‘Better Call Saul’ Season 6, Episode 3 Review: ‘Rock and Hard Place’
The series responds to the inevitable, with this episode written and directed by Gordon Smith serving as both tribute and warning.
[Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 6, Episode 3, “Rock and Hard Place.”]
Looking back, the phone call was decisive. It’s a world where emotional phone conversations with family members can be death sentences in their own way. Ask Hank Schrader.
As soon as Nacho (Michael Mando) hangs up his father’s phone, his fate is effectively set. Caught in a standoff between rival factions eager to see him suffer, Nacho secures a few extra hours of freedom and (presumably) his father’s safety by agreeing to close some of Gus’s (Giancarlo Esposito) free ends with Don Hector (Mark Margolis). After escaping capture in the desert last week, Nacho agrees to point the finger elsewhere for Lalo’s (Tony Dalton) compound raid just before he receives a quick and painless execution by a desert sniper.
Getting to this point is a final round of trials for Nacho that represents all of the character’s strengths in the microcosm. There’s the physical part of the job, where the guy literally has to hold his breath to see if he survives. (The Cousins mythology runs so deep at this point that it’s no surprise they had all but x-ray vision to locate Nacho. He just manages to outlive them by precious seconds.) , this time with Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks) to secure his end of the bargain before surrendering. And there’s the lucid acceptance that violence is on the horizon, even if that means the pain is going to be directed directly at him.
“Rock and Hard Place” is steeped in tragedy, but the sense of inevitability in this phone call to Nacho’s father is where it hits hardest. Without having to trace their entire family history, this simple back-and-forth gives all the information to fulfill a father-son relationship filled with both love and disappointment. There’s no need for a tearful goodbye as the two seem to have already made peace with a tragic end, given Nacho’s chosen line of work. We’ve seen that Nacho is already past his breaking point, living on borrowed time. As Varga the elder asks, “What else is there to say?” Nacho’s decision is practically made.
This economical approach also plays into setting up the rest of Nacho’s final moments. Having already seen Gus/Mike’s stare last week, all we needed was the few words on the other side of that cell phone. Being hidden via a fake compartment in a cargo truck is normal for the “Better Call Saul” course at this point: a simple and effective method of getting a man to his destination, even if it’s unconventional. The preparation for the punch to the face that follows looks like Gus’ vindictive finishing touch. What better way for him to send a man to the gallows than with a black eye, proof to everyone (not just Hector) that he’s dying on someone else’s terms ?
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Mando and Banks beautifully play all the moments of silent recognition here. Each new microscopic grimace of recognition from Nacho hurts more than the last and, of course, Mike’s chosen method of toasting is simply to watch knowingly until he decides it’s time to drink. If there’s an ounce of virtue in what one or the other is doing, it’s not a triumphant ending. Seeing them knocked down in the final moments, with Nacho being the one with the steely determination and Mike the emotionally vulnerable one, just makes for a more thoughtful send off.
Episode writer/director Gordon Smith helps bring those strong undercurrents to the surface by removing as many variables as possible before the Kangaroo Court adjourns in the desert. All it takes is one more beat from Nacho staring at the glass to signal that this is the source of the teased sparkle in the cold open (unsurprisingly hypnotically). With all the pieces in play, the tension comes from Nacho’s choices and seeing how the consequences are distributed among those gathered.
There is so much deserved fury in this final statement from Nacho, a fiery last testament that does as much to clear his conscience as a few impassioned phrases can. Convinced he’s done enough to protect his family, he exposes the truth as he sees it, releasing some of his guilt before freeing his hands. Realizing the limits of what he can continue to evade, he chooses to shoot himself and saves Mike from having to make a decision to question loyalty himself. In those waning seconds, with Hector in the valley below draining a clip of frustration, the focus is on Mike, the man who survives with his own debt to pay off.
In true “Better Call Saul” fashion, the show is busy preparing for the next solar plexus punch before the first one even lands. Things seem to be going well for the McGill/Wexler family early on in “Rock and Hard Place.” They’re content and busy being the showrunners of Howard Hamlin’s demise, right down to the post-its that tell the story. Most couples don’t plan the destruction of a man’s career on their Corn Flakes, but it’s thanks to the special on-screen relationship that Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn forged through Jimmy and Kim that he there is still a touch of sweetness here. Even before their little hand-in-hand moment before they rush off for their respective days, there’s an intimacy and comfort there, which just so happens to be boosted by an elaborate ploy to frame their former boss.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
For all the heartache elsewhere, it’s incredible that “Better Call Saul” can hold both of those ideas at once, going from one man’s last days of opera to an old-school heist without breaking a sweat. The next phase of Operation Upbeat Is Bad involves gaining access to Howard’s car, which Jimmy eventually obtains with the help of an old friend. (Maybe it’s because he’s seen too many memes lying on top of a huge pile of stacked bills, but at this point Lavell Crawford brings with him a much-needed sense of calm whenever he returns to this history, even when Huell is involved in a race against the clock scheme.) With the help of your average neighborhood mobile copycat, Huell manages to steal Hamlin’s keys from the over-eager valet and get the most cumbersome to the world for Jimmy to use for his own purposes. As with the methods of Huell and his associate, there’s artistry in the way the show handles every step of the process. Smith having the attendant rush down the jagged stairwell, interspersed with filing the jagged notches on the key itself, all while Beethoven’s Emperor soars in the background? Wunderbar.
Much like Mike is the voice of reason in his own corner of Fringdom, Kim is now the pivotal person who can both enable and curb Jimmy’s ambition at various times. She’s the greatest force in keeping their respective plans on track, but she’s also there to deliver the hammer blow of reality. Here it’s all about relaying the idea that Suzanne Ericsen (Julie Pearl) is hot on the trail of Lalo and ready to start linking Goodman and De Guzman aliases. It helps that in “Better Call Saul” our protagonists may be one step ahead, but the people chasing them aren’t idiots. Kim, cigarette in hand and once again sobered up by a brush stroke with very real consequences, offers Jimmy a choice. He can either play ball with the DA’s office or slip further into cartel pockets. The fact that Smith follows this scene with Nacho putting the finishing touches to his “confession” shows that he may not have a good answer left to choose from.
Between Nacho and Jimmy, two men face questions they think they have answers to. Huell asks Jimmy why he chose to go after Howard, while Nacho’s father asks the rhetorical question that ends their phone call. But they both become perfect setups for the crucial question Kim asks near the end of the episode, whether it’s a “cartel friend” or “a rat.” In “Rock and Hard Place”, we see Nacho make his choice and leave the fray on his own terms. The entire script hasn’t been written yet, but it sure looks like the one man left standing could find himself facing an entirely opposite set of circumstances before this season ends.
“Better Call Saul” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on AMC and is available on AMC+.