‘Better Call Saul’ returns tonight

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Vince Gilligan’s goal is to take viewers on a journey.

The creator started the strange trip off with “Breaking Bad,” a story of one man’s personal transformation driven by a cancer diagnosis.

With “Breaking Bad,” viewers witnessed Bryan Cranston’s Walter White go from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Cranston once told me in his character’s early days.

Gilligan then expanded the cultural juggernaut when he crossed over to its prequel “Better Call Saul.”

Over the course of that series, the story line has inched closer to that of “Breaking Bad.”

And this Gilligan-led journey, all filmed in Albuquerque, continues when the fourth season of the Emmy-nominated series premieres at 7 p.m. tonight on AMC.

This season, Jimmy McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, is transitioning into the slimy lawyer Saul Goodman.

But McGill isn’t the only character undergoing a dramatic journey.

Enter Ignacio “Nacho” Varga, an intelligent career criminal played by Michael Mando.

He’s the right-hand man to Tuco Salamanca. While Varga is not a kingpin, he certainly has some pull with Salamanca, who is a Mexican drug kingpin.

During the first three seasons, Varga’s journey has been a twisted tale – with plenty of ebb and flow.

At the end of season three, Varga finds himself in the crosshairs of Salamanca, Juan Bolsa and Gus Fring. The three are played by Raymond Cruz, Javier Grajeda and Giancarlo Esposito, respectively.

Mando says Varga’s journey this season is front and center.

“What I love about this season is the character’s arc comes into focus, and it’s a story of persistence and love,” he said in an interview with me recently. “Nacho is a character that means well; he’s just getting to a resolution in an illegal way. And there’s a humane and tragic quality to his life.”

To learn the details, you’ll have to watch the show, but about the new season, Mando did say, “It’s like a freight train. It’s inevitably going to come to a wall. And that wall is Gus Fring. You know it’s going to shake that world in a very big way.”

Like “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” has been a boon for Albuquerque and New Mexico, as both have benefitted from the cultural and monetary impact of the shows.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, the fourth season of “Better Call Saul” has employed 150 New Mexico crew members, 50 to 100 principal actors and about 1,500 people for background talent.

The series is housed at Albuquerque Studios.

Alicia J. Keyes, city of Albuquerque film liaison, says a show the size of “Better Call Saul” can bring more than $20 million into the Albuquerque economy each season.

And that doesn’t take into account the indirect spending associated with tourism and money spent by cast and crew while visiting.

“With a well-loved show like ‘Better Call Saul,’ people come to visit locations and experience the city in droves,” Keyes says. “We have a solid incentive program and experienced crews that help to keep ‘Better Call Saul’ here in Albuquerque. Our program is consistent and predictable.”

Keyes says “the Albuquerque Film Office welcomed Vince Gilligan here over 10 years ago with ‘Breaking Bad.’ We hope that Albuquerque feels like his second home.”

Mando, who is from Canada, also enjoys his time in Albuquerque while filming for nearly six months at a time.

“I love the food, the sunsets and the experience of the character,” Mando says. “I had never been to New Mexico prior to this show, and I don’t think I would have ever been if it wasn’t for the show.”

Coming into the show, Mando realized the cultural impression that “Breaking Bad” made over the course of its six-year run.

And he knew “Better Call Saul” was going to add to the legacy.

But he takes all of the fandom in stride.

“I’ll tell you something, and this is what the fans mean to me,” Mando says. “I can read a great piece of Shakespeare to myself in the mirror, and it will give me a satisfaction. To do what I do in this show and do it in a world I feel connected to, I take the people who follow me on the journey and I take it very seriously. I was raised by a single father. I was raised on entertainment. When I’m on the show, I think of myself as a young kid, watching and being inspired by others. I put in all of myself to this character, hoping that I can be the point of inspiration that so many actors were for me as a child.”

Mando adds that being able to film in Albuquerque has made the show that much better.

“I understand that Albuquerque, like many other cities, does have its problems. But there’s a lot to be celebrated,” he says. “What the show captures is Albuquerque in its raw form. The city itself has become a cornerstone in the storytelling.”

Filming for the fourth season began in January and wrapped by spring.

The acclaimed series has been nominated for 23 Emmy Awards over the course of its run.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to arts editor Adrian Gomez at 823-3921 or agomez@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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Luis Moncada as Marco Salamanca and Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in a scene from "Better Call Saul."

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