“Tell me again. I just like to hear the story.”
With that line, Tony Dalton’s Lalo Salamanca became a legend.
This is not to say that Dalton hadn’t done stellar work on Better Call Saul before—he certainly had. In fact, I would argue if there was a “star” among all the stars of Season 5, it was Tony Dalton. Yes, I know what that means. In a season when Rhea Seehorn may have done her very best work (no small statement), and Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jonathan Banks continued to grow their own legends, it was Tony Dalton who took what was already great and escalated it even further.
Perhaps it was the sneak attack that Dalton laid on us. Sure, there were hints in Season 4 that Dalton’s Lalo was going to be a great foil for Odenkirk and Esposito, but I don’t know that any of us were prepared for what Dalton delivered. I spoke to Dalton on the cusp of Season 5, and while I loved interviewing him, I honestly feel like I failed him a little bit. While I couldn’t have known what was coming, I wish I would have better recognized the greatness of the actor I was talking to.
Colorful villains are nothing new. That’s why when we meet one that is truly original—one that must have gestated inside of a hungry actor for years and years—we all recognize it. Dalton’s Lalo is many different people: there’s the warm la familia Lalo that is kind and patient with Hector, who always kneels down to Hector’s level as a sign of respect; there’s the dandy who dresses with flair and flamboyance, the boyish rogue who seems to wake with a song in his heart; the straight businessman who wants everything just right, and then there’s the man we meet at the end of Season 5 Episode 9: the stone cold sociopath.
There are times when you could almost underestimate Dalton’s Lalo. He loves his cars, his shirts, his boots, and he has a grin that at first glance invites you in. But if you look closer at those pearly whites, you’ll see that those incisors are sharp and ready to apply themselves to the neck of anyone who might cross his path with unacceptable intentions.
When Lalo enters Jimmy and Kim’s apartment, we first see that cheerful Lalo. The one that walks into their pad and says, “Nice!” as he takes in their abode. But there’s a bit of tension in that exclamation. One that you recognize when he walks over to the fish tank and taps a little too hard and a little too long on the glass. He then walks over to their couch and without hearing an invitation to “take a seat,” he adjusts a pillow and lowers himself into a position of comfort, making sure that the front of his shirt showcases the pistol tucked into his waistband.
Jimmy says they can talk, but the Kim was just on her way out. “Nah. She can stay,” Lalo says. You can start to feel the screws tighten. Lalo tells Jimmy to “Relax!”—as if that’s possible for Jimmy, Kim, or the audience. “C’mon,” he says. “Sit!” Like they are just going to hang out and reminisce. “So!.” Lalo says, with his fingers doing a tap dance on the arm of the sofa. “Tell me what happened. When you picked up the money. Walk me through it.”
You can see it on the face of Jimmy, he’s trying to stay calm, but inside, he’s dancing as fast as he can. Tell the story. Make it good. You can do this. He hopes.
Jimmy goes through his story—keeping it simple, but adding just enough paprika to make it sound not too simple.
“Tell me again,” Lalo says with a slight smile.
“Tell. Me. Again.”
Lalo is no longer smiling.
Jimmy begins anew. This time with a catch in his throat. He tells basically the same story, only this time he adds that he ran out of water trekking through the desert and had to drink his own urine. Surely Lalo will now appreciate what he did to get his bail money to him, right?
“I just want to hear the story,” Lalo says.
Kim tries to interject: “Lalo, this is exactly what he told me…”
Lalo puts up his index finger…”Shhh.” Kim shushes.
“I just like to hear the story.”
Lalo points out that he paid a lot for money for that story and he should be able to hear it as much as he wants. He stands up and walks over to the fish tank. More tapping.
He turns back to Jimmy and Kim…”So, tell me again.”
Jimmy, looking like he could use a tall glass of water, or even his own urine, begins again. This time more exasperated, more exhausted, more emphasis on the walk, on the weight of the bags. Feeling the weight of the moment, Jimmy asks, “Can she leave here?”
Lalo steps toward Jimmy, gun clearly available on his hip. “What’d you do, Saul?”
“Did you push (the car) in a ditch?,” Lalo asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so? Either you did, or you didn’t. Which one is it? I just want what happened.”
“I told you…”
Kim senses that it’s now or never. Jimmy is buckling. He can’t sustain the lie under Lalo’s onslaught of repetition. She comes on strong, taking Lalo to task. But we know from the look in her eyes, she’s not being obstinate, she’s begging. Begging for Jimmy’s life.
Without a word, Lalo accepts Kim’s argument and walks out of the apartment. It is one the most excruciatingly exquisite scenes of suspense I’ve ever seen—and no one is harmed, or even a finger lifted to do so (though a couple of traumatized fish might disagree).
Look, I knew nothing of Tony Dalton before he came to Better Call Saul. When I interviewed him and looked at his resume, I found I was familiar with none of his work outside of Saul. But you can bet your ass I know him now. Hell, I’ll never be able to forget him. He is Lalo Salamanca—one of the all-time great villains in television history. Write it in cement. Or even better, write it on the Emmy award he so deserves.
As we all know, next season will be Better Call Saul‘s last. Personally, I cannot wait to see what he has in store. I want Tony Dalton to tell me again. Because I just like to hear the story.