[SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you have watched “Mijo,” Monday night’s episode of Better Call Saul.]
The creators of Better Call Saul were not loose-lipped in interviews when asked which characters from Breaking Bad might pop up in their prequel spin-off, but they wound up giving the audience a tight! tight! tight! treat in the very first two episodes: the resurrection of Tuco Salamanca.
In the final moments of Sunday’s premiere of the Bad prequel, Raymond Cruz reprised his role as the frightening, amped-up drug lord, pulling Saul, er, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) into his grandmother’s home at gunpoint as one of Jimmy’s schemes fell apart. And then on Monday night, he jacked up the stakes by taking Jimmy out to the desert to introduce him to his toolbox of terror, but Jimmy’s mouth ultimately came to the rescue.
How did Better Call Saul bosses Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan come to choose Tuco—that psycho drug lord who has done everything from put out a cigarette on his tongue and beat a man named No-Doze to death—as the first Bad guest? “It’s very simple,” Gould tells EW. “We had this situation where Jimmy was going to knock on a door with a full head of steam and we thought to ourselves, ‘Who is the worst person to be on the other side of that door? Who is the person you’d least like to meet with on the other side of that door?’ We certainly thought about a lot of different possibilities, but I have to say, Tuco was the answer to that question.”
The producers had big plans for this deeply disturbing individual on Breaking Bad. But the role was so overwhelming for Cruz (who also starred on The Closer), he asked the producers for Tuco to be killed off in season 2. “We never had as much Tuco on Breaking Bad as we wanted and hoped for, so we were so excited to get him back on this show,” says Gould. “We had to think to ourselves, ‘What is the greatest challenge for Jimmy McGill?’ and I think Tuco comes pretty damn close.”
The return of Tuco certainly took Odenkirk by surprise. “The first time I read the first script and got to the end and Tuco opened the door, my heart dropped,” Odenkirk tells EW. “I went, ‘How did Vince and Peter get me to that place in one episode where I went, ‘Oh, s—!’ out loud?’ It’s just amazing. They’re master storytellers.”
On Monday night’s episode, our scared lawyer begs for mercy in the desert, spins a few desperate lies, and then starts to show off those negotiating skills he’d become known for by persuading Tuco to only break one leg on each of the skateboarding twins instead of skinning them alive. For Odenkirk, filming this high-stakes, Breaking Bad-esque scene was a trip—and also, a trip down memory lane. “It was energizing and fun as hell,” he raves. “It was definitely reminiscent of my first episode of Breaking Bad, where I was in the desert at night and I was on knees and staring down at a freshly dug grave. Look, it’s hard to do those scenes, spending 14 hours in the desert, but it’s so fun to push it that far. And Raymond is such a good actor and so scary, my god! It’s ridiculous! I mean, you don’t have to act when you’re looking into that angry face. He makes it easy for you by scaring the living bejesus out of you.”
Was the Tuco two-fer a one-time only treat, or should audiences brace for a return visit from the high-strung low-life? Gould won’t reveal much, saying only: “We certainly have plans for him.” He also isn’t spilling on which other Bad boys might resurface, but reminds that they won’t be relying on cameos. “Ultimately we know that the show has to stand or fail on its own,” he says.
Gould did note that audiences will get to know a lot more about Nacho (Michael Mando), one of Tuco’s associates who’s operating on a higher plane of intelligence than his impulsive boss. “Nacho is a whole different kind of cat,” he says. “He’s definitely a criminal, but he seems to have an agenda of his own. We’re very, very intrigued by Nacho.” Seconds Odenkirk: “I’m always looking forward to seeing Tuco, but I’ve got to say: Nacho is scary on a whole other level. He’s an incredibly frightening character, but there’s wheels turning in his head, which in some ways makes him scarier.”