A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Axe and Grind,” just as soon as we sidebar in the law library…
“Relax. You got away with it.” —Kim’s mom
What happens to Kim?
This is a question I asked regarding the last Saul episode to feature young Kim (still played by Katie Beth Hall, with her hair pulled partially back, but not yet in the full power- ponytail of adult Kim) and Kim’s mom (Beth Hoyt, who still looks and sounds uncannily like Rhea Seehorn). That episode, “Wexler V. Goodman,” opened with young Kim walking away from her drunken mother rather than getting into a car with her. It closed with Kim explaining in great detail why she had every good reason to break up with Jimmy, only for her to declare at the last moment that perhaps they should get married instead. It was Kim’s weakness for hustlers and damaged people winning out over her understanding of what is good, both for her and the world at large.
“Axe and Grind” begins a bit differently, though it ends on a similar note. We are back in Nebraska, only this time Kim is the one in trouble, rather than her mom. She has been caught shoplifting a pair of earrings from Svensen’s department store. This is wildly out of character for her as a girl, which even the store manager, Mr. Pearson, can tell. Kim’s squeaky-clean presentation, along with Pearson being charmed by (and/or attracted to) her mom, gets her out of the jam. And her mom even re-steals the earrings for Kim, after raising such a fuss in Pearson’s office about making Kim pay for them.
Much like the “Wexler V. Goodman” flashback, this is hugely informative to who Kim is now. She did not make a habit of stealing back then, but she also learned that you can get away with doing bad things if you are a good and forceful enough talker. It is a leap from Kim’s mom hustling the store manager to Kim doing the same to Lalo Salamanca, but one of degree rather than kind. And we’ve seen plenty of instances in past episodes where Kim has stretched the limits of the law and her own personal ethics simply because she could, from keeping Huell out of prison to the sting she and Jimmy were preparing against Kevin last season. With Breaking Bad, a big question was whether it was a show about a good man who turned evil due to a fatal diagnosis, or about a man whose true nature only fully manifested itself under extreme circumstances. I always leaned towards the latter interpretation, as there were too many glimpses of a pre-cancer Walt acting just as aggrieved and entitled as the great and powerful Heisenberg. Better Call Saul, meanwhile, has at times created the illusion that it is the story of the incorrigible Slippin’ Jimmy McGill dragging the pure and noble Kim Wexler into the sewer with him. But even before she proposed the current scam against Howard Hamlin, it was clear that Kim genuinely enjoyed the grift, and that she was capable of being more ruthless about it than Jimmy has ever been.
All of which brings us to the present-day action of “Axe and Grind.” Our happy couple are preparing for D-Day against Howard. More pieces of the plan present themselves, from an otherwise harmless drug that can temporarily make Jimmy — and, I’m assuming, Howard — seem as high as a kite, to some faked photos cooked up with the help of Jimmy’s favorite film crew, to Jimmy having phone access to the Sandpiper mediation call. The operation seems to be running smoothly, and Jimmy and Kim spend the night before D-Day picnicking outside the HHM offices that will soon be put in turmoil by their scheme.
At the same time, some major professional good fortune is coming Kim’s way. Cliff Main comes to Albuquerque to watch Kim in action, as she doggedly tears apart the legal justification for the search of her client’s vehicle. Outside the courtroom, he tells her that a prestigious foundation that funds criminal justice reform programs is looking to move into the southwest, and that he thinks Kim is a great candidate to work with them. There is a hitch, but it is a small one: The lunch meeting in Santa Fe with the foundation is on D-Day. But as Jimmy points out, the plan at this stage does not need Kim to be physically or mentally present for its final act…
… or, at least, it doesn’t until Jimmy runs into the mediator at a liquor store (while attempting to buy another bottle of Zafiro Añejo to celebrate with Kim) and sees that the man’s left arm is in a sling and cast, when the doppelganger in the faked photos is uninjured. It is too big a change, Jimmy believes, to recover from at this last minute, and he is prepared to give up, regroup, and find another way to get at Howard down the road.
To Kim, this should not matter. The alleged reason she came up with this scam was to fund her plans for a high-powered criminal defense firm for indigent clients. But her own good work and connections seem to be making that a reality, with or without the Sandpiper money. All she has to do is keep driving northeast to Santa Fe, and speak as clearly and passionately to the foundation people as we know she can, and her plan is secured. Howard, Sandpiper, the mediator — all of that is largely beside the point. (Kim might still need some startup money of her own, but there are other ways to get that, starting with the duffel bag full of cash Jimmy got from Lalo.) Just stay in the car, go to the meeting, and so much good can be done.
But we all know that Kim has other reasons for this beyond her desire to do good. She wants to hit back at Howard for being so patronizing with her in the Season Five finale, and she really does love a good con. And ultimately, those two feelings outweigh her higher-minded instincts. After a few moments of Kim thinking — and few actors anywhere are more exciting to watch think than Rhea Seehorn — she declares, “It happens today,” before she drives over the highway median and heads back down the hill towards Albuquerque, Jimmy, Howard, and the scheme she can’t let go of, no matter how much she should.
It’s a sequence reminiscent in some ways of events at the end of this show’s first season and the start of its second, which also involved Cliff Main and Santa Fe. Way back when, Kim arranged a meeting between Jimmy and Cliff regarding Sandpiper and a potential job at Davis and Main. Jimmy instead drove away from it, too consumed with his own fondness for a life of crime, only to change his mind shortly thereafter to take the job. We did not see him literally turn his car around back then, but it is the same basic idea in reverse. In that case, the straight life did not suit Jimmy, and he found a way out of Davis and Main. Kim, meanwhile, has been straining against the limitations of the straight life for most of this series’ run, and here she breaks free of its shackles altogether. Whatever happens to her next, there is no simple way to undo the choice she makes here. Cliff has gone out on a limb for her; there will likely not be a second meeting with the foundation. She is putting everything into her quest to ruin Howard and get a kick out of it while doing so. This does not seem likely to end well for her, with her soul and/or career hanging very much in the balance.
Next week is the mid-season finale, with the final stretch of episodes beginning in July. We are definitely heading for some kind of climax to the Howard storyline before the short hiatus. It’s possible Gus and Lalo could have their final showdown as well, but unlikely for a variety of reasons: Their confrontation arguably needs more time to set up; plus it would be burning Tony Dalton with seven episodes to go, after already keeping him off-screen for several weeks. But we could be in for a concluding half-season that does a lot of skipping forward in time, including some Saul POV episodes about the Breaking Bad era, followed by a return to Gene in Omaha.
I bring this up less to speculate on what’s coming than to note that this half-season has been a bit slower and more methodical than the comparable stretch of Breaking Bad Season Five. Though the biggest shocks came in the home stretch for Walt, Jesse, and friends, there were still a lot of big developments in that first half of that season, from Jesse quitting the meth business to the sad end of Mike’s story. Nacho memorably died earlier this season, but he’s a character this show often struggled to keep feeling central to the narrative, and was someone who stuck around because he had periodic uses and the actor playing him was so good. And since Nacho’s farewell, we have mostly been in a mode of Peter Gould and company methodically moving chess pieces around the board to set up the series’ endgame. Few creative teams in recent memory have earned as much audience trust as this one, and I imagine our patience will be rewarded amply, both next week and in the summer episodes. And Saul in general has always been a slower burn than its parent show.
But one of the reasons I keep worrying about what happens to Kim is that she is the last big question mark left here. (Even Lalo has only so many paths he can travel, since him being alive during Breaking Bad would render many of Gus’ activities there impossible.) She is not the title character of Better Call Saul, but she has become as much its protagonist as Jimmy is. And it is easier to invest in her fate than it is to do the same for Gene, who has already lived a full and memorable life and is now focused almost entirely on survival.
We want Kim to come out of this OK, both because she is such an endearing character and because she is practically the only person left who can. But the Heisenberg-verse is not a place that has typically allowed for happy endings. And if a bad one comes for Kim, we unfortunately can’t call her an innocent bystander anymore. She earned her happy ending, then took a U-turn away from it. She is more her mother’s daughter, more her husband’s wife, than she would want to admit, and she is driving into a whole lot of trouble now.
What happens to Kim? I want it to be something good, but I fear that it will be anything but.
Some other thoughts:
* Lalo’s German odyssey pits him against Casper, one of the members of Werner’s team at the dig site. (You may remember him as the guy who told Mike that Werner “was worth 50 of you” when the Germans were all sent home.) Casper has the right idea to get the hell away from this confident interloper, but he takes it too easy on Lalo, striking him with the back of his axe, rather than the blade with which he had just chopped so much wood. That half-measure costs Casper his foot, and quite possibly his life, as he becomes the latest person who just isn’t as calm or as ruthless as Lalo when violence is in the offing.
* The episode’s first present-day scene establishes that Howard’s life is already plenty wrecked without Kim and Jimmy’s help. He is living in his guest house, and it appears his marriage to Cheryl (Sandrine Holt) now exists in name only, though the two remain cordial with one another. Howard goes out of his way to prepare a beautiful morning coffee for Cheryl with a peace sign in the foam — displaying a meticulous, cleanliness-focused approach suggesting he and Gus Fring would get along well — and Cheryl barely looks at the thing before pouring it into a travel mug. (And, to Howard’s dismay, she blithely spills some onto the countertop.)
* Bryan Cranston was prominently featured in all three Breaking Bad episodes he directed, because there was no real way to make an episode of that show where Walt was largely off-camera. In general, though, there is a tradition in television that when actors direct episodes of their own shows, their screen time is substantially reduced in either that episode or the one before it (when they would be doing prep for the episode they’re directing). As Giancarlo Esposito follows Rhea Seehorn into the ranks of Saul actors who get to direct this season, he winds up with the rare episode that is entirely Gus-free. Some gorgeous imagery in this one, particularly the concluding shot of Kim driving back down the long highway towards her dark destiny.
* Hands up, everyone who would watch a half-hour, Cosmos-esque spinoff series that was just Mike teaching Kaylee about constellations and other aspects of the night sky. The tenderness with which Jonathan Banks plays every Mike/Kaylee scene — even one like this where he can only speak to her on the phone while pretending to be in Cha-tanooga — remains remarkable.
* Also something potentially worth watching over the final episodes: On Breaking Bad, Mike is presented as Gus’ unquestionable second-in-command, with Victor and Tyrus each reporting to him. At this stage of things, though, Tyrus is more in the inner circle — he held a gun on Mike during the Nacho business, remember? — and here continues to act like he is Mike’s boss, even as Mike pushes back on Tyrus’ attempt to withdraw surveillance on Kaylee and Stacey. At some point, the roles will reverse, but will we actually see this happen?
* Francesca is proud to show Kim all the work she has put in classing up the Saul Goodman law office, but we know her decorating taste will not be long for this business. By the time Walter White approaches Saul for the first time, the fancy waiting-room chairs — one of which we see here being vandalized by a client’s lit cigarette — have been swapped out for more utilitarian ones, the walls are covered in cheap wood paneling, and Francesca is using a glass partition to separate herself from Saul’s sleazy clientele. The inner office, meanwhile, still lacks the fake marble columns, the preamble to the Constitution written on the wall behind Saul’s desk, and all the other gaudy furnishings to come.
* One of the series’ more interesting additions to the lore of Albuquerque’s criminal underbelly has been Dr. Caldera, the veterinarian who knows how to connect one shady character with another. He seems like the kind of person Walt or Jesse might have encountered at some point in Breaking Bad, but here we get our explanation for his absence from that show: He is tired of this lucrative but stress-inducing sideline and is planning to sell his coded black book and get back to caring for pets full-time. If I were a betting man, I’d place a wager on Jimmy buying the thing to expand his own business as — as Jesse so famously put it — a criminal lawyer. If nothing else, the book contains a business card for Best Quality Vacuum, which Saul will eventually use to contact Ed and become Gene from Cinnabon.
* A smart show like this inspires smart fans: Last week, someone on Twitter pointed out that Gus did not randomly think about revisiting the Super Lab dig site. Rather, he got distracted after mentioning Los Pollos Hermanos’ signature spice curls, because in Season Five he pitched that menu addition to the Madrigal executives. Madrigal leads to thoughts of Germany, Germany leads to thoughts of Werner, Werner leads to the dig site as one of his few areas of vulnerability in relation to the cartel, etc.
* Finally, John Ennis, who plays Lenny, the actor Jimmy hires to impersonate the mediator in photographs, was a featured player on Mr. Show, and is also the father of Jesse Ennis, who plays Jimmy-hating Davis and Main associate Erin Brill.