Fans of Better Call Saul’s predecessor have debated: Did Walter White really spend that series’ five seasons breaking bad, or did he simply finally find his way to his true self? Perhaps that question, considering the nuance Saul has spun for her, can be applied to Kim, who just wants to do good but is willing to do some not-so-good things to achieve that end. In the flashback opening for “Axe And Grind,” we find out what really what fuels Kim. She, yes, has an axe to grind, and we can consider Howard Hamlin a victim of her long-sharpened blade.
In a recall to Kim’s teenage years, her mom picks her up in the office of store, where the manager caught her trying to shoplift jewelry. It isn’t pricey loot—although it costs more than an ’80s teen’s allowance ($35.53, with tax, to be exact)—and Kim doesn’t seem particularly committed to owning the accessories. She’s rattled about being caught—her foot shakes in her white sneakers, a move that would become a signature when high heel-ed, adult Kim gets nervous—and her mom lays on the scolding thick.
That chastisement of her daughter ingratiates Kim’s mom to the store owner, and the Wexler women leave the establishment with nothing but the promise that Kim won’t be a repeat offender. Well, that and the jewelry set. Kim’s mom swiped it from the office and, tickled by the petty crime, gives it to Kim once they’re in the car. Turns out, she’s not angry with Kim at all. She’s impressed. “Didn’t know you had it in you,” her mom says. When her daughter is puzzled, she tacks on, “Relax, you got away with it!”
And that’s young Kim Wexler’s takeaway. As she rides home in silence, a look of disappointment on her face, Kim determines that being bad didn’t get her the attention she craved. It got her what she claimed by her actions to want. And if a straight-A student can’t win affection and attention with good behaviors or bad, she has to make her own path, pushed forward by self-reliance and hard work. In another flashback, this one to “Wexler v. Goodman” (season 5, episode 6), Kim is so determined to follow this philosophy that she carries a cello on her back for three miles on a cold Nebraska night to avoid riding home with her possibly intoxicated, late-to-pick-her-up mother.
That same spirit took her from Nebraska to Albuquerque and landed her a job in the HHM mailroom. Her hustle led the firm to lend her the cash for law school, followed by a position as an attorney at HHM when she passed the bar. She continued to work hard, under the radar of the partners, until her association with former mailroom co-worker-turned-lawyer Jimmy earned her a spot on Howard’s shit list. He gave her thankless assignments; she rebounded with hours spent working her contact list (remember the Post-Its stuck all over the HHM stairways windows?), winning her way back into Howard’s good graces when she landed mega-client Mesa Verde via her friend Paige. But it also intensified her resentment of Howard.
She resents his arrogance, his condescension, his blindness to how deep her intelligence, her knowledge, her skills as an attorney go. He even underestimates how bad Kim can be. After hearing from Cliff that Kim was with him when he witnessed Fake Howard (Jimmy) kicking a hooker out of his Jaguar, Howard immediately assumed Jimmy was behind the ruse. It never occurred to him that Kim was involved, let alone that she’s been masterminding much of this.
In other words, Howard didn’t, still doesn’t, know Kim has it in her. As for why it took so long for Kim to let those resentments bubble over into something so sinister, we’re not sure. We know only bits and pieces of her past, especially in the pre-Albuquerque years. Maybe she left Nebraska for New Mexico to make new opportunities; maybe she wanted to leave that young Kim behind.
And maybe her commitment to advocacy work, her raison d’etre, lets her indulge her more ruthless and selfish sides. After spending years with Howard miscalculating and undervaluing her, his villainy, in her mind, calls for a drastic (but justifiable) payback, one that now involves drugs and an animal rectal thermometer from vet Dr. Caldera, an actor who posed as Judge Casamira. Despite Jimmy’s panic about Casamira’s broken arm, Kim’s sterner stuff kicks in. “It happens today,” she tells him and whips her car around towards Albuquerque. Even if it means she’ll ruin her chances at being included in Cliff’s new justice reform board, the one she was on her way to Santa Fe to fight for, Kim has it in her to see her plan through. One of them, at least.
In the more literal counterpart to Kim’s axe-to-grind story, Lalo tracks down Casper, one of Werner Ziegler’s loyal construction workers. All Lalo wants is info on what Gus is up to so he can prove to Don Eladio that the Salamancas, not Gustavo Fring, are worthy of running the cartel show north of the border. That Lalo gets a little too axe-happy with Caspar’s foot might make that plan a little tougher at the moment.
It’s not wise to underestimate either of them, Kim or Lalo. One of them broke bad a long time ago, maybe even was born bad. As for Kim, she might just be gradually finding her way home to her genuine nature.
- Dr. Caldera’s little black book! Now we know the source of Mike’s Rolodex of men (didn’t it strike you as odd that Mike has so many resources in Albuquerque, when he lived in Philadelphia up to the beginning of the BCS timeline?), Saul’s many resources in Breaking Bad, and Ed the “vacuum cleaner repairman.” How and when do we think the book falls into Saul’s hands?
- Kim takes note of Ed’s business card when she and Jimmy flip through Caldera’s book. There has been so much talk about Kim possibly being killed off before Saul ends. What if something bad happens, and she goes off to a new life, thanks to Ed?
- Saul star Giancarlo Esposito made his TV drama directorial debut with “Axe And Grind,” and one of my favorite single shots of the season so far is when Jimmy sends Kim off to Santa Fe for her meeting with the Jackson-Mercer Foundation people, and in the background is a view of two crossed wires, looking like they’re making an X over Kim and Jimmy’s apartment. I suppose that could just be a coincidence, or it could mean there’s more trouble ahead at Casa McGill.
- Will Jimmy ever go back and buy that bottle of Zafiro Añejo, or is the bottle stopper we saw in the opening of the season premiere the stopper from the bottle Jimmy and Kim made “KEN WINS” pay for in “Switch” (season 2, episode 1)?
- Mike essentially created a low-key version of Gus’ lair so he can make sure Kaylee and Stacey are safe. Also, big thumbs up to episode writer Ariel Levine for giving Mike a fart joke to share with Kaylee. The man has earned it.
- Perhaps we’ll find out in next week’s midseason finale (titled “Plan And Execution”), perhaps we’ll find out before the series finale, or perhaps we’ll just have to use our imaginations, but after seeing how beautifully and tastefully Francesca decorated Saul’s office—so much moulding—I’m dying to see what happens to make it into the strip mall dive we know it to be in Breaking Bad. It did break my heart when Francesca had to watch Saul’s clients stub their smokes out on the furniture and take a whiz in Saul’s office.
- Kim’s mom is a lover of great ’80s music, from Rick Springfield’s “Affair Of The Heart,” which was playing in her car in “Wexler v. Goodman,” to newly-elected Rock Hall of Fame members Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” playing when she and “Kimmie” get in the car in “Axe And Grind.”
- Was Howard’s latte, the one he so meticulously crafts, for his wife Cheryl just the saddest hot beverage ever? When he presents it to her, with a peace sign drawn on top, and she barely glances at it and dumps it into a travel mug without noting his effort? Harsh, Cheryl! Is she just bored with him, like Chuck’s wife seemed with their relationship? Or is there more to it? Howard makes a special point of telling her about more shenanigans from Jimmy and stresses that he would deal with it, “whatever it takes.” There is an intense sadness about Howard that continues to make me worry about him, and he is a character I was not particularly worried about before this season.
- If something terrible, like permanently terrible, did happen to Howard as a result of actions she and Jimmy took, could Kim handle that? Has she gone so far down a different path from the Kim Wexler we initially met that she would be able to deal with that level of guilt (or even feel that level of guilt)?