Caution: spoilers ahead for Better Call Saul season 6, episode 3
The manner of Nacho’s death in Better Call Saul season 6 explains why Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring are still working together during the Breaking Bad era. Since first making each other’s acquaintance in Better Call Saul season 3, Gus and Mike have forged a natural pairing. Gus puts the “organized” in organized crime, scrupulously detailed in the planning and execution of his operation. He’s complimented perfectly by the professional, reliable, no-nonsense philosophy of Mike, but the pair have frequently clashed over one matter – Nacho Varga.
Gus blackmailed Nacho into becoming his mole behind Salamanca lines, but while Mike is adamant the informant should be released as reward for his service, Gus would rather play whack-a-mole, tying off a loose end. This difference of opinion creates a problem for Breaking Bad. By the time Walter White enters New Mexico’s meth picture, Gus and Mike are tighter than ever – their working relationship even more entrenched than in Better Call Saul. Mike harbored a great fondness for Nacho, perceiving him as a surrogate son figure, so if Gus got his way and killed his secret spy, Mike would surely resent the Chicken Man, not become a closer associate.
Nacho’s Better Call Saul season 6 death untangles that mystery. If Gus Fring had simply ordered Nacho be gunned down in cold blood, begging for mercy and sobbing, it’s very hard to imagine Mike remaining loyal to his boss into Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul pretty much confirms this in season 6’s “Rock & Hard Place” when Mike refuses to kidnap Nacho’s father. This rare show of defiance proves Mike has reached the limit of what he’s prepared to do, and demonstrates his increasing ire over Gus’ Nacho stance. Rather than being brutally murdered on Gus’ command, however, Nacho Varga takes matters into his own oily hands. It’s Nacho himself who calls Gus and proposes a compromise – death in exchange for his father’s guaranteed safety. Fast-forward to the big day, and Nacho almost manages to break free, using a shard of glass (possibly left intentionally by Mike) to grab Juan Bolsa as a hostage. Rather than attempting to fight or flee, however, Nacho chooses a path of non-violence and takes his own life.
Obviously, this is far from Nacho’s ideal scenario – he’d much rather have grabbed his dad and escaped the cartel forever using fake IDs. Ultimately, Gus Fring is also still responsible for orchestrating Nacho’s demise. But Gus doesn’t execute the mole directly, and Nacho takes agency of his final moments by prioritizing his father above all else. Mike may forever resent how Nacho was cornered into such an awful situation, but he can’t hold Gus guilty of the young man’s murder. Blaming cartel culture would be more accurate. Nacho taking his own life on his own terms (partially, at least), rather than simply being shot on Gus Fring’s say-so, neatly explains why Mike Ehrmantraut can stomach working for his current employer through to the Breaking Bad era.
Balancing the Gus-Mike dynamic is yet another example of how Nacho Varga’s Better Call Saul season 6 death is pitched to perfection. Because he doesn’t let Nacho go free, Gus still feels like a dastardly, evil villain. But because Nacho chooses his own path at the very end, Mike doesn’t look like a total hypocrite for continuing his Los Pollos Hermanos association in Breaking Bad. You could even say that Mike eventually honors Nacho’s memory by helping guide another young man trapped in the cartel’s darkness – a certain Jesse Pinkman.
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Better Call Saul continues Monday on AMC.