the reason that Hector wound up in the wheelchair via Operation Pill Swap ("When you are sitting in your s---ty nursing home and you're sucking down on your Jell-o night after night for the rest of life, you think of me, you twisted f---"), and delivered the exoneration ("You were dead and buried, and I had to watch this asshole bring you back," he said while nodding to Gus), all while on his knees.
Having secreted away a shard of glass from Gus' accident in the previous episode, Nacho sliced off his cuffs, stabbed Bolsa in the leg, and took him hostage at gunpoint. With Mike watching through the scope of his gun at a great distance (and muttering for Nacho to "do it"), Nacho was in control of his destiny in his final moments, ending the standoff by turning the gun on himself. The episode concluded with Hector repeatedly, if feebly, shooting his lifeless body.
Ten episodes from the end, the Better Call Breaking Bad universe had offered up one of its most gripping and inevitable deaths, a man resolute in purpose — and in self-sacrifice. "Nacho transcends himself," is how co-creator Peter Gould hinted at what awaited this tragic figure in this final season. "Nacho becomes the man he was always meant to be."
The man who played Ignacio deftly and thoughtfully calls that potent send-off "operatic, symbolic, and beautiful... We get the opportunity to truly see inside Nacho's soul." It's time to cut off our own zip-tie cuffs, rip the tape off our mouth, and ask the one we truly need to hear it from, Michael Mando, for his insights into Nacho's last stand — and what it's like to bid farewell to the ABQ.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: R.I.P., Nacho. How long have you been living with this death sentence, and what was your reaction to the initial pitch on how he would meet his end?
MICHAEL MANDO: I was in Montreal. I think it was around the end of 2020, beginning of 2021. [Executive producer] Melissa Bernstein called and said, "Peter and Vince [Gould and Gilligan, the show's creators] would like to talk to you." And it was just a really beautiful conversation. A lot of beautiful words were exchanged and there was just a sense of family and gratitude, and they had promised me that it was going to be epic and heroic and tragic at the same time. And that I would be very happy. And they were right.
That was one of the most charged, memorable speeches we've seen on Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul — shades of "Ozymandias" with Hank (Dean Norris), but also Walt's (Bryan Cranston) call to Skyler (Anna Gunn), where he's saying one thing but there's another layer and meaning. What kind of levels were you playing in that moment?
It was a really fantastical moment. The first time around, we had a huge sandstorm take over and we had to stop shooting. We couldn't shoot my coverage. We had done everyone else's coverage. When I got home the second day, lightning had struck the tree in front of my house and I couldn't get in because the tree had fallen onto my driveway.
It was an incredible episode to shoot. [Off the set], I had cut my finger really deep and lost sensation in all of my left hand and had to be rushed to the hospital, because I couldn't tell if I was having a heart attack or if I couldn't feel the nerve in my hand, because all I kept feeling was tingling in my shoulder. So it was just a magical moment, you know?
The ancient Egyptians used to weigh the heart of the dead man against the weight of a feather. And if his heart was lighter than a feather, then he would go to heaven. I feel Nacho's heart was being weighed — not only to all these future dead men in the scene, because everybody else dies. But also to the world. He had the skyline in front of him and he was sort of speaking his piece to the gods as well. To me, he was doubling down on his love for his father…. This is the speech that doubles down what I feel in regards to killing innocent lives. He hates this idea that tough guys need to kill for fun or pleasure. He dislikes the idea of greed and corruption and he wants nothing to do with it. And it's his chance of standing up for what he believes is right.
Did you try different calibrations on the speech? And was there any dialogue that was cut?
I haven't seen it yet, so I can't tell you what was cut or what wasn't. The day before the sandstorm, I was doing it in a specific way, and the next day Gordon [Smith, an executive producer who wrote and directed the episode] had an idea and it took me in a completely different way. And that's when I realized that this was not an f-you speech, this was a speech that is filled with the underlying values and integrity of who Nacho really is, and where he'd like to see his community go. That's also very important because to Nacho, his community is his father, it's not the cartel. He sees his community as virtuous and full of integrity and morality. And that's what he wishes for others of his community as well.
When Mike is watching Nacho hold the gun to Bolsa's head, he mutters, "Do it." Is he hoping that Nacho would kill Bolsa, or is he saying, "Do your job," which is, "Die and ensure your father's safety." And with the gun, Nacho can now end things on his terms.
I think Mike is a conflicted character morally at this point. For most of the show, Nacho's been looking at Mike for guidance. In this point, Nacho transcends that relationship. I'm not really sure what Mike is really thinking anymore; you have to ask Jonathan Banks that, because the characters — even though there's still a deep love and respect for each other — have sworn allegiances to different sides. Nacho is breaking good and Mike is breaking bad, and they kind of leave each other at that point.
Once he figured out he was going to use that glass shard from Gus' dropped glass — and he's always so crafty — did that give him any last-minute hope possibly of getting out of this? Or once he made that call to his dad and to Gus, did accept everything and was prepared to die and this gave him agency in that? What do you think was going through Nacho's head in that moment?
Nacho has made the decision to die during the phone call with his father. I believe it is in that moment that he understood his father wasn't going to escape with him and that his father didn't understand the severity [of the situation] in which his son was in. And I think in that moment, Nacho understood that I am going to secure my father's life by sacrificing mine. The piece of glass is just an idea at that point to guarantee himself that he will do it the right way. At this point, he no longer has given the full confidence to Mike and he [lost] confidence in Gus a long time ago. And he really puts full faith into himself. And that piece of glass is him assuring he's in control, and that he's going to do this right, that he's not depending on anybody anymore.
There's a lot of symbolism in that whole episode. If you really look even at the patterns on Nacho's shirt, the piece of jewelry that he keeps and throws everything else away, the bloody money that he gets rid of, the cleansing of darkness, the last meal. It's just such an incredibly poetic episode. It's a beautiful episode, and it transcends life. Usually to defy death, you live, but in this very, very specific, beautifully, written, tragic moment to embrace life, you need to die.
Not unlike Mike, Nacho had a code. He cared deeply for his father, and for those who chose not to involve themselves in crime. He realized that these were choices that he made and he accepted the responsibility. Those people did not, so leave them alone. In the end, after that speech, how do you view his soul? You mentioned the Egyptian analogy.
It's an epic, iconic character that is very Greek tragedy in some ways; it reminds me of Romeo and Juliet or Orpheus Descending, about a man who descends into hell to save the person he loves at the condition that he can never turn around and look back or that person turns to stone. I'd like to imagine this character as a tragic, heroic, romantic figure.
Vince told me [he is] a samurai without a master. Somebody at AMC told me he's the king of soul. Somebody else told me "the prodigal son." People seem to have these quotes for him that I find really interesting: "Breaking good." There's a lot of beauty around that character, and I just feel so grateful that the writers have given me the responsibility to play this dream role.
Is it possible that viewers will see you again before the end of the show, in a flashback?
That would be a Peter and Vince question.
Nacho's name comes up in season 2 of Breaking Bad, when Saul (Bob Odenkirk) pleads with Walt and Jesse that "it wasn't me, it was Ignacio" and he asks if Lalo sent them. How much more to the story is there to get to that moment?
That's a Vince and Peter question. [Laughs].... We've sworn an allegiance to keep our lips sealed.
What's the first thing that pops into your head to sum up your six seasons on Better Call Saul? Gratitude certainly sounds like one.
The first thing that comes to mind, other than "gratitude" and "dream role" — because you never know what character you're playing until the end. I never knew that this guy was going to be such a fan favorite. It's an unbelievable feeling of gratitude that that character became that to so many people. Same thing with a lot of people inside the show and the crew. Other than the gratitude, I had the opportunity to learn so much from these pros, in front and behind the camera. I had the opportunity to learn about producing, about writing in the writers' room, and about leadership. And I can't wait to take these lessons and apply them on my next journey.
Can you talk about that next journey?
I'm very interested in developing with producers and co-creating. I'm interested in a lot of great up-and-coming directors who have cool ideas. I like genre films. I like Westerns, sci-fis, psychological thrillers. I like action films with a very solid, dramatic core to them. So I'm very excited for the future and very grateful for the past.
What should be written on Nacho's tombstone?
"Love conquers all."
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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