Television

Better Call Saul Has Found Its Real Hero

It’s Kim Wexler’s fate, not Jimmy McGill’s, that’s keeping us glued to the screen.

A blond woman in a print shirt stares off into the distance.
Better call Kim. Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Better Call Saul may have begun as the reverse-engineered story of Slippin’ Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his gradual metamorphosis into Breaking Bad’s cartoonish cartel lawyer Saul Goodman (and later Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic), but it quickly advanced beyond a sustained focus on its male protagonist’s predetermined arc. Audiences quickly became as invested—if not more so—in the developing story of whip-smart attorney Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy’s loyal friend and eventual romantic partner, both in and out of crime.

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In short order the show’s central dramatic question evolved beyond How did Jimmy become Saul? to include What happened to Kim? Their fates run along parallel lines, an impression enhanced by the show’s cinematography, which makes a habit of depicting the two as mirror images or side by side: brushing their teeth, smoking against a wall, sitting on the sofa watching TV. Over the course of its first five seasons, the series has primed its audience to assume that what happens to Kim lies at the heart of what happens to Jimmy, that her as-yet-unknown fate is the finishing stroke on the velvet painting of the man that is Saul Goodman.

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In this week’s episode, the first directed by Seehorn, the ground beneath Kim’s and Jimmy’s parallel tracks registered a subtle but marked tremor. In the final few moments, as they walked away from Saul Goodman’s potential new office space, Kim briefly broke stride to pause and look back into the dark. Her anxiety—and decision to keep the secret that Lalo (Tony Dalton) is alive, at least for the time being anyway—is a far cry from the joyful celebration she and Jimmy shared after drawing Cliff Main (Ed Begley Jr.) deeper into their scam to bring down Howard (Patrick Fabian). Jimmy crows they’re “on a roll,” but Kim is smarter than her partner in crime and can perceive the difference between the momentum of success and uncontrolled acceleration.

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It’s impossible not to share her anxiety as we, too, travel forward in the dark. Especially when it comes to Kim.

Kim Wexler is an almost universally beloved figure, which is no small victory for a leading lady in the antihero-centric universe of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul—or for Seehorn, who plays Kim with a remarkable combination of tenderness and steel. But it’s not just because Kim Wexler has single-handedly reinvented the ponytail that she’s won hearts.

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Like Jimmy, she’s an underdog who worked her way up through law school by hustling in HHM’s mailroom, and who has had to rely on the grace and favor of the firm’s little prince, Howard, with his local anchorman charisma and rich kid’s petulance, to move up in the world. That work ethic defines the character in the present tense, too. She works harder and later than everyone else; she sleeps at the office and showers at the gym. But she’s always impeccably turned out, with that shimmering Nellie Oleson–style coil at the end of her ponytail and her signature shardlike gold earrings neatly in place.

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That ponytail may be business casual, but it also suggests this is a tomboy who’s always ready to play. That playfulness has seen her shed her skin—and her objections—and dabble with the character of Giselle, the upmarket scammer who, along with her “brother” Viktor, plays on the vulnerabilities of arrogant men who could benefit from their balloons being popped. It’s the exhilaration of her discovery that she’s pretty damn good at that, too, that cements her connection to Jimmy and forms the beginning of their intimacy. If Kim allows Jimmy to be Viktor and, later, Saul, she enjoys similar freedom with him. With Jimmy she can be Kim Wexler attorney-at-law and Giselle.

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Now in its final season, the Breaking Bad prequel feels even less about the evolution of its self-described “magic man,” and more about its enigmatic leading lady’s trajectory. She’s gone from the hardworking law firm associate who didn’t want to know anything about Jimmy’s extralegal extracurriculars to the prime mover of a revenge plot against her former mentor and boss Howard Hamlin. She’s even started playing the role of heavy—laying down “the stick” to keep the embezzling Kettlemans in line, and shaking her head over what a soft touch Jimmy is.

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Her increasing appetite for destruction, even as she’s finally living out her dream of life as a pro bono attorney fighting the good fight, befuddles Jimmy, too, who like the viewer can’t quite figure out why Kim is willing to risk it all to take Howard down a peg.

In the Season 6 opener, she’s still determined to put her plot against Howard into play. He replies: “So, we’re really doing that?” Jimmy’s uncharacteristic hesitance feels portentous. Just what is going on with Kim? Why is she willing to risk it all to screw over Howard? And what will her plan set in motion?

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Where once Kim appeared conflicted between her competing personas, Season 6 sees her seamlessly transition from pro bono lawyer to Giselle and back again. After she waves off her clients, she doesn’t even take a breath before she gets right into her plot against Howard over dinner with Jimmy. Her growing inability to separate one from the other may come back to bite her, however. In last night’s episode, she couldn’t resist handing her business card to the sex worker she and Jimmy enlisted to fool Cliff Main into thinking Howard is living a dark secret life.

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If Jimmy is starting to wonder who Kim is becoming, the little bits of her biography we’ve gotten over the years offer a few clues that she may just be coming into her own. Kim’s backstory is so lean it could fit neatly on one of those Post-it notes that she favors, but what the show’s writers have shared about their leading lady’s past suggests Kim’s childhood was tough and scrappy—a bit more fitting of a Giselle than a slick corporate lawyer—and that her habit of sleeping rough and showering where she can might not be a quirk of her character as much as it reflects a habit born out of historical necessity.

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Way back in Season 2, Kim told Rich Schweikart (Dennis Boutsikaris), her former boss at Schweikart & Cokely, that she grew up in a small town along the border of Kansas and Nebraska, and that she left because she couldn’t stomach the idea of who she would become if she stayed. When he asks what that might have been, she says “married to the guy that ran the gas station” or “cashiering at the Hinky Dinky.” She wanted something else, she tells him, and when he asks what, she takes a moment to reply: “More.” We get a hint of what that more might be the following season, when she tells Jimmy that since childhood, her favorite movie has been To Kill a Mockingbird. “All the girls loved Gregory Peck,” he says. “I wasn’t in love with him,” says Kim. “I wanted to be him.”

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That him forms the nugget and central appeal of her character—and the foundation of her anger at Howard. Kim isn’t “all the girls.” She will be the hero of her story, not the damsel in distress, or the wife, or the love interest, or—heaven forfend—the moral midwife of a complicated man’s conscience. The character of Kim has a baked-in contempt for the clichés and stereotypical reactions, roles, and postures that hamper leading ladies in series that are mostly about men (see: White, Skyler). Her sex is a complicating factor that frankly seems to piss her off when someone reminds her of it. Not surprisingly, she wages an ongoing war against those who would treat her like a girl simply to cast themselves in the starring roles of hero or villain. Jimmy gets that memo early on in their relationship. “You don’t save me,” Kim tells him. “I save me.”

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At some point, each one of the show’s prominent male characters, from Chuck (Michael McKean) to Howard to Kevin Wachtell (Rex Linn), has taken a paternal (read: infantilizing) interest in Kim, worrying over her involvement with Jimmy and its implications for her future. Even Jimmy has wondered if he’s “bad” for her, if, as Chuck once said, he’s going to “ruin” this “fine young woman.”

That chronic refrain from a tut-tutting chorus of Big Boys is more couched insult than legitimate concern. Kim, in their collective view, is someone more influenced than influencing. It is their innate belief in her female helplessness that both galls and compels her to claw back, striking out in a way that feels trenchantly more personal than political. Kim is woman, but she doesn’t roar; she prefers to enact a silent stalk and lethal pounce.

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The only character who has the intelligence to recognize that Kim is not a minor factor to be clucked over but a major force to be reckoned with just happens to be the one whose judgment we trust most: dirty cop/decent henchman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). In their first surreal meeting—an unexpected, if ominous, worlds-colliding moment—Kim asks Mike why he came to her to share the news about Lalo rather than Jimmy. Mike calls it like he sees it: “I think you’re made of sterner stuff.”

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If Kim doesn’t fear Jimmy’s influence on her mind, she is smart enough to see his impact on her career as a potential problem. She married him, but has consistently refused to take the apparently more risky step of being his law partner, preferring the clean division of “Wexler and McGill” over “Wexler/McGill.” Kim Wexler attorney-at-law is a treasure she protects, intuitively understanding the threat that intimacy with Jimmy poses to the heroic effort it took to create herself out of nothing. And yet, as we move toward the series endgame, it’s not her love for Jimmy that’s making Kim break bad; it’s her white-hot hatred for Howard.

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Howard as the trigger for Kim’s increasingly reckless and ruthless behavior may be the curveball of curveballs, but Kim, who has the courage to stand up to a bloodthirsty Salamanca, can’t bear his smug assumption that he’s the one who can save her from Jimmy’s influence, rather than the kind of vain suit she could fleece in two hours over a bottle of Zafiro. After Howard confronts her about her decision to quit her cushy law practice and dump the lucrative client Mesa Verde, she scoffs to Jimmy, “Like I’m just waiting for him to ride up on his white horse.”

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Her anger at being cast as the victim by Howard—a reminder that she was once the girl in need of financial assistance, of rescue by a firm of men, rather than the capable heroic figure she has made herself into—is the corrosion that burns through the barriers between Kim, the heir to Atticus Finch, and Giselle, the masterful con artist.

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Her plot against Howard can be read as a petulant flex, but it’s also entwined with her noble desire to be the hero in other people’s lives. Howard’s downfall means she’ll be able to use the money from the Sandpiper settlement to give regular people the kind of representation millionaires like Hamlin take as their birthright. Her phony pitch to Cliff about putting together a dedicated team of lawyers devoted to addressing the systemic inequalities that plague the justice system might just pan out as a result, too.

Maybe this is Kim using her “powers for good”?

Where once he seemed troubled by that very question, Jimmy is now too distracted by the exciting prospect of cashing in on his newfound notoriety as “Salamanca’s guy” to worry what it could all mean. Dollar signs will trump question marks for Jimmy every time.

That pause. That look back. Our hero might just be walking her own path now. The woman is made of sterner stuff, to be sure. But then again, so was Mike.

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