DO WOMEN GET A BETTER SHOT ON BETTER CALL SAUL?
[WARNING: Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul spoilers abound]
Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece, Breaking Bad, was many things: beautifully acted, cinematically shot, extremely well written. It was darkly funny (sometimes just regular funny, too, as witnessed by the scene in which Walt throws the biggest pizza in Albuquerque on the roof), tragic, gory, and ultimately a story about a regular man driven by the desire for power to heights of cruelty and genius. The one thing it did not have was anything approaching a strong female character.
Skyler White, Walt’s wife, spends half of her time as a dupe and the other stuck in pissed-off Carmela Soprano mode. She is an accessory to Walt’s countless crimes, and like Carmela Soprano before her, she leaves and comes back, and one has to believe that the money must have something to do with it. Her sister, Marie, is married to Hank, and her main character traits are a love of purple and an early season tendency towards kleptomania. Jesse’s girlfriends, from Jane to Andrea, start off as manic pixie dream girls and end up dead. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle is an enigmatic businesswoman who also ends up dead. We have living wives and dead women, and that’s about it.
Breaking Bad, of course, is an anti-heroic opera. It is a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: a man is propelled by his desire for power (clothed as it is by his stated desire to secure his family’s future) to his ultimate downfall. But for Walt, his death is not even really his downfall (arguably, this happens earlier in the last season, when his brother-in-law is murdered and his money stolen by the neo-Nazi meth cooks he’s associated with) but at last a chance to be with his beloved chemistry. Walter White makes Don Draper look like a stand up guy, frankly, as Don was content mostly with destroying himself rather than others. I’ve often mused on the relative weakness of the female characters in Breaking Bad, propelled especially by reports that Anna Gunn, the actor who played Skyler, was constantly harassed online as a scold, nag, and bitch. Women seem to stand in the way of Walt’s dirty deeds. He murders Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, because she had the audacity to challenge his authority, and was also stealing his number one guy. The writing was powerful, no doubt, but perhaps there was no room for women in Gilligan’s world view.
Enter Better Call Saul. Well, let it enter and then give it about a half a season, as the character of Kim Wexler begins to develop. Kim is Jimmy McGill’s main squeeze, for lack of a better term. Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad, centered around Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) the scrappy lawyer just trying to make it in the small city. We know that Jimmy will eventually become Saul Goodman, Walt’s criminal (in both senses) lawyer, who ends up in the same holding cell with Walt, on his way to a Cinnabon in Omaha and a new identity after the whole thing goes up in flames and the feds are closing in. The Jimmy/Saul we see in Breaking Bad is often comic relief, but he’s a shark with no morals. Cash rules everything around him, and he’s given up any pretense of humanity. He’s already degraded when he’s introduced in Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul has used the last three seasons to show us how he got that way.
Ordinarily, this would be boring. Like who cares about how the stereotypical lawyer came to be? But instead, I would argue that Better Call Saul has more humanity than Breaking Bad ever did. Key to that humanity is Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. Walter White didn’t take much prodding to turn into a monster (suggesting that the monster was always there, waiting to come out) and similarly, Jimmy McGill is as sleazy as Saul Goodman will be. The difference is, though, that Jimmy is fighting the battle against those tendencies, and Kim Wexler is the reason why. Kim is rigorously ethical, and when she does have to make the sort of moral compromise that Jimmy enjoys, it troubles her in a real way.
For instance, Jimmy introduces her to the pleasures of conning douchebags at resort hotel bars. Together, the two weave a story to hook some stockbroker dickhead, and while Kim is content with a bottle of fancy tequila, Jimmy wants to cash the check the dummy writes. Fun is fun, but Kim draws the line at actual fraud. Jimmy finds it much harder to draw those lines, and the reason he does is because of Kim. Jimmy is in love with Kim when the show starts, and we learn from flashbacks that the two bonded when Jimmy worked in the mail room. Gradually, the first season pulls them together, and Jimmy walks the line for Kim.
That’s all well and good, but in this reading, Kim is nothing more than a moral center for Jimmy. However, as the show continues, Kim’s character is expanded. When she is punished for her association with Jimmy, we see her hustle in the basement on document review and in the stairwell as she tries to drum up clients. Better Call Saul is a show about work, and no one works harder than Kim Wexler does. Too often her work is disregarded by her superiors at Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, which is certainly something that most female viewers can recognize from life. Hamlin and Chuck McGill’s treatment of Kim inspires Jimmy to take his vengeance: he’s willing to ratfuck his own brother in order to punish him for mistreating Kim.
In a moment of moral compromise, Kim stands up to Chuck’s accusation about the above mentioned ratfucking and denies Jimmy’s involvement, but she knows that he did it. Jimmy, by trying to get revenge for her (and really, to get revenge for himself) has put her in the position to have to lie. She’s definitely unhappy with Jimmy, and like any good lawyer, tells him to keep the dirty details to himself.
As much as Jimmy tries to walk the line for Kim, we see that she is dragged down by her association with him. When he is temporarily disbarred, she takes on the financial responsibility of their shared office and nearly works herself to death. She makes those sacrifices because she loves him, and to a certain extent, has bought into a sort of “us against the world” mentality. Near the end of the third season, she falls asleep at the wheel while on her way to meet a client and has a horrific car wreck. She is injured, and finally realizes she must start taking care of herself. She’s been carrying the burden, and her body has just told her she has to set it down.
Better Call Saul is tragic in its own way. We are witnessing the degradation of a character that is lovable in many ways. Like Kim, the viewer is seduced by Jimmy’s charm, but we know the final outcome: disgrace and exile. Kim can still be hopeful about Jimmy’s trajectory, but that’s been removed from the viewer’s experience. It creates that suspense of knowing more than the character does. That can be tedious, but the show is so well acted and written that I am as engaged as I would be if I didn’t know everyone’s fate. Vince Gilligan made his mark writing for the X-Files, and you can see some of that Scully stick-to-it-ness in Kim Wexler. It’s nice to spend some time in this world with a female character who is strong and has her own arc.
Also, don’t tell me that it’s not notable that Jimmy winds up in Omaha, Kim’s hometown. Maybe the sweet smell of Cinnabon will bring them back together.