TV

Lalo Salamanca From ‘Better Call Saul’ Is The Most Fascinating Character On Television

Is it weird that I’m more concerned about the fate of Lalo Salamanca heading into the final few episodes of Better Call Saul than I am about the fate of Kim Wexler?

I’m starting to think it is, based on two factors: One, Lalo is a violent cartel boss who has murdered something like a half dozen people on the show and does not appear to feel remorse for any of it, even a little, while Kim, even while breaking bad a bit herself to ruin her old boss, is still working as a lawyer for the poor and underprivileged; two, when I posed this exact question to Tony Dalton (who plays Lalo) and Michael Mando (who played Nacho until… you know) in a chat over Zoom before the season, they both kind of yelled at me. Mostly in good fun, to be sure, but still. Here is the unedited chunk of the transcript to drive it home.

Tony: Yeah. That’s very weird.
Michael: It’s very weird. We have a problem, Brian.
Tony: I’m worried…
Michael: We have a problem.
Tony: What are you talking about?

In hindsight, this was a fair reaction. Also in hindsight, this was not an ideal way to start an interview. There’s a lot of reflecting that needs to be done here. By me, mostly. Maybe by the rest of us. But definitely by me.

The problem is that Lalo Salamanca is basically a perfect television character, a walking charisma bomb in a floral-patterned shirt who would just as easily slap you on the back as he would slit your throat with a broken soda bottle. Dalton described Lalo later in our chat — once we got the train back on the tracks — as “having this sort of carefree way about life, where he just doesn’t really care if he lives or dies, because that’s kind of what I think would be to live in that world,” adding that, because Lalo accepted his life could end at any minute “maybe he takes life a little less serious.” I think this sums things up pretty well. As does this GIF of him pulling up to a compound filled with armed cartel operatives.

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This gets us to the dilemma I’m facing now. I know Lalo is a bad dude. I know he deserves whatever exactly is coming to him. I know that “whatever is coming to him” probably includes a death at the hands of Gus Fring, mostly because if you are a newly introduced character in a prequel who is at war with a character who exists in the original show, things are probably not going to work out for you, but also because Gus literally says the sentence “All of the Salamancas are dead” in season four of Breaking Bad. These are all true statements. But here’s another true statement that I think we all need to consider: I love him very much and want him to live forever.

A big part of this is Tony Dalton. He plays Lalo with this puffed-out gregarious machismo that makes the character endlessly watchable. Everything he does, even just having a pleasant conversation with a housewife, is soaked in menace. He can turn it on or off at any moment, with the smile below his glorious mustache turning into a thin flat line and the charm fleeing his eyes. It is my position that you could drop this character into almost any television show and it would improve the show by a factor of five, at minimum. Lalo Salamanca showing up on Ted Lasso when the cartel buys a rival soccer team as a money-laundering ploy. Lalo Salamanca showing up on Barry to start a turf war with NoHo Hank. Lalo Salamanca showing up on Succession at some all-inclusive resort and just scaring the hell out of Cousin Greg for 10 minutes next to the pool. These are all good ideas that are free for anyone to use.

It’s also part of why the character is so fascinating to me right now. To date, he’s been portrayed as something one or maybe two steps short of a comic book supervillain. (Not to be confused with the actual comic book supervillain Dalton played in Hawkeye, which was also a delight.) Lalo is hyper-proficient at everything. He can show up in Germany at a fancy martini bar and woo a sad widow. He can hop over fences and disappear out of second-story windows like an Olympic gymnast. He can tell a crew of heartless human traffickers to be nice and then kill all of them off-screen in about 90 seconds. It’s kind of like if you crossed John Wick with Danny Ocean.

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And, like… once you’ve created someone who is almost indestructible, how do you go about destroying him? This is sort of what I was getting at with the question I asked at the beginning of this whole thing. You can see how this goes sideways for Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin and most of the other characters on this show who do not make it to Breaking Bad. I still don’t think either of those two characters dies, but wheels are spinning fast on both fronts and there are many potential non-lethal outcomes in play. Kim could get disbarred and flee back to the Midwest, another example of Saul’s actions harming only those surrounding him. Howard’s plot could wrap itself up cleanly and he could fade back into the background and just not be a part of Breaking Bad at all without Kim around. They could both go to jail for all we know. You can see the potential escape hatches here. But Lalo, just because of the way he fills the screen and the minds of so many different characters, pretty much has to die.

And he almost certainly has to die at the hands of Gus Fring, too, which is also fascinating. Gus and Lalo are two sides of the same coin, in a way. They’re both masking ice-cold killers behind pleasant exteriors, Gus using the uber-polite restaurant manager and Lalo grinning and kissing babies across the southwest. I asked Dalton about this aspect of the show, too, about how Gus and Lalo are actually, in a way, not so different, and his answer hit on a couple interesting points. “I think that there’s a little bit of this peeking through, of just this evil on both sides,” he said. “I think it’s just that maybe they’re a little bit the same in that area, where they can be polite and they can be sort of nonchalant about something. But when you have to get down to business, you know that both of them are not going to think twice about pulling the trigger.”

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This is, to put a point on it finer than the tips of Lalo’s mustache, the thing. We’ve already started to see how this can play out, with Lalo hunting for clues in Europe and Gus setting booby traps in New Mexico. We know how it has to end. We know Gus, barring a truly wild left turn like Lalo deciding to fake his death a second time and escaping to Japan and becoming a high-ranking Yakuza boss (MAKE THIS SHOW VINCE GILLIGAN I AM BEGGING YOU), is going to win here. We know this because we’ve all seen or at least Googled Breaking Bad. Lalo Salamanca is not long for this world. He can’t be.

Which, again, at the risk of becoming a broken record, is fascinating. Because as much as I want Lalo to live forever and plop into my other favorite shows and maybe become a major figure in the Tokyo underworld, I also want to see how this plays out. How do you kill a borderline invincible man? What does that look like? Even though we probably know the destination, the journey itself could be a wild ride.

Or, to quote Dalton one last time from the chat that started with him thinking — fairly — that I was a crazy person: “What I can tell you is that Lalo is on a warpath. He’s got vengeance in his eyes and he’s mad. He wasn’t mad in the last season and he’s mad in this one. So, I think that a lot of stuff is going to go down.”

I don’t know if I’m ready for all of this but I do know I am very, very excited. And scared. But mostly excited.

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