“Nacho Varga,” says cartel capo Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) with an admiring grin, “You are a badass.” Guy’s got a point. Watching Nacho (Michael Mando) leap between rooftops and dodge a DEA strike team by the skin of his teeth to recover a trove of crystal meth is as anxiously propulsive as anything Better Call Saul has done to date. That he’s doing it to keep Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) from having his innocent father killed twists an extra strand of high-tension wire around the whole sequence, and up close the usually silent Mando’s body fairly vibrates with the strain. Sweat slicks his skin. His chest heaves. There’s no sense of triumph when he pulls off his impromptu heist, just the nauseating sense that by winning his way into Salamanca’s good graces he’s swimming even further from the shore.
Mando’s performance has developed slowly over the show’s run, his long silences and soft, quiet voice layering over one another. He seldom moves quickly. He seldom raises his voice. But what began as a natural inclination has become a vital part of the high-wire act that is his life. Caught between the anvil of the cartel and the hammer of Gus Fring he must choose his every word with desperate care. The impression he gives after years of living in this way is of a man stretched out to the point of transparency, his personality under such brutal strain that all its color has bled out and blown away like smoke. It’s a masterpiece of acting, a lush portrait daubed not in vibrant color but in murky shadow.
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On the other side of the law, more or less, the newly minted “Saul Goodman” (Bob Odenkirk) is always selling something. A lavish new house to his girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn). A plea deal to his counterparts in the DA’s office. A faked elevator malfunction to said office’s maintenance tech. He’s hustling, which is what we’ve watched him do since we first met him back in Breaking Bad.
Every interaction is a sales pitch, every social dynamic a pinball machine he can tilt if he just works hard enough in his own particular underhanded way. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what he’s really trying to sell is himself, that with the childish trick of a swapped name he’s displaced his guilt over his elder brother Chuck’s (Michael McKean) horrific death and now he’s eager to get everyone around him to drink the same medicine.
It’s particularly pitiful to see in action when he takes Kim to look at a house, a huge, yawning space with modernist white walls and decor. Kim, struggling with guilt over her boyfriend’s shady legal practice and moral compromises, is visibly uncomfortable. Seehorn does great work as a woman stiffly hiding the depth of her inner turmoil from her significant other as he daydreams about their future.
When she tells him “I don’t want to lie to my clients — ever” in connection to their fight in last week’s episode it sounds less like she’s taking a stand and more like she’s bargaining with herself, a blurry reflection of Jimmy’s titular “50% off” deal for legal representation in cases of non-violent crime. He can be corrupt, as long as it doesn’t touch my work. As long as I can vent my anger about it over picayune bullshit. As long as I can close my eyes and make believe it isn’t really happening.