“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.
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.
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.