There’s a difference between a bad guy and a villain. A bad guy just needs to do bad stuff: rob banks, murder some people, kidnap the protagonist’s love interest or child or dog. Gus Fring, the drug-slinging chicken man from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, is a great bad guy. He’s brilliant and ruthless and meticulous, he plans things out carefully and gives speeches about it all and his stare can lower the temperature of the room he’s in by 15-20 degrees. I love Gus Fring. He is not, however, a great villain.
A villain needs something more, a joy in doing bad, an infectious charisma, the sense that they really like being as evil as they can be. Justified was a show with a lot of good villains: Boyd Crowder, Mags Bennett, Wynn Duffy, etc. Even its secondary villains were great, your Limehouses and Quarlses and Dickie Bennetts. They all had great one-liners and personality for days and that intangible magnetism a good villain has. The Breaking Bad universe, an almost-perfect television empire, has not had great villains, historically. Bad guys galore, all of them conflicted and menacing, but missing that charm: Tuco (meth-addled maniac), Gus Fring (see above), the Nazis (uh… Nazis). Heck, even Walter White, destroyer of worlds and families, wasn’t really what I would consider a full-on villain. It was the one glaring flaw in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Until the fifth season of Better Call Saul. Enter Lalo Salamanca.
If we want to be technical about all of this, Lalo made his debut in the fourth season. After Hector was poisoned and Tuco went to jail, he came in to fill the void in the spot above Nacho in the cartel. He was fun even then, cooking in the kitchen and smiling a lot and carrying around this sense of impending doom wherever he went, like that grin could disappear at any moment and be replaced with the narrowed eyes of a killer. A good character, sure, and someone to keep Nacho in constant fear and be a much-needed worthy adversary for Gus Fring until a certain bald chemistry teacher shows up. A chaos agent to introduce conflict on that side of the show. Fine, great, wonderful.
But this most recent season, as it progressed and the show’s two worlds started merging, with Jimmy becoming “a friend of the cartel” through his relationship with Nacho and Mike, both of whom are now firmly in Gus Fring’s orbit… hoo boy. Lalo became a star. He’s a back-slapping, charismatic terror, a thorn in the side of every main character on the show. He’s waging war against Gus and Mike, he’s now suspicious that Nacho conspired to assassinate him, he showed up at Jimmy and Kim’s door looking for answers. He has his giddy little fingers in everything and he is having the time of his life.
It’s not just that he’s a blast, although it is very much that, as the GIF above indicates. Tony Dalton and the writers of the show seem to be having a ball playing around with this lunatic, to a degree that is almost obscene. I’m still flabbergasted that they could just go out and create a top ten — top five? — character in the whole Breaking Bad universe almost 12 full seasons into their run. It’s witchcraft is what it is. We should consider burning them at the stake. Once they’re done making this show. And maybe a Lalo prequel. We can just have the stake ready. Put it in the basement for now.
But again, there’s more there than charisma. Lalo would be a good character even if he was mostly just comic relief. What makes Lalo great, though, is how staggeringly competent he is. His suspicions about both Nacho and Jimmy? Totally justified. Nacho very much did have a part in the assassination attempt; Jimmy lied through his teeth about his desert debacle. Lalo sniffed out both of these betrayals almost immediately, like he has a superpower for it. I made the argument a few weeks ago that he was basically Spider-man, between this hyper-sensitive sense for danger and his shocking athleticism. This last part cannot be overstated. Look at him burst through the ceiling in season four to kill the poor innocent travel agent who saw too much.
Look at him leap into a dang ravine to get a closer look at Jimmy’s bullet-riddled abandoned car.
And that was before the season five finale, when he pulled a Kevin McCallister by defending his home from intruders by using bubbling oil as a booby trap and secret passages as routes for both escape and ambush. It was a strange spot to be in as a viewer. We know he’s a bad guy. We know any success he has will come at a cost to characters we care about, like Nacho and Kim and Mike. And yet, there I was, nervous about sweet evil mustachioed prince getting hurt. I will be inconsolable when he dies. It’s fine. I’m doing fine.
And let’s be clear here: Lalo will not make it out of this alive, in all likelihood. It’s one of the tricky parts of a prequel. We know the fates of a set of characters who make it to Breaking Bad. Gus and Mike are both there for a while, thriving, and the look on Lalo’s face at the end of this season after he killed their assassins… well, it was not the face of a man who is prepared to consider it water under the bridge. It was the face of a man who wants to blow up the bridge and then leap like a jungle cat into the river bed to hunt the survivors.
It’s creating an awkward situation for me, personally, to have this future knowledge. I love Lalo now. I get excited every time I see him show up on the screen. I caught myself saying “Yesssss,” out loud, when he rolled up to Don Eladio’s pool party in the season finale. It’s gotten to the point that I have kind of started rooting for Lalo. Like, really rooting for him — to defeat Gus, to continue his bromance with Don Eladio, to survive this show and become the Big Bad that Walter White has to deal with in Breaking Bad. I know it won’t happen. It can’t. But still, that’s a fun show to play around with in your head for a while, one where Lalo replaces Gus. Those two are total opposites, fire and ice, improv and organization. Lalo is the kind of guy who shows up at a wedding reception and schmoozes and dances all night and has someone’s grandma doing tequila shots at one point. Gus has one drink (champagne) and leaves after dinner is served, tie still tied and top button still buttoned. It’s what makes them such fun adversaries right now. They would hate each other even if they didn’t have business disagreements.
I’m not joking about this, for the record. I mean, I am, but I’m not. I would pay good money to see an alternate future Breaking Bad where Walter has to face down Lalo. I want to see how he counters someone so unpredictable and captivating. It kills me that I will never know. I’m not ready to let him go. I don’t think I’ll ever be. Lalo is a murderous goon and he might be the reason Kim doesn’t make it to Breaking Bad either and yet, here I am, gushing about him and comparing him to both Kevin McCallister and Spider-man. If that’s not the sign of a good villain, I’m not entirely sure what is.
Long live Lalo Salamanca. As long as possible, at least.