How Lalo Salamanca Saved Better Call Saul

Mordred Lave Mueller

Warning. This article contains spoilers for the shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul is my favorite show of all time, not much else to say. Between its structure, pacing, and ability not only as a prequel to its renowned predecessor, Breaking Bad, but as a sequel as well, the show is something really special. Any fan can tell you, this show is unlike any other out there, and deserves every bit of praise and admiration it gets. One of the main revered elements of Better Call Saul in particular is its characters, and rightfully so, the show gives new characters and established characters alike just the right amount of time and love to hold the focus and interest of the viewer and make the events of the story that much more impactful.

Of these characters though, one stands out. A character who, with a mere 22 episodes of the 63 episode run, was able to not only grab, but run with the attention, focus, and even fear of the viewer, keeping the main storyline together, while also going against all odds. I am, of course, referring to Lalo Salamanca, as played by Tony Dolton. Through both how amazingly acted the role was, how well written he was and, on a larger scale, his unparalleled effect on the story of the show as a whole is nothing like anything else we see in any other character seen on Better Call Saul, even ones introduced in Breaking Bad.

Now, while not being a fan of the show for as long as other fans with far more seniority to this universe, I’d say my interest in this show has been stronger than pretty much any other TV show of this nature. I have friends who can attest to this, as I still spend hours of my time talking about Better Call Saul and its predecessor in extensive detail. My love for this show has dragged multiple others into watching, or at the very least understanding more than they wish to on both shows.

Character theory has always been a big focus of my life as well.The writing, design, and importance of a character in a story is a complicated, but very fascinating aspect and often uncelebrated aspect of storytelling. Understanding what makes a character not just one we enjoy, but can understand and find interest in is all relatively complicated, but all together consistent science, no matter who, all good characters have thematic and narrative reasons to be likable, or even hateable to audiences.

Eduardo “Lalo” Salamanca was first introduced with the release of season 2 episode 8 of Breaking Bad in late April of 2009 as an off handed name mentioned by Better Call Saul’s titular character Saul Goodman, though the original intention of this was merely reference from show director and writer Peter Gould as a nod to the Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin. Though the character would attract the occasional theory throughout the years, due to his offhanded mention being all we really had, these grew uncommon the more time went on. It wouldn’t be another 9 years until Lalo would return in season 4 episode 8 of Better Call Saul in September of 2018.

Gould and fellow director Vince Gilligan had given full creative control to Dolton in the direction of his character, allowing him to develop Salamanca’s personality as he saw fit (similar to the directions given to Jonathan Banks when playing Mike Erhmantraut in the early half of Breaking Bad to similar success). This would lead Dalton to go for a less conventional approach on the antagonist’s personality, wanting to make a more charismatic antagonist, stating the series lacked the charisma on the villain’s side that he would later bring to the table, sighting it as a more evil version of the main character, Jimmy McGill’s, personality, as well as juxtaposing fellow antagonist Gus Fring’s.

Lalo was met with relative distaste and low expectations in his first few episodes due to circumstances. Many claimed they had no hope for the prospect of a new Salamanca, especially so late in without warning. The concept felt unimaginative and with little potential due to the repetition making its face more clear. See, at this point the Salamanca family had just about run its course, first Tuco, then the twins, and even Hector prior in the show, well written or not, the chaos of the family had left some desensitized to what the characters brought to the table. Within the character’s first two episodes, Lalo put these worries to rest, being able to use those mere episodes to create conflict as deep as more seasoned villains to the breaking bad universe, showing his intellect as compared to other fellow villains as he tracked Mike and Werner.

Now, when I say this, many other fans may cry heresy, likely claiming Gus Fring or Mike Erhmantraut as Salamanca’s equal or superior when it comes to the show, completely reasonable opinions. Fring, a fan favorite amongst almost anyone you ask, is one of the most fascinating characters of all time, one of the main driving forces in both Better Call Saul, as well as its predecessor, having poise and tact to perfectly complement his aggressiveness and pugnacity to create a truly amazing character. Erhmantraut, a character with a very fascinating creation, had all the cards stacked against him, yet continued thriving, being one of television’s best written characters, and with an interesting story to boot. As you can see, these arguments are more than valid, but much within Better Call Saul itself, I believe these characters continue to fall behind Lalo nevertheless, lacking the benefit of unexpectedness that I think saved the show from high mediocrity.

To understand how Lalo saved the final seasons of Better Call Saul, let’s discuss the final seasons of the show’s predecessor. Shortly following Breaking Bad’s notorious season 4 finale, which saw the death of series villain Gus Fring, killing him off in a literal blaze of glory, it was obvious that someone needed to fill the shoes left behind, and let me tell you, Fring’s death left some large shoes. Considered by many to be TV’s best, most who watch Breaking Bad have a strong attachment to the druglord, landing actor Giancarlo Esposito 12 nominations for the role alone. Following in his footsteps, Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season introduced two new villains, those being Lydia Rodarte-Quayle and Todd Alquist, both being characters introduced on Walter and Jessie’s meth based misadventures. Despite the general admiration towards the actor’s strengths, many see Todd and Lydia as somewhat forgettable, far from considered as highly as their competitors in villainy.

Despite not ruining Breaking Bad’s final season for me outright, I often look back at the conflict in those 16 final episodes and feel as though they’re missing a real main villain, not just what I would look at as side villains who create conflict in moderation.

Lalo Salamanca’s introduction was quite similar, albeit less intense in preface. The addition of Lalo was right in the wake of his uncle, Hector Salamanca’s heart attack and its by-products, rendering the cartel boss mute, unable to move more than his hand, and completely unfit to continue running cartel business north of the border. Hector, being a main point of conflict on Mike, Gus and Nachos’ side of the story, left a gap in his demotion to a side character, creating demand for a new villain to oppose these characters.

Despite his similarly late introduction and similar role he filled, Quayle and Alquist couldn’t hold a candle to Salamanca in likeability, style, or even action. Using the unique charisma seldom seen in other villains of the show, already negative connotation to his last name, and even lack of what to expect from the character, we see an immediate gravitation towards Lalo, built mainly on intrigue and potential.

Even in what some may see as flaws with the introduction of Lalo there are still positives when it comes down to it, so let’s go over them, why don’t we?

“Even from the start, his death was clear.” Better Call Saul is in an interesting position as a prequel series, having characters we know are going to die in the show, as well as pretty sure guesses of characters who would have to die. Fring’s goal to kill all the Salamanca Family finally ended with him and Hector’s death in Breaking Bad, making Lalo’s death more expected than predicted by most fans of the show, even if he fakes his death once, the moment Gus suspects as much, the jig is up. While this may seem like a negative to most, I personally see this aspect as a testament to the character writing of the character introduced in Better Call Saul. We expected a huge dramatic death from Lalo, just like all the other Salamancas got, huge and awe inspiring, just not how or when, leaving viewers to wonder just how much he caused before his inevitable death by Gus’ hands. Along with that, his expected death made his last kill, Howard Hamlin, that much more shocking and unexpected, cementing the characters’ juxtaposition in life and similarity in death that much more.

“His personality is unrealistic.” This is the one I see the most. Lalo is a character with a personality far less realistic than any other villain to that point, his almost insane levels of charisma matched with his intelligence seem to some as rare or impossible. As I see it, this combination is a positive, making one almost forget how smart or upbeat the character can be at times. This can also cause a sense of unpredictability in the viewer, and making Lalo something of a wildcard at times, creating subversion in a character we can accurately guess’ end the moment we first hear his last name.

The last one I can’t really put as a positive in good conscience, but do want to discuss. “Lalo is a clear example of queercoding.” Now, this is an indisputable part of Lalo, deeply ingrained into his character and what makes him great, almost to the extent it could absolutely be unintentional, though that’s a different discussion for a different time. In short, queercoding is when a fictional character, usually a villain, is indirectly gay either in presentation or writing, whether this is through joke, character design, personality, queercoded characters are still deeply ingrained into all fictional media, especially from America. Aside from Gus (a canonically gay character as of season 6 and a few smaller examples, both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad notably lack any excessive queercoding. Now, I do feel reluctant to completely write off Lalo as queercoded for a few reasons, but the main few are the lack of any intention in the show to play him off like that, the fact he lacks most queercoding traits in men, and lastly, but probably least damning, the handful of Tony Dalton quotes from podcast interviews that seemingly site him as canonically bisexual, though overlooking these as non-canon is understandable. As I see it, being queer myself, if true, I don’t find the queercoding Lalo offencive, and think it’s for the better of the character as everything cited as queercoded about him is what keeps him interesting.

After all that, I think my view on this is clear, and if not changing my mind, I hope I made any other Breaking Bad/ Better Call Saul fans out there consider what better characters they can think of. This series is a huge amazing masterpiece, I believe there’s reason to love and analyze any character you can throw at me. Better Call Saul is really something special, and Lalo being the best is just my opinion, not the right answer, not the wrong.