Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 6, "Axe and Grind"

Season five’s concluding episode, “Something Unforgiveable,” raised the intriguing question of who bears responsibility for Kim’s newfound capacity for immorality. Throughout the episode Jimmy secretly suspects that he is at fault, that his influence has corrupted her into someone who is comfortable ruining someone else’s life to benefit themselves. Kim, however, pushes back against this notion, stating that she makes her own choices for her own reasons. We’re encouraged to see it both ways: yes, she is her own person, but she has also been influenced by the various stresses Jimmy has placed on her, which seem to have shifted her moral center closer to Jimmy’s more flexible worldview. “Axe and Grind” sheds further light on the question of who bears responsibility for this new-look Kim, lending further credence to the notion that her increasingly flexible morality and risk-inclined behavior is less a product of Jimmy’s influence and more of an innate character trait. 

For the second time in the span of the series (after “Wexler v. Goodman”), the prologue consists of a flashback to Kim’s childhood. Kim has been caught shoplifting from a department store, but she’s saved by her mother, who puts on a big show of anger and disappointment in order to make the store manager feel bad for Kim, who is let off with a warning. After leaving the store, Kim’s mother is both surprised and proud of Kim, and Kim is surprised herself when she realizes that no punishment will be forthcoming. Quite the opposite, in fact: Kim’s mother has shoplifted the necklace that Kim had tried to steal, and gives it to Kim as a reward for her efforts. 

This flashback prologue is a little less enigmatic than the one in “Wexler v. Goodman,” which only started to make sense in the context of the entire episode. In “Axe and Grind” it’s immediately clear that this flashback helps to establish that impulsive risk-taking is more of an innate trait than a behavior Kim has learned from Jimmy (or at the very least, it’s a behavior she learned from her mother). Apparently, she’s had this capacity within her all along, just like how she possesses other dispositions that have led her to be such an effective attorney (indeed, Kim’s mother describes Kim as a bookish, straight-A student, which certainly sounds like the adult Kim). Kim contains multitudes. 

However, the relevance of this flashback also reverberates throughout the rest of “Axe and Grind,” especially the end of the episode. First though, “Axe and Grind” goes through yet more paces of nudging Jimmy closer to Saul circa Breaking Bad, while also continuing the delicate dance of providing small hints about the individual steps in Jimmy and Kim’s con without revealing the broader outline of their plan. Here, we see that Jimmy/Saul has already acquired his desk drawer full of burner phones (including some leftover from his unsold palette of phones in season four), and we also learn how he first discovered Robert Forster’s fixer character, via a card in the little black book of Jimmy’s veterinarian/underworld doctor, Dr. Caldera. 

Other Saul talismans aren’t quite in place yet, though. Francesca’s first iteration of Saul’s office looks nothing like what we saw on Breaking Bad: the reception area is warm and inviting like a psychiatrist’s office, while Saul’s office is tasteful and austere. It’s a nice setup, but completely inappropriate for Saul’s clientele, which Francesca realizes upon witnessing someone put out their cigarette on the upholstery, and which Saul realizes when he discovers a client peeing into the water feature in his office. Alone, these acts probably aren’t enough to lead the two of them to redesign the space into what we know from Breaking Bad, but it’s clear that we’re headed in that direction. I can easily envision a threatening client inspiring Francesca to install bank teller security windows partitioning her desk from the waiting area. 

As for Jimmy and Kim’s con, here we learn that the next (and presumably final) step somehow involves drugs that dilate Jimmy’s pupils (provided by Dr. Caldera), Jimmy gaining access to a conference call for the Sandpiper mediation, and Jimmy’s regular film crew shooting an actor Jimmy has hired to play the mediator, Rand Casamiro. It’s the latter of which we get the most clarity on in “Axe and Grind,” but the picture is still pretty hazy.

Evidently, a part of the plan is to make it look like Jimmy is bribing Casamiro, and to have his film crew shoot and/or photograph it, but it’s still unclear exactly how discrediting Casamiro (and implicating Jimmy in bribery) will advance their cause. Indeed, we only learn this much because Jimmy and Kim encounter a snag in their plan on the day everything is supposed to take place: Jimmy coincidentally spots Casamiro while buying a preemptory celebratory bottle of Zafiro Añejo tequila (the same brand they once conned Ken Wins into buying for them), and discovers that Casamiro’s left arm is in a cast, thus creating a mismatch between real Casamiro and the footage they shot of the actor they hired.

Jimmy had planned to oversee this final stage of the con himself, because on the last day of their timeline (“D-Day,” as they refer to it), Kim needed to be at a meeting in Santa Fe to pitch her work to the Jackson Mercer Foundation, a (fictional) justice reform program intending to expand into New Mexico. It’s a great opportunity for Kim to actually achieve one of the goals that ostensibly motivated her pursuit of this con in the first place: establishing a wealthy firm to represent the disenfranchised.* However, when Jimmy calls her to break the news about Casamiro’s cast, rather than agreeing with Jimmy that they should pull the plug, regroup, and try something else later, instead Kim turns her car around to come back and help Jimmy fix the situation, driving across a divider in the freeway to do so. 

*The episode also cleverly reminds us that she could use some help too; when Cliff Main unexpectedly tells Kim about the Jackson Mercer opportunity, we also learn that Kim has basically been making minimum wage, given her compensation and the hours she puts into each of her cases.

It’s in the context turning her car around that the flashback prologue snaps into focus once again. Kim reaffirms what’s been clear to us for a while now, which is that the con was never really about the good Kim could do with the settlement money, but was instead about the thrill she gets from taking risks and running cons with Jimmy. Kim wants to feel this rush so badly that she’s willing to sacrifice another legitimate avenue through which she could accomplish her goal of helping disenfranchised people (which she’s quite good at, as we’re reminded of mid-episode when we see her defend a client who has had his fourth amendment rights violated), and she does so through the exact same kind of unnecessarily risky and impulsive behavior that got her caught shoplifting in the prologue, making a U-turn in the middle of a freeway rather waiting for the next exit and turning around there. Here, Kim is willing to break a few rules to expedite the outcome she wants, which is uncannily similar to how Saul will behave in his day-to-day legal practice. 

UPDATE: Alan Sepinwall points out another connection between the prologue and Kim's behavior, which is that Kim's mom's performance for the store manager teaches Kim that "you can get away with doing bad things if you are a good and forceful enough talker." This is a lesson she put into practice in "Bad Choice Road" when talking Lalo out of killing Jimmy.

Midway through the episode, we learn that Dr. Caldera is giving up his clandestine medical work to focus on healing animals, which is what he actually cares about. Jimmy is incredulous over Caldera throwing away such a low-risk, high-reward business and the years of contacts he’s accrued, but Kim doesn’t share Jimmy’s incredulity, telling him, “Well, he knows what he wants.” It’s a moment underscored by a close-up of Kim, which suggests that we should view Kim’s actions in the same vein. She too knows what she wants, and it’s informed her behavior not just here, but across the past few seasons (quitting Schweikart & Cokely, marrying Jimmy, pursuing Howard’s ruination to expedite the Sandpiper settlement, etc.). 

Kim’s reverse course on the freeway also literalizes Mike’s speech to Jimmy about choices and roads from “Bad Choice Road” – in switching directions on her road, she inches ever closer to the culmination of all of the choices she’s made over the course of the series. Indeed, it’s hard not to see this as the first truly reckless decision that will eventually lead to whatever grim fate might be awaiting Kim. After all, we know how ultra-competent Kim is as an attorney, so it’s easy to imagine that she would have made an excellent impression on the Jackson Mercer Foundation, leveraging their interest in her into achieving her legal practice dream. Yet here she’s throwing away that potential to chase after something else that the flashback has revealed is just as central to her identity, and thus it’s hard not to read this as harbinger for things to come. 

Other thoughts:

- We finally see a bit of Howard’s home life, and witness firsthand what he alluded to in his therapy session in “Hit and Run”: the icy relationship he has with his wife. Here, he warns her about Jimmy’s continued attempts to mess with him. Their exchange seems like seeds being planted for later developments.

- It seems a lot of Better Call Saul’s actors are using the show’s final season as an opportunity to direct. First Rhea Seehorn, and now Giancarlo Esposito, who only had two previous directing credits to his name. Like Seehorn, he does a good job, with lots of nice directorial touches scattered throughout the episode. In addition to the close-up of Kim at the veterinarian clinic, there are also a series of close-ups of coffee being prepared, which prompt us to compare the situations of the characters preparing/drinking them (Howard crafts a meticulous latte for his estranged wife, whereas Kim makes do with the swill from the courthouse vending machine). And of course, there’s also a sweeping landscape shot of Kim turning her car around, lending her impulsive decision an air of momentousness.

- Another nice shot: Kim and Jimmy enjoy a picnic outside of the HHM office board room. Initially, I thought it was a bold choice for the episode to rely only on our serial knowledge to understand the significance of this location. While this setting has been the location of many memorable scenes, I’m pretty sure the last time we saw it was in the season four finale, “Winner,” which aired three-and-a-half years ago. However, the episode then cuts to a wider shot, showing the HHM logo on the side of the building, which is a much safer (although less exciting) choice to ensure viewers understand the action.

- We get another glimpse of Jimmy and Kim’s con timeline, written, like Caldera’s contact book, in code. It prevents Jimmy and Kim from getting caught with incriminating evidence, but it also prevents us from figuring out what they’re planning. Under “D-Day,” there’s just a picture of nuclear bomb mushroom cloud.

- Kim contains more multitudes than just shoplifting and getting straight-As. In her meeting with Cliff, he probes after how she left things with Howard, and Kim answers that she owes Howard and HHM a lot, and that she wouldn’t be where she was today without him. It’s only a half-truth, however, given that the last time they interacted, she basically told off Howard for couching his concern for her in condescending terms. I can’t help but think that some of her desire to see this con through involves some pent-up resentment she holds for Howard. After all, Howard was the one who put her in the doghouse after the Kettleman case blew up back when she still worked for HHM, and she also chewed out Howard after he implicitly asked Jimmy to absolve him of guilt over Chuck’s suicide, way back in season four's "Breathe." 

- In withholding the details of what Kim and Jimmy are planning, Better Call Saul has thus far opted to emphasize surprises over suspense (the latter of which is often easier to achieve if we know as much as or even more than the characters). However, it has made sense for the series to do so thus far, since until the very end of “Axe and Grind,” their plans have proceeded rather smoothly. There likely isn’t all that much suspense to be had in watching a more-or-less flawless execution of a plan we know everything about ahead of time, thus withholding aspects of that plan from us, and opting for surprises instead, has been an effective way to maintain interest. However, I half-expect this to change next episode, because knowing more about what Jimmy and Kim are actually planning will make it easier for us to assess the likelihood of their success or failure, which is often crucial to suspenseful feelings (to quote philosopher Noël Carroll, we feel suspense when “an undesired outcome appears likely, while the desired outcome seems unlikely”).

- One point of suspense and surprise that this episode seems to equivocate on: whether or not Jimmy and Kim know about the private investigator Howard hired. Here, we see Howard going over the fruits of the investigator’s labor, which includes incriminating photos of Jimmy leaving a bank having withdrawn $20,000, and later, when Jimmy breaks the news about Casamiro to Kim, we see that he has very similar-looking photos of himself handing the Casamiro imposter the valise full of money. It’s unclear whether these photos were taken by Jimmy’s film crew, or whether they were taken by the private investigator. If it’s the latter, then Jimmy and Kim are working with Howard’s PI to dupe Howard. If it’s the former, then it still doesn’t rule out Jimmy and Kim knowing about the PI – they could be deliberately letting Howard get what he thinks is compromising info in order to make Howard think he has an advantage over Jimmy (making your mark think they have the upper hand is a good tool in confidence schemes). Hopefully all will be revealed in next week’s episode, and we’ll be treated to some nice suspense.

- Initially, I thought Kim’s trepidation over meeting the Jackson Mercer Foundation wasn’t over it conflicting with “D-Day,” but over the possibility that her marriage to Jimmy might be viewed as a black mark, considering not only the clientele he represents, but the way he represents them.

- Over on the cartel side of the show, Lalo catches up to one of Ziegler’s boys. Surprisingly, he doesn’t find Kai, but another one of the crew. Unsurprisingly, it goes poorly for the crew member. Lalo will undoubtedly learn about the super lab once he tortures it out of this poor sap, whose foot Lalo has already chopped off before the scene concludes. Ouch.

- No Gus in this episode – Esposito was busy directing instead – but we do get a little taste of Mike, who has a nice dick-measuring contest with Tyrus. Tyrus tries to give Mike guff for keeping a surveillance team on Stacey and Kaylee’s house when the security crew is already stretched thin, but Mike is unflappable. Given the animosity between these two, I retrospectively would have liked to have seen more scenes between them on Breaking Bad.

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