The following article contains spoilers for Better Call Saul S6E6 (“Axe and Grind”), written by Ariel Levine and directed by Giancarlo Esposito.
The penultimate episode of the first half of Better Call Saul’s final season gave me what I’ve been waiting for: more Kim backstory. Over the course of the first half of the season, Kim continues to make questionable decisions and it begs the question: why? Kim’s past has always been purposefully murky, and I wanted the writers to give me something that might provide some insight into Kim’s current state of mind. In “Axe and Grind,” we got that and more.
This week’s episode opens with a flashback to young Kim, and we know it’s her even before we see her from that nervous foot-bouncing tic she’s carried into adulthood. Kim waits in the back office of Svensen’s Department Store where she’s been caught shoplifting. Kim’s mother shows up to give her a piece of her mind and the store manager, Mr. Pearson, is willing to let her off easy if she promises she won’t become a repeat offender. But Mrs. Wexler is insistent that she be punished—she’s even willing to let him call the police on her daughter, though he has no intention of doing that or even making them pay for the stolen merchandise. Kim doesn’t look like a juvenile delinquent; she’s a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl, so he’s more than willing to give her a pass (especially since it seems like Mrs. Wexler is going to punish her enough).
But as Kim is let off easy, we discover that it’s all an act: Mrs. Wexler may have put on a good show, but we already know she’s not the “fine mother” that Mr. Pearson thinks she is. The last time young Kim and her mother appeared, in the cold open of “Wexler v. Goodman” (S5E6), we saw that Kim’s mom certainly isn’t winning any mother of the year awards. She showed up late and drunk to pick Kim up, and Kim chose to walk miles carrying a cello rather than get in the car with her mom. Here, we see that Mrs. Wexler is amused by the whole situation—proud even. She even goes so far as to steal the earrings and necklace and give them to Kim, telling her, “Relax, you got away with it.”
I can’t help but feel like Kim’s shoplifting was something of a cry for help—some way to show her mother through her actions that she needs boundaries. Like Howard suggested that Jimmy wants to get caught in “Black and Blue” (S6E5), I think young Kim very much wants to get caught here. She just wants a normal mom, but what she gets is a woman who is actually supportive of her child committing criminal acts. It’s interesting to think about this in terms of Jimmy’s childhood. In “Inflatable” (S2E7), we also see a flashback to young Jimmy stealing from the till at his father’s store. He’s surrounded by good influences—his father and upstanding older brother Chuck—but he doesn’t want boundaries; he doesn’t want to get caught and he never has. All Jimmy has ever wanted was for someone to look at him, warts and all, and accept him. He gets that from Kim, but it’s fascinating to me that Kim always had these urges to do the wrong thing and her mother accepted her for it, but that’s the exact opposite of what Kim wanted.
Kim wanted the right kind of attention from her mother—praise for being a good student and a good kid, not praise for thievery. But even having learned at a young age that doing the right thing wasn’t enough to get her mother’s love, Kim tried for years to get the right kind of attention. At HHM, she was a model employee, but still she never received the attention and praise she deserved. Scamming with Jimmy wasn’t just fun for her or a way to cut loose from her straight-laced lawyer life; she felt seen and loved by him as they shared those experiences. It’s become an integral part of their relationship at this point because Jimmy is incapable of going straight (and she would never want him to change who he is anyway), and Kim likes that she can share that part of herself with him. But it’s a dangerous game and one that isn’t going to end well because you can’t live in two worlds. Kim can’t be both righteous and wicked and expect to get away with it. Eventually, you have to choose. We know that Jimmy chooses Saul Goodman, and by the end of “Axe and Grind” it seems that Kim makes her choice as well.
But back to the earrings, which are the same ones we have seen Kim wearing throughout the series. What was once a simple, modest accessory that she wore to work and to court all the time now takes on a more profound significance. Much like Jimmy continues to wear Marco’s pinky ring as a token of his past as a grifter, Kim wears the earrings she attempted to steal as a teenager. For Kim, the earrings are tangible evidence that, if she looks and plays the part, she can get away with it. We know that Kim loves a good scam, and with how comfortable her mother seemed with it, I have to think that Kim learned some of that from her. At the very least, she learned that she won’t suffer any consequences—that, in fact, she’ll get exactly what she wants. As a child, it was a pair of earrings; as an adult, it’s Howard Hamlin’s head on a platter.
We get our first real glimpse into Howard’s home life this week, and it’s pretty grim. He’s living in his own guest house, separated from his wife Cheryl even though they’re technically still together and keeping up appearances for the outside world. We watch Howard get ready for work, and his meticulous attention to every detail of his appearance (including shining his own shoes) speaks to how important appearances are to Howard. (It is also reminiscent of Gus, who has his own appearances to keep up.)
Howard prepares a latte using his expensive coffee maker, and he cleans as he goes—leaving the kitchen spotless. As it turns out, the latte is not for him but for his wife. He even does some latte art, pouring the foam into a peace sign—quite literally a peace offering for Cheryl—but she just takes one look at it and dumps it into a different mug. But this isn’t a cruel gesture on her part; she’s on her way to work, too. She doesn’t have time to sit down and leisurely enjoy a latte, and Howard should have known that. So while it’s a nice gesture, it’s not appropriate for the situation. Yes, it’s clear that Howard is trying to fix their marriage, but it’s also clear that he has absolutely no idea what his wife actually needs.
After a brief conversation about which one of them is going to make the Hamlin family appearance at a fundraiser (with Howard holding out false hope that maybe they will attend together), Howard tells Cheryl that Jimmy is still up to his old tricks, but that things are escalating and she might hear some unsavory things about him. Cheryl seems more irritated by the situation than concerned for Howard, and Howard promises to handle it, “whatever it takes.” But I think, even if Howard was able to stop Jimmy and Kim (which I highly doubt), it might be too late for this marriage. Just this very brief scene between them shows us two people who are not at all on the same page, and Cheryl doesn’t seem at all interested in fixing it. Howard all but admitted this in his therapy session in “Hit and Run” (S6E4), and now we see it with our own eyes.
We know how emotionally shattered Howard was after Chuck’s death (which he blames himself for), and I don’t know if he can really take much more loss. It seems a divorce is almost inevitable on top of the professional shame Jimmy and Kim have planned for him. That’s all Howard has in the world, and what is Howard Hamlin without his reputation? The first time they discussed the Hamlin plan, back in “Something Unforgivable” (S5E10), Kim rationalized that it would be “a career setback for one lawyer,” but as we’re learning, Howard’s career is basically all he has left. His best friend is dead and his wife is basically lost to him. All he’s got left is his professional reputation and his good name, and if Kim has her way, both of those things will be obliterated.
Howard doesn’t know that he’s on the verge of complete professional annihilation as he meets with his PI to go over Jimmy’s comings and goings. Most of the photos are of his clients and the PI’s findings show that business is booming for Saul Goodman (which has to irritate Howard a bit). But there is one suspicious trip to the bank—Cradock Marine, which will play a significant part in the events of Breaking Bad—where the PI catches Jimmy taking out a large cash deposit he estimates at about $20K. Howard thinks this is some sort of gotcha moment, that he’s on the verge of catching Jimmy doing something illegal, but it’s all part of the plan.
Also part of the plan is a trip to the vet, Dr. Caldera, where Jimmy test drives some sort of (harmless) drug intended to make Howard seem like he’s under the influence. The vet says it’s basically the equivalent of a few Red Bulls on an empty stomach, but it’s clear that the idea is to make Howard look visibly coked up. The vet tells Kim and Jimmy that he’s about to retire his little black book and leave Albuquerque to focus full time on animals—that all the sketchy business is getting to be too much for him and he just wants to focus his energy on what he really cares about. After getting a sneak peek at the black book (which is completely coded), we also see the Best Quality Vacuum business card that we know is the contact for Ed the Disappearer. We know that Saul ends up making use of that particular contact, but is it possible that Kim does as well? With Robert Forster’s passing, that could be difficult to pull off in a rewarding way, but I’m willing to support any ending for Kim’s story that isn’t death (because that’s just boring and lazy storytelling).
We’ve seen the vet’s little black book before: in the cold open of “Wine and Roses” (S6E1) where Saul’s house is being cleaned out. It was briefly skimmed and placed in a box labeled “No Value,” so clearly they don’t have their biggest brains on the cleanup crew. (I don’t know about you, but if I was searching through the home of a notorious criminal and found a literal little black book filled with completely coded text, I would probably think it was a valuable find!) So we know that Dr. Caldera is looking to sell his little black book of Albuquerque underworld contacts and that Saul Goodman ends up with it. We have to assume that that book is worth a lot of money, so I’m thinking that Jimmy’s gonna be using the Lalo money to buy it sooner rather than later.
It’s interesting to note that Jimmy can’t understand why Dr. Caldera would want to give up on that easy money—basically passive income, and a lot of it—but Kim does. “He knows what he wants,” she tells Jimmy as she looks at the wall of pictures of his patients and cards from their families. It reminded me (and probably Kim) of the picture and thank you letter from one of her PD clients that Kim had framed and displayed in her office at Schweikart & Cokely. Kim thinks she knows what she wants—that she, like the vet, is just using the Howard scam as a means to an end where she will be able to focus only on what matters to her: her pro bono practice and the clients she’ll be able to help. But as we learn later on in “Axe and Grind,” it’s really not that simple for her; she’s lost all sense of the boundaries between right and wrong, but it’s far more dangerous because she can’t see that she has.
We see Kim hard at working righting wrongs in the courthouse—this time for a client who was pulled over on false pretenses and searched illegally—and today she’s got an audience: Cliff Main has come to see her in action, and the look on his face as Kim works her magic to shine light on systemic injustice is like that of a proud father. They meet up after for some terrible courthouse coffee and Cliff compliments her work. When he asks her how she left things with Howard, she answers honestly: she wouldn’t be where she was if it weren’t for Howard. She wouldn’t be a lawyer, she would never have met Jimmy, and she owes him and HHM a lot. Of course, there’s a lot that she leaves out—things that Cliff doesn’t need to know about how their relationship soured—because it’s important (for both the plan and for Kim’s professional relationship with Cliff moving forward) that he thinks there is no bad blood between Howard and Kim.
Kim goes to Saul’s office and Francesca lets her in, and we get our first look at the new and vastly improved Saul Goodman and Associates office space. Francesca’s request to be in charge of decorating has yielded a lovely result, which is shocking to Kim when she first sees it. It’s very tasteful and classy—the kind of thing that would have been perfect at the old Wexler & McGill office—but it simply doesn’t fit with the Saul Goodman brand. Kim knows this, but she doesn’t want to say anything because it’s clear that Francesca worked hard, but it just goes to show us that poor Francesca still really doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into with Saul. She’s still trying to cling to some sense of professionalism and legitimacy, and we see her rude awakening later in “Axe and Grind”—there’s nothing tasteful or classy about Saul Goodman’s world.
Francesca still sees Kim the same way she did when she was working for her; she really does like Kim (more than she likes Jimmy) and she is very sweet when she congratulates Kim on their marriage and asks if she has a registry. It’s a perfectly normal question to ask, but when one thinks of Jimmy and Kim’s relationship, it’s actually hilarious to think about them having something so normal as a wedding registry. But Francesca doesn’t truly know Kim—she sees her as most of the rest of the world sees her—so she doesn’t get the absurdity of the question. I have to wonder how much of the other side of Kim Francesca will end up seeing. We know she knows Saul Goodman probably better than anyone else by the end of Breaking Bad, but will we reach a point where she sees all of Kim, too? I’m not sure, but I think it would be really interesting, and I would love to see Francesca’s reaction to that since she’s the only one besides Jimmy who I think would be able to accept it.
Jimmy and the film crew are hard at work in Saul’s office (and there’s no Constitution wallpaper or columns to be found in there yet). Guest-starring as the Lenny, the guy pretending to be Judge Rand Casimiro, is Mr. Show alum John Ennis (who also happens to be the father of Jessie Ennis, who plays Davis and Main junior associate Erin Brill). And after a brief consultation with Kim about which prosthetic mustache is the best fit, she takes Jimmy aside to tell him the good news: Cliff is ready to help Kim achieve her dream. A justice reform organization, The Jackson Mercer Foundation, is about to expand to the west, and Cliff thinks Kim is the perfect person for the job. Cliff has set Kim up to meet with some of the foundation board members in Santa Fe, but there’s a problem: the lunch is on D-Day.
Jimmy is ecstatic for Kim and doesn’t see an issue because the plan doesn’t require her to be there for the final act. She’s been holding it in a bit until then, but she finally allows herself to be fully excited and happy about it. Ostensibly, the pro bono practice is the point, and it’s looking like Kim has a real chance at getting that off the ground even without the plan. But of course, in the Better Call Saul universe, nothing is ever that simple.
Leaving Jimmy and Kim for a brief sojourn to Germany, where Lalo has made his way into the woods and tracked down Casper, one of Werner Ziegler’s boys—the one who memorably told Mike that Werner was worth 50 of him in “Magic Man” (S5E1). Casper is no fool; he immediately recognizes Lalo as a threat and reaches for the axe he was using to chop wood. He runs off and Lalo chases him to a shed where Casper is able to get one good shot in at Lalo, but he used the blunt end of the axe when he should have gone with the blade: a half-measure he quickly ends up regretting.
Lalo fakes being seriously injured, letting Casper think he has the upper hand and telling him that he’s just there for information about what Gus Fring is building. After assuring Casper he didn’t hurt Margarethe, Lalo conceals a razorblade behind the business card for the manufacturer of the gift the boys sent to Werner’s widow, and he is able to get the drop on a confused Casper by slicing his face. Lalo shows no mercy with that axe, chopping Casper’s foot right off and tossing him a belt to tie it off so he can have a chat with him before he bleeds to death. There is none of the mercy he showed Margarethe here; the ruthless, bloodthirsty Lalo is back, and he’s about to get the answers he’s been searching for.
Back at Saul Goodman and Associates, Francesca’s delightful decor looks a bit different when Saul’s waiting room is full. The interior is just so incongruous with the clientele—and that’s even before one of them puts a cigarette out on the arm of Francesca’s nice new couch. But she’s got bigger problems than the property damage, because Jimmy wants her to make a phone call that she’s not at all comfortable with. Until now, Francesca has been on the periphery of the Saul Goodman business ethos, but now Jimmy is asking her to get her own hands dirty. She questions the legality of what she’s being asked to do, and Jimmy is incredibly condescending to her and completely disrespects her boundaries when it comes to what she feels is right and wrong.
Because at the end of the day, Saul Goodman is paying her the big bucks to do whatever is asked of her. That’s how Jimmy sees it, and it’s how Francesca will come to see it once Saul has completely jaded her. We’re seeing the first of many of these phone calls (even though Jimmy promises her he won’t be making a habit of this). This particular call is part of the Hamlin plan and requires Francesca to get the instructions and code to call into the Sandpiper mediation by pretending to be a resident’s daughter. But Breaking Bad fans will be reminded of another call Francesca was forced to make: in “Sunset” (S3E6), Francesca was the one who had to make the call to Hank telling him that Marie had been in a car accident in order to get Hank away from the RV with Walt and Jesse inside. Given the context we now have—that both Francesca and Jimmy lived through the trauma of Kim’s potentially fatal car accident—that Breaking Bad scene takes on a deeper significance.
When Francesca has successfully completed her task, they return to Saul’s office to find his latest client urinating in the corner. And as if the sight of some sketchy guy pissing indoors wasn’t enough, Jimmy has the audacity to expect her to clean it up. That is clearly not happening—even Francesca has her limits—and she’s only starting on the journey to figuring out what they are. I think it’s safe to say she’s got a “no bodily fluids” rule she started with and stuck to (and maybe that’s part of why she ends up behind plexiglass by the Breaking Bad era).
We only see Mike briefly this week when he visits the laundry and is chastised by Tyrus (speaking for Gus, who is absent this episode as Giancarlo Esposito is hard at work behind the camera) for taking the security detail off his house. Mike insists he doesn’t need it because he’s never home and they are already spread thin, and when Tyrus suggests taking the security detail of Alameda Street, it’s a non-starter for Mike because this is where Stacey and Kaylee live. The Salamancas have threatened their lives before, and Mike isn’t about to leave them unprotected. Mike’s tone says all Tyrus needs to know—it’s pointless to argue this point with him (and even Gus wouldn’t be able to change his mind).
We see that Mike has taken a page out of Gus’s book and secretly taken up residence in a house across the street from Stacey and Kaylee. He’s pretending to be out of town on business in Chattanooga as he has his nightly call with Kaylee for some wholesome stargazing. But of course, what would just be a cute scene between Kaylee and her Pop-Pop has much darker undertones when you remember that Werner Ziegler’s last moments were spent looking up at the stars of New Mexico in “Winner” (S4E10). It would seem that no matter what Mike does, he’s always going to be surrounded by the ghosts of his past. He’s resigned himself to this, he’s accepted it, and the only thing that truly matters to him anymore is keeping Stacey and Kaylee safe and well taken care of.
And so we’ve reached the end; D-Day is upon us, and Jimmy and Kim decide to celebrate the night before on Omaha Beach itself—the lawn outside the HHM conference room. We know that whatever is about to go down is going down in that room: the sight of so many heated confrontations over the course of Better Call Saul. It’s fitting that this plan ends there, that Howard will be dethroned in the place where Howard holds court as king of the firm. But for all their careful planning and success every step of the way, nothing is ever a sure thing.
On D-Day morning, Kim sets off to Santa Fe to meet with the Jackson Mercer Foundation board members—a meeting that by all accounts should put her on her dream career path. Jimmy heads to the liquor store to purchase some celebratory Zafiro Añejo, and he’s in the right place at the right time because he sees Judge Casimiro in the store. He’s got a broken arm in a cast, which completely derails the plan since the pictures they took of the fake Casimiro show him with a fully functional arm. Jimmy calls Kim and tells her they need to abort and regroup, that she should just go to her meeting and they can figure it all out later, but Kim can’t let it go. She tells him, “It happens today,” and swings a U-turn back to Albuquerque. Now, I know I throw around the bad choice road analogy a lot, but this is quite literally Kim taking the bad choice road.
This is an objectively terrible decision. She’s throwing away the thing she’s worked so hard for (because not showing up to that meeting is absolutely going to put her out of the running and disappoint Cliff) and making the choice to burn Howard instead of advancing her own career. Yes, they have invested a lot of time and money into the Howard plan, but she’s operating on the sunk-cost fallacy here. There’s no time left and there’s no plan, and winging it seems incredibly dangerous to both her and Jimmy, but she’s a dog with a bone when it comes to the downfall of Howard Hamlin. What’s terrifying is that I do think that Kim is capable of figuring out a last-minute save here; I do think that they’ll get the plan to work somehow, but at great cost to everyone involved. It’s excruciating to witness someone make a decision that you know is just unequivocally the wrong call, but Kim’s got an axe to grind and absolutely nothing—not even her dream job—is going to stop her.
Next week is the mid-season finale, which I’m both excited and terrified for because at this point we know that whatever happens will be explosive and leave us reeling over the break before the last half of the season returns. The title alone (“Plan and Execution”) has me quaking. See you next week for what is sure to be some classic Better Call Saul emotional trauma!