Tuesday, May 17, 2022

"Better Call Saul" - "Axe and Grind"

Spoilers for this week's Better Call Saul after the jump: 

There's never been a truly bad episode of Better Call Saul, but even so the hot streak the show has been on since the middle of season five is something to behold. I think you'd have to go back to the first half of that season to find the last episode that's even close to being subpar by this show's standards. That's a hell of a run, but I'm gonna say "Axe and Grind" ends it. Very little about this hour is bad, and some of it's terrific, but it's just not an episode where very many scenes pop the way I've gotten used to seeing. It's the kind of episode that made me wish the mid-season hiatus—since AMC insists on having one, presumably to give the Emmys one extra chance to snub Rhea Seehorn—started this week, because at least I'd miss the show a little less after this slightly flat hour than I would otherwise. 

First, let's get the one thing about this episode that's actually terrible out of the way: I hate (and I do mean hate) the way BCS treats many of Saul's clients as objects of ridicule and/or disgust. They did this in last season's otherwise good "50% Off," taking what was perhaps a legitimate moment of sliminess on Jimmy's part and turning it into a ludicrous sequence where two guys go on a crime spree because they've been offered discount legal services. I mean the very idea that anyone would do this is preposterous on its face, but do I really need to spell out how this is also the kind of vision of the world that's espoused by "tough-on-crime" reactionaries everywhere? In "Axe and Grind," meanwhile, Jimmy briefly leaves one of his clients alone and returns to find the man urinating into a water feature, in a moment that's obviously meant to be funny. There are also shots of some of Jimmy's other clients that are clearly designed to make us uncomfortable with the way they look, with the editing further inviting us to share in Francesca's unease around them. No thank you to all of this.

My other main gripe with "Axe and Grind" is that it's another hour mostly devoted to moving a bunch of pieces around, but it does so in a far less compelling manner than last week's episode did. Take the big suspense sequence with Lalo, in which he tracks down Casper using the information he gleaned from Margarethe. The whole thing is wonderfully directed by Giancarlo Esposito, don't get me wrong—every shot is well chosen, and the two moments of violence are both resoundingly visceral. But it's just so obvious from the start where this is going, even when Casper briefly gets the drop on Lalo—there's none of the sustained tension that underlies every single scene he has with Margarethe. Both are scenes whose function is to point Lalo where he needs to go next, but only one manages to build something of real intensity out of it. 

And while Mike helping his granddaughter look at the stars is a sweet moment from Jonathan Banks, "Axe and Grind" also feels the need to remind us that Tyrus doesn't like Mike very much in a scene that reads to me as mostly pointless. To what (if any) end, I'm not sure yet, but it's not a conversation that I feel adds much to our understanding of either of these men, especially given that their last confrontation was a mere handful of episodes ago. Maybe all of this was to a certain degree inevitable—a narrative lull between Nacho's demise and whatever confrontation Lalo and Gus are going to have feels baked into the story to a certain degree. That still doesn't make it great television or excuse such relatively uninteresting character work, though, and I'd say this might be the dullest this part of the show has been since early in season three. 

With all that said, a solid chunk of "Axe and Grind" is still good-to-great, primarily whenever it focuses on Kim. This is her episode more than anyone else's—a fact that's made clear early on in another flashback to her childhood, in which she gets in trouble for shoplifting only to discover her mom is more than OK with it. "You got away with it," she tells her daughter, echoing a remark Jimmy made in "Hit and Run." And if depicting retail theft as an early indicator of Kim's flexible ethics irks me (as someone who, to be clear, does not and will never care if anyone steals from a store), it's still a solid character-building moment that lays the groundwork for the much bigger and likely far more destructive decision the adult Kim makes during the closing scene. (Shout-out as well to Better Call Saul's attention to detail for including a shot of the younger Kim anxiously tapping the ground with her foot, the same way we've seen her older counterpart do several times over the course of the series.)

Just about every Kim scene here lands. You've got her zealously arguing on behalf of one of her clients—once again impressing Cliff Main, who tells her about an opportunity with an organization focused on providing legal defense to low-income people. The scene she shares with Francesca, who's clearly fond of Kim and congratulates her on her marriage, is so lovely. And the way she finally lets out her excitement when she tells Jimmy is so utterly joyous, as is his clear happiness for her. (Once again, I love them together so much.) Only one problem: The opportunity involves a meeting on what Kim terms "D-Day," the day they're planning to put the final step of their Howard plan into action. It's fine, Jimmy tells her; everything's just about set, so he can handle Howard while she knocks their socks off in Santa Fe. 

And then she throws it all away. 

Or at least she seemingly does. We can't know for sure yet, because one would assume the people she's meeting wouldn't hold it against her if she claimed her car broke down or made up some other excuse. But even if she does, the working assumption has to be that this is the moment where whatever fate Better Call Saul's writers have dreamed up for her is all but sealed. What's so upsetting here is how unnecessary the whole thing has become. It was never necessary, of course (and has always been driven more by a mixture of spite and the thrill of the con than anything else), but at this point Jimmy is clearly en route to raking in solid money from his new clients, and Kim is about to meet with a foundation that presumably will help financially support what she wants to do. (She's not gonna get rich, but I don't think she ever thought there'd be big money in this.) So when Jimmy calls her with the news that he's found out about a late wrench in their plans, it's a clear chance for her to get out. Just let it go. 

She can't, though. You can see it in her face in the seconds before she does that rapid U-turn (an instance of perhaps too obvious symbolism that nonetheless works because of the elaborate camerawork giving it a sense of near-mythic weight) to head back to Albuquerque—Seehorn's eyes briefly cycling through all her character's different options before realizing this is one moment when she can't have it both ways. This is a binary choice. What's it going to be? And she picks the con, unhesitatingly heading down that road toward what seems more than ever like her impending doom. "Axe and Grind" may be the low point of this season so far (and I hope it stays that way), but it sure does leave us with an electrifying final image. 

Other Thoughts 

- Howard fixing a fancy cup of coffee for his wife (with the show going so far as to depict the process in one of its classic montages) only to have her just unceremoniously dump it into a travel mug is a heartbreaking miniature short story after what we heard him say about his marriage a couple weeks ago. Outside of the Kim stuff, it's the episode's best scene.

- "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Howard," Kim tells Cliff. I mean she's not technically lying...

- Jimmy just happening to be in the same store as the mediator at the exact same time is the kind of coincidence you sometimes just have to roll with for the sake of the story, and so I will roll with it. Albuquerque is not a small town, though. Let's be real here.

No comments:

Post a Comment