SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the sixth episode of “Better Call Saul” Season 6, titled “Ax and Grind.”
Giancarlo Esposito didn’t appear in the latest episode of “Better Call Saul,” but that was because he was busy behind the camera directing this crucial episode, the penultimate entry in Season 6’s first half.
“Ax and Grind” covered a lot of ground, taking place in Albuquerque, Germany, a long highway to Santa Fe and even a flashback to Kim Wexler’s (Rhea Seehorn) childhood. The episode started and ended with Kim, who hits her heartbreaking “moment of doom,” according to Esposito. In the final moments, Kim is driving to Santa Fe to interview for a major job with a legal foundation, but Saul (Bob Odenkirk) frantically calls her and warns her that their “D-Day” scam on Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) has hit a snag Instead of delaying their plot any longer, Kim pulls a U-turn in the middle of the road, abandons her career opportunity and heads back to Albuquerque to finish the job.
Elsewhere, Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) continues his reign of terror in Germany and finds Casper (Stefan Kapičić), one of the workers who built Gus’ meth superlab. He’s looking for dirt on Gus, but is briefly chopped down by an ax to the side. However, Lalo gains the upper hand by slicing Casper’s face with a hidden razor blade and hacking through one of his legs from him.
The episode also introduces one of the most important, but rarely seen, characters in the “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” world: the vacuum repairman. Dr. Caldera, the sketchy veterinarian who’s patched up Saul and Mike (Jonathan Banks) throughout the series, reveals he keeps a coded notebook of illegal contacts. Inside the book is a card for Ed Galbraith (Robert Forster), who specializes in fixing vacuums and making people disappear when they’re in trouble.
Esposito, who’s directed three features of his own in addition to starring as Gus on “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” talks with Variety about making his directing debut on the AMC series, finding a German barn in Albuquerque and why he believes Kim is intrinsically a good person.
How did you end up directing this particular episode?
When I was working on “Breaking Bad,” I had given Vince Gilligan my second film. Years later when we were getting ready to do 401 of “Breaking Bad,” that infamous episode “Box Cutter,” I asked him if he’d looked at it and he said, “No, I haven’t had the chance.” I said, “Well you’ve been a busy bee.” I never asked again; that was close to 10 years ago, but I observed and kept watching what was going on. In the summer before we started shooting, I got a phone call from Vince and I thought something happened to one of the cast members, “Oh, what happened, did Jonathan Banks keel over?” It was Vince, Melissa Bernstein and Peter Gould, “We want to invite you to direct an episode in Season 6.” They didn’t know which one, and I just yelled. Good things come to those who wait. Through their conversations, they thought 606 would be the best that linked up with my personality.
What elements of the episode matched your personality?
My particular episode has some edgy violence in it. I haven’t done a lot of violent films; my films are more intellectual, more about social consciousness. I think they wanted to give me the shot at shooting a very tricky scene that took place in Germany with Lalo Salamanca and Casper. I think that may have been a piece of it. It was also an episode that was very intricate in its planning of what Kim and Jimmy were going to do, how they were going to enact this whole scheme on Howard. Yet it had moments with Howard’s storyline, which is very beautiful, that could have some softness and the desire for Howard and his wife to come back together, and that’s not really happening. I think everyone had known that I had been through a marriage, turned out on the other end very close to my former wife and had children, but we’re not together. Maybe they looked to the sensitive side of me to direct some of that. No one knows I had this side, so don’t tell anyone.
Where did you shoot the Lalo scene in Germany? The show is normally in Albuquerque, how did you give this area a new look?
Our wonderful set decorating artist found an old barn in the valley in Albuquerque. I went to the studio where they had an old set of something else. They said we could fashion the inside here and the outside there. We wound up going out to the barn, a 90-year-old woman owned it out in the valley. It had the beautiful feeling of what would be inside a German barn. It was a horse barn, and we wanted it to be a barn that looked like it had Casper’s machinery — he’s an engineer. There was already there; it was the perfect interior.
The exterior was over on the other side of Sandia, NM It really does resemble Germany. But we didn’t have enough green; it wasn’t the time of season. I said, “Can we just get someone to come out here every day with a water truck and water? Every day for the next two weeks before we had to shoot, just soak the ground.” We got the greens people out there and put in some extra trees. It worked seamlessly due to the creativity of so many great artists.
Kim pulling the U-turn at the very end is a perfect symbol of her choosing the Sandpiper scam over her own career. Is this the turning point for Kim?
It’s a heartbreaking moment for me in this episode, and I wanted it to reflect a very major decision in Kim’s life and her life with Jimmy. She has this opportunity she’s wanted her whole career for her; she’s going to walk in that room and make it happen. To have her make this decision, is it for love or is it the excitement of the grift? Whatever that is, that U-turn is a perfect analogy for that. It’s a U-turn in her life from her.
She’s going to Santa Fe, and she’s got to come back to Albuquerque. We had this one road, and we wanted it to look like she was closer to her destination than to her departure zone from her. That was tricky for which mountains to use. We found the right road, and it was perfect because it was two lanes on each side with a divide, where we could actually do the stunt. We had a happy accident where we went a little too far beyond our cone route. There were clouds that formed in the passenger window as we’re seeing Kim from the driver’s side at the very moment that she gets off the phone and is making that decision. We probably had it all in one take or two takes, maybe one and a half. It was enough to create that moment of doom in her psyche.
There aren’t a lot of flashbacks used in the show, but they’re always very intentional. What does that opening with young Kim and her mom de ella foreshadow about her future de ella?
We all have moments we remember with our parents. We remember how it affected us in an adverse way or in a positive way. This moment to me is a reflection of Kim’s whole life of her and who she actually becomes. I believe intrinsically that Kim is a good person and she has probably deeper lawyering skills than Jimmy does. And yet she falls for the other life; for how long, we don’t know.
In that scene, you see some connections through the episode if you’re watching closely. The earrings are important because Kim wears the same earrings basically her whole life. You see them again in the veterinarian’s office; if you notice, those are the same earrings. They meant something to her. She needed to have the slap on her hand, “No we do n’t do that.” But it was all an act. She was probably satisfied with being chided by her mother for doing something wrong, she needed that parenting direction and then is blown away when her mother comes out and goes, “Look what I got for you.” It was all a ruse. This is heartbreaking. I think it breaks her de ella in a way that relates to the decision she makes at the end of the episode.