If Jimmy McGill’s relationship with his family—a father easily duped by grifters, including his own son, and a vindictive brother who could see only his sibling’s worst qualities—informs viewers how he transforms into Saul Goodman, then Better Call Saul is slowly but surely building a similarly intriguing background for Kim Wexler. The opening sequence of the sixth season’s sixth episode, “Axe and Grind,” brings us back to Kim’s childhood, when she’s been caught stealing earrings and a necklace from a department store. “She’s a straight-A student, she’s always got her nose in a book,” Kim’s mother says to the manager, conveying shock, anger, and disappointment over her daughter’s actions.
At this point in the series, we know very little about Kim’s mom—including her name—but in a previous flashback from the fifth season, she was late to pick up her daughter from school because she’s been drinking. (Kim has also alluded to growing up poor and sometimes being woken up in the middle of the night by her mom before an eviction.) So it’s perhaps unsurprising that her mother’s apparent parental instincts were all a ruse: By the time they leave the department store, she’s snuck some jewelry out for Kim. “I didn’t know you had it in you,” she tells her daughter with a glint of pride. Kim still looks ashamed, but her mom reassures her that everything’s fine because she’s gotten away with just a slap on the wrist. With this kind of role model growing up, no wonder Kim is a walking set of contradictions.
The fascinating tension between a do-gooder lawyer fighting for the little guy and someone who gets a thrill out of pulling off Saul-like cons helps make Kim one of television’s most complex and anxiety-inducing characters. (It doesn’t hurt that Rhea Seehorn is giving one of the best performances you’ll ever see, even if the Television Academy is somehow oblivious to it.) But throughout Better Call Saul, Kim’s moral scales have been slowly tipping toward, well, breaking bad, which makes it all the more concerning that she never shows up in the prequel’s predecessor. And while “Axe and Grind” is mostly a stressful prelude to next week’s midseason finale, the episode has already laid out the potential path to Kim’s self-destruction.
Since the start of the sixth and final season, Kim and Jimmy have been hatching up an elaborate scheme to destroy Howard Hamlin’s career. Initially, they went the character assassination route, making it seem as if he’s someone who dabbles in coke and sex workers. The ploy is convincing enough that Cliff Main, Howard’s pal at another law firm working on the Sandpiper Crossing retirement home case, tries staging a well-meaning intervention. When Howard wised up to Jimmy and Kim’s plan in last week’s episode, “Black and Blue,” he and Jimmy punched out their feelings in television’s most anticlimactic boxing bout since Billions put Dollar Bill and Mafee in the ring. But both characters had ulterior motives: Jimmy and Kim indulged the fight because of “what’s coming next,” while Howard hired a private investigator to follow Jimmy around.
The strange thing about “Axe and Grind” is that we’re still unsure what everyone has planned and how much they know about their respective schemes. Jimmy and Kim have hired someone to impersonate the judge presiding over the Sandpiper case and enlisted Jimmy’s amusing go-to trio of film students to take some photographs of the look-alike. (The final piece of the impersonation puzzle is making sure they give their actor the same handlebar mustache as the judge.) They also visited Dr. Caldera, the local vet who doubles as a one-stop shop for Albuquerque’s criminal underworld. The not-so-good doctor gives Jimmy something that’s undetectable on a blood panel that will feel like “two Red Bulls on an empty stomach.” When Jimmy looks in the mirror, his pupils are extremely dilated—if someone didn’t know any better, they’d figure he’s tripping balls.
Jimmy and Kim have plotted out every step of Operation Destroy Howard—my title, not theirs—with copious sticky notes, a process not unlike the Better Call Saul brain trust storyboarding their meticulously orchestrated episodes. It’s all leading up to “D-Day,” which happens to be a meeting about the Sandpiper settlement at HHM headquarters. But while everything is going to plan, Kim is set to miss out on the action because Cliff has invited her to Santa Fe to meet with a foundation that funds justice reform programs. After taking over the East Coast, the organization wants to get a foothold out West—and Kim could be a major part of its expansion. For a lawyer who has struggled with succeeding in her profession at the expense of helping people who really need it, working on justice reform is practically a dream job. (The fact that she’s got this amazing opportunity makes it even funnier that it happened only because she met with Cliff earlier this season under the pretext of convincing him that Howard hooks up with sex workers and then kicks them out of his car.)
But much like other characters in the Breaking Bad universe, Kim is already struggling to maintain her double life. Walter White is a chemistry teacher and a meth kingpin; Gus Fring manages a fast food chain (featuring delicious spice curls) and a drug empire; Jimmy McGill morphs into Saul Goodman. Similarly, Kim is pulled between her lives as a well-meaning lawyer and a tenacious grifter. (Look no further than the sad fates of Walt, Gus, and Saul to see the unstable nature of duality.) She’s visibly bummed about missing out on D-Day, even as she drives to her meeting in Santa Fe. But when Jimmy goes to buy a bottle of Zafiro Añejo tequila at a liquor store to celebrate a job well done, he spots the judge at the counter with a cast and sling over his left arm. Whatever they had planned with the look-alike has gone up in flames.
Calling Kim on the road, Jimmy says they’ll have to pull the plug and live to fight another day. Jimmy is experienced enough to know when it’s better to call it quits, but at the same time, scuttling the plot probably comes as a relief. Going back to the Season 5 finale, Kim has been the driving force behind taking out Howard, while Jimmy hasn’t been completely sold on hurting his old boss’s career. (He also doesn’t seem particularly thrilled with what the Howard plot has brought out in Kim, which Bob Odenkirk has imparted with quick, subtle looks of discontent.) But Kim isn’t as patient as Jimmy: “It happens today!”, she tells him before swerving her car onto the other lane of the freeway heading back to Albuquerque. And so we go into the midseason finale, “Plan and Execution,” with Kim dead set on seeing through a scheme that looks doomed to fail.
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve just had two Red Bulls on an empty stomach. The best-case scenario for the midseason finale is that Kim has just squandered a golden opportunity to move up in her career, but knowing Better Call Saul, there will be more consequences outside of that—whether it hurts her, Howard, or both. It’s hard to make a firm prediction when we don’t even know the specifics of Operation Destroy Howard, but let’s look at five potential outcomes for Kim that we’ll measure using a proprietary rating system of Kim Wexler Ponytails.
If there’s one thing Kim loves without reservation, it’s being a lawyer—and by all accounts, she’s great at it. I can think of no greater punishment for the character than losing the ability to practice law. (We saw how bad it was for Jimmy in the fourth season, and he’s in it mostly for the thrill of cutting legal corners rather than a genuine desire to help out his clients.) Unfortunately, this also seems like the most probable course of action—if only because it would go a long way toward explaining why Kim never appears in Breaking Bad. While there’s been plenty of understandable concern about Kim being in mortal danger, disbarment might be even worse from her perspective. It would destroy her soul.
Likelihood: Four Kim Wexler Ponytails out of five.
Taking it a step further from disbarment, let’s assume that Kim’s desperation to get one over on Howard crosses the line so badly that further legal action has to be taken. Obviously, it’s not something that Jimmy—or Howard, for that matter—would want, but if something bad happens in a public setting, circumstances could force everyone’s hand. After all, whatever Jimmy and Kim cooked up to hurt Howard is clearly designed with an audience in mind. Kim going to jail would be devastating for her, as well as an impetus for Jimmy’s final devolution into Saul. Still, I feel like Kim would do scarily well behind bars; maybe she becomes unofficial legal counsel for other inmates. All I’m saying is that I would watch the hell of an Orange Is the New Black–esque spinoff about Kim serving her sentence.
Likelihood: Three Kim Wexler Ponytails out of five.
If you’d asked me at the start of the season, I would have had much more concern about Kim being killed off, especially with Lalo Salamanca out for revenge. But with Lalo currently enjoying his German vacation, not to mention Mike Ehrmantraut’s men keeping a close eye on Kim and Jimmy, death seems less likely to be in the cards. Better Call Saul is great at keeping the audience on its toes, and if Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould & Co. already killed poor Nacho Varga, I also can’t imagine they’d repeat themselves with Kim … or maybe that’s just what they want us to think.
Likelihood: Two and a half Kim Wexler Ponytails out of five.
No significant consequences for questionable decisions on a show taking place in the Breaking Bad universe? Yeah, no.
Likelihood: One Kim Wexler Ponytail out of five.
A Further Moral Descent That Makes Us All Very Sad Because We’ve Grown So Attached to One of Television’s Most Nuanced Characters
Jimmy knows when to call it quits, and for all the resentment he holds for Howard, he didn’t want to go out of his way to ruin the man’s career. Conversely, Kim has been all for destroying Howard since the start of the season, and even if she doesn’t succeed in “Plan and Execution,” targeting an innocent lawyer who is clearly having some trouble in his home life isn’t exactly a worthy cause. It’s brought out the worst in Kim, and when Jimmy-cum-Saul is concerned about your moral character, that tells you everything you need to know.
Likelihood: Five Kim Wexler Ponytails out of five.
Whatever ends up happening to the character in the midseason finale, we have reached unprecedented levels of Kim Wexler Anxiety among the Better Call Saul fan base. I can’t help but think of when I talked to Gould last year for a piece about Odenkirk’s action film Nobody, and mentioned that I and many Ringer colleagues were extremely worried about Kim’s fate. “Good, excellent,” he said over the phone like a genial man who nonetheless takes some pleasure in our collective suffering.
We have every reason to be worried about Kim going into “Plan and Execution.” Even if she’s not in any mortal danger, Kim is on the precipice of career suicide—and in contrast to her childhood shoplifting episode, it doesn’t appear that she’ll be able to get away without serious repercussions. In one of the best quotes from the entire series, Kim once told Jimmy, “You don’t save me. I save me.” But heading into the final stretch of Better Call Saul, who, if anyone, can save Kim Wexler from herself?