“You don’t save me. I save me.”
After more than a season of development via brief, intriguing glimpses, Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler had her first spotlight episode this week on “Better Call Saul.” Watching Kim hustle her way out of the professional hole she’d dug for herself, in exactly the kind of jauntily-scored montage of phone calls we’ve seen so often from the show’s titular hero, clarified what makes this character so quietly unusual.
Vouching for Jimmy at Davis & Main has come back to bite Kim just as we — and probably she — knew it would. As of Episode 5, “Rebecca,” she’s spent weeks relegated to endless grunt work in the Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill basement, the same punishment Howard meted out to her after she lost the Kettlemans last season.
It’s patently unfair treatment, and when Jimmy comes roaring up to the HHM parking lot in his Mercedes at midnight, there’s a moment where you’ll feel the impulse to cheer. We want him to bust Kim out of that miserable basement with some kind of trademark Slippin’ Jimmy masterplan, if only because watching her kick off her heels and keep on working after even the junior associates have left is just so depressing. But Kim is not a princess, and HHM is not a tower, and this is not a story about getting rescued.
Ever since her first moments in “Better Call Saul” — that atmospheric, largely silent smoke break with Jimmy — Kim’s been tangibly more than a love interest. Little is revealed about her past, except that she and Jimmy started out in the mailroom together at a similarly late age, and she got picked for the career fast-track where he didn’t. She shares his scrappy moxie, his ambition, his work ethic, but not his moral flexibility or eagerness to cut corners.
Here’s something about Kim that shouldn’t be remarkable, but is: Since her introduction, there have been precisely zero moments of screen time devoted to the fact that she is single, childless, and unconcerned by her biological clock. As a general rule, a thirty- or forty-something woman on screen is allowed to be single only if she’s unhappy about it, or else if she’s an icy, withholding career woman who’s sacrificed everything for her work. Kim is neither.
In “Rebecca,” Kim is working her ass off. She’s not trying to wiggle out of the work Hamlin has assigned her — she’s pulling 20-hour days down in that terrible basement — but she’s also smart enough to know that there’s a way out of any corner. And so she hustles. She hits up every contact she’s made over the past year, making cold calls all around town trying to drum up new business for HHM, and these two montages really are deliberately cut just like Jimmy’s from last season.
Because in many ways, Kim this season is Jimmy from last season. Where Jimmy has walked right into a partner track gig at Davis & Main, Kim is still uncertain of her future at HHM. She’s like Jimmy in Season 1’s “Rico,” facing down a haystack of shredded Sandpiper documents and piecing them back together one by one, tackling an impossible task one step at a time — and then getting slapped in the face for her hard work.
Hamlin sending Kim back to doc review after she brought in the bank contract has the same sting as Hamlin refusing to make Jimmy a partner after he brought in Sandpiper. “Better Call Saul” is the definition of a feminist show in this regard — though it’s named after its male lead, the plight of its female lead is treated with all of the same style, precision and nuance.
Kim’s treatment on “Better Call Saul” stands in direct contrast to what’s commonly known as “the Skyler White problem.” Much of the now-infamous fan backlash against Walter White’s wife in “Breaking Bad” during the show’s last seasons was flat-out misogyny, particularly as the show progressed and she so clearly became the lesser of two evils. But some of it was a legitimate response to the way in which Skyler was portrayed, deliberately or otherwise, as an emasculating wife to a downtrodden husband.
Both of “Breaking Bad’s” major female characters were wives, defined in relation to their husbands rather than their own careers or ambitions, and it’s significant that Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan steered in the opposite direction with “Better Call Saul.” Saul Goodman has at least two ex-wives, and it would have been easy to start out “Better Call Saul” with Jimmy married to one of them. Instead we have Kim, who is many things to Jimmy, but certainly not his wife.
Their relationship is all the richer for not being defined, and so clearly rooted in deep mutual respect and love that it’s almost unbearable to think about their inevitably rough future. But whatever circumstances lead to Kim being out of the picture by the time Saul Goodman’s operating in 2009, we can rest assured that she’s not about to be vilified, or sidelined, or fridged for the sake of motivating Jimmy.
Kim is the hero of her own story, not a supporting character in Jimmy’s, and as the show gets bleaker she may end up being our ray of light, the hopeful contrast to Jimmy’s moral decline. She has all of his best qualities — scrappy, smart, charismatic, ferociously driven — without his essential weakness, and she can succeed where we know he will fail. “Better Call Saul” is doing a lot of unusual things exceptionally well, not least of them successfully expanding the universe of a show as revered as “Breaking Bad.” And as a wholly original creation, Kim Wexler is one of its greatest triumphs.
“Better Call Saul” airs Mondays at 10pm on AMC.