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Requiem for a Nacho

In a world where it’s easy for characters to break bad and fall down a slippery slope, Nacho Varga of ‘Better Call Saul’ embraces the challenge of becoming a better person

AMC/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

“Today, you are going to die. But there are good deaths, and there are bad deaths.”

For all the understandable concern that Better Call Saul fans hold about Kim Wexler and her absence from Breaking Bad, there hasn’t been a character traveling a more perilous journey on the prequel series than Nacho Varga. Ever since he was introduced as the right-hand man of the violently unpredictable Tuco Salamanca, Nacho has found himself in the crosshairs of some of the Breaking Bad universe’s most formidable villains—the Salamancas, Gus Fring, Don Eladio—and had his eye on getting out of the game. His kindly father wants him to go to the police, but Nacho knows that’s not an option—the men he works for would have no qualms killing family members to send a message. As a result, Nacho has long been trapped in a hell of his own making.

While Better Call Saul is largely about what happens when well-intentioned people make the wrong choices that set them down a darker path, Nacho is a character experiencing the inverse. (As far as Breaking Bad comparisons go, Nacho’s moral trajectory feels reminiscent of Jesse Pinkman’s.) But for Nacho, the path to redemption is easier said than done. Every time it seems like he’s found a way to escape the cartel (switching out Hector’s heart medication and leaving him in a wheelchair-bound state) another problem presents itself (Fring finding out that Nacho switched the meds and blackmailing him into servitude). Heading into the show’s sixth season, with Nacho trapped in the heart of Salamanca territory after being blamed for Lalo’s assassination and Fring looking to silence the one person who could expose his treacherous nature, things have never been more precarious for our ruminative antihero.

Picking up from the two-part premiere, Monday night’s “Rock and Hard Place” sees Nacho desperately trying to escape from the Cousins, who are relentlessly pursuing him across Mexico like Anton Chigurh(s) with better fashion sense. The pickup truck he jacked from the dinky motel has been riddled with bullets, so Nacho’s only recourse is to hide in an oil tank and submerge himself in an icky buildup of sludge. (Somehow, he’s downgraded from being holed up in a motel room with a busted A/C unit.) But Nacho’s impressive evasion tactics are only delaying the inevitable: At some point, he’s going to have to give himself up to Fring or risk being caught by the Salamancas.

Just as Nacho knows that the Salamancas will torture him for information about who ordered the attack on Lalo’s compound, he understands that Fring can’t be trusted. But if there’s one person in the show’s criminal underworld who actually has his back, it’s Mike Ehrmantraut. Nacho and Mike have developed a mutual respect over the course of Better Call Saul, one defined by their adherence to a similar moral code. They’re both insistent on innocent lives being spared among the cartel-related bloodshed, and Nacho’s father certainly fits that description. (It’s clear that Mike’s admiration for Nacho and his dad is at least partially born out of his own failings to protect his son back when he was a crooked cop in Philadelphia.)

Having thrown the Cousins off his scent, Nacho cleans himself up at a local auto repair shop, where the mechanic offers him a fresh set of clothes. The stranger’s kindness reminds Nacho of his father, himself a mechanic. Nacho borrows the mechanic’s phone and gives his dad a call. “Just wanted to hear your voice,” a weary Nacho says. Once again, his father insists that he has to do the right thing and take what he knows to the authorities. “What else is there to say?” he says to his son before hanging up. If only it were that easy.

The longer Nacho stays on the run, the more incentive Fring has to use his father as collateral—no matter how much Mike disapproves of putting a good person in harm’s way. But the last thing Nacho wants is for anything to happen to his dad, so he agrees to give himself up to Fring for the guarantee of his father’s safety. (He might not trust Fring—and rightly so—but he knows that Mike will keep his word.) And so Fring’s men successfully sneak him back across the border in a delivery truck, planning to hand him over to the Salamancas. Nacho will claim that he’s been on the payroll of a rival gang from Peru that ordered the hit against Lalo, and instead of leaving him to be tortured by the Salamancas, they’ll give him a quick death after he tries to stage an escape on foot.

As far as tidying up loose ends, it’s a win for Fring at the expense of Nacho’s life. The fact that Nacho is willing to sacrifice himself for his father is a testament to his virtuous nature, but with Better Call Saul, the audience always expects characters to be two steps ahead. Surely, Nacho is playing some type of 4D chess that even the scrupulous Fring is unaware of. For all the ways that Better Call Saul has been a brilliant and meticulously plotted prequel, perhaps its most impressive quality is how the series’ brain trust has repeatedly written itself out of corners. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jimmy McGill’s grifts, it’s that the people making this show are smarter than I’ll ever be.) But for the Nacho conundrum—he’s never seen in Breaking Bad, though he’s ominously mentioned by name in Saul Goodman’s first appearance on the show—the best solution turned out to be the most obvious one.

After Nacho is brought in front of the Cousins and Hector Salamanca, he’s given an ultimatum by Don Eladio’s trusted lieutenant, Juan Bolsa. “Today, you are going to die,” Bolsa tells him. “But there are good deaths and there are bad deaths. Tell me what I need to know, I’ll see that your death is a good one.” Despite having several guns aimed at him, Nacho wields the most power in this scene: his confession could destroy Fring’s master plan to overthrow Eladio and the Salamancas. But Breaking Bad fans know that Fring’s vengeance does eventually come to fruition; besides, Nacho wants to protect his dad. But he goes above and beyond what’s required of him: As an incapacitated Hector tries to pin the blame on Fring by pointing at him and ringing his bell, Nacho unloads years of resentment against his former boss. “I opened Lalo’s gate and I would do it again and I’m glad what they did to him,” Nacho says. “He’s a soulless pig, and I wish I killed him with my own hands, and you know what else, Hector? I put you in that chair.”

Hector’s eyes light up with rage—once again, Mark Margolis does an incredible job of conveying a multitude of emotions in his character’s incapacitated state—as Nacho delivers a savage kicker: “When you are sitting in your shitty nursing home and you’re sucking down your Jell-O night after night for the rest of your life, you think of me, you twisted fuck.” Before the Salamancas can retaliate, Nacho breaks free of his restraints using a shard of glass he swiped from Fring’s office, grabs a gun, and uses Bolsa as a human shield. At this point, surrounded by an ensemble that all survives through Breaking Bad—Bolsa included—both Nacho and the show have run out of moves. His father’s safety ensured, Nacho points the gun at his temple and pulls the trigger.

It’s an outcome that knocks a major chess piece off the board early in Better Call Saul’s final season, with Kim and Lalo being the only major characters left whose fates are undetermined. (You could throw Howard Hamlin in there, but he’s never crossed over to the cartel side of the show.) Nacho is hardly the first likable character in the Breaking Bad universe to meet a gruesome end, but at the very least, he goes out on his own terms. Not only does Nacho guarantee that nothing happens to his wholesome father, but he gloated to Hector’s face about leaving him incapacitated—a move reminisicent of Game of Thrones’ Olenna Tyrell confessing to poisoning Joffrey Baratheon before meeting her end. (If anything, Nacho has the best F-you death since Hector himself, who iconically detonated a bomb strapped to his wheelchair to turn Fring into Two-Face.)

While it would’ve been satisfying to see Nacho break free from the criminal underworld not unlike Jesse’s epilogue in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, his selfless sacrifice underlines the love and devotion he held for his father. In a world where it’s easy for characters to break bad and fall down a slippery slope, Nacho embraced the challenge of becoming a better person. As for Michael Mando, the Canadian actor imbued his character with pathos through sullen, soulful expressions; like Margolis, he did some of his best acting on the series with his expressive eyes. Mando made Nacho easy to root for, no matter how much his character’s arc felt doomed from the jump. None of this makes Nacho’s demise any less devastating, but his moral conviction throughout the series showed how honor can exist among thieves. Nacho’s journey on Better Call Saul might have ended on Monday night, but he went out with a good death.