Kim Wexler’s (Rhea Seehorn) true introduction on Better Call Saul doesn’t come until her second scene. Her first scene has the main purpose of introducing Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), the law partner at Hamlin Hamlin McGill (HHM) who will prove to be a thorn in protagonist Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) side for the duration of the series. Kim Wexler is tertiary to the scene and watching it without knowing anything else about what’s to come, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the woman sitting to Howard’s left side wouldn’t have such a dramatic impact on the narrative scope of the series. In true mysterious Kim fashion, her introduction will come a few minutes later, when the woman who sat witness to Jimmy and Howard’s conflict quite literally emerges from the shadows. In the HHM parking garage, she stands to the far right of the frame, coolly puffing on a cigarette as Jimmy, center of the frame, proceeds to beat up on a trash can just inside the building
It’s remarkable how this (second) introduction so vividly captures Kim’s character, considering how creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould didn’t really have an idea from the pilot of how central she would become to the show. She’s mysterious. Oh-so independent. An enigma. Although she’s not always the center of the conflict, something about her and what she is and represents to Jimmy McGill is always influencing what we see on screen. When Jimmy joins her after beating up on the trash can, he grabs the cigarette from her lips, takes his own puff, and places it back in her mouth with the intimacy of someone who shares a deep history with this woman. You instantly want to know more about her.
Thus begins the tease of who the enigmatic Kim Wexler really is. It’s probably not the most important question to ask, but most of us find ourselves pondering it all the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to a traumatic backstory explaining away a character’s present actions. Or maybe it’s because we know so little about any of her backstory — especially for the first four seasons — that it almost seems like the writers are trying to withhold something. Nevertheless, the series always presents enough about her that we still have a thorough read on the kind of person she is. Defined by her profession in the law, she is driven to succeed, almost to the point that it nearly kills her when she falls asleep at the wheel in season three. We know she loves old movies (a big Kurt Russell fan). We know she is reserved, but not shy. Prone to let others do the talking while she quietly observes the action around her, formulating her own strategies and counterpoints in reaction to what is happening in any given scene. It’s this reserved nature that allows the audience to think of Kim as a puzzle to be solved. For despite the fact that not all characters have elaborate backstories, there’s something in Kim’s quiet manner that seems to hint at a past worth knowing about. When a character does not offer much information about themselves, we begin to project our own thoughts and assumptions onto them. We get a few more hints in season five — we know her mother likely has a drinking problem, and that they frequently moved to evade rent when payment day arrived. But even these pieces of information don’t quite satisfy — we want to know the Kim before Albuquerque. It’s the genius way that Seehorn and the writers have constructed this character — we are drawn into a mystery mostly of our own making.
The writers also tease this out by showing how Kim’s actions seem to have inherent (albeit superficial) contradictions. She appears to be a stickler for the rules, but she also loves to indulge in a good con with Jimmy. Just as they trick an obnoxious lawyer into buying an exorbitantly expensive bottle of tequila, Kim gently reprimands Jimmy in the next episode for fabricating evidence and then telling her about it. But then, Kim will double down on her own bad behavior later in season four, when she helps mitigate the assault charges against Jimmy’s bodyguard, Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford), by staging a fake letter-writing campaign from people in his hometown. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Kim’s more transgressive behaviors — and often illegal ones — are the result of Jimmy’s bad influence on her, for he is a man well-versed in the art of trickery. Yet, season five shows us that Jimmy was hardly influencing her — this is, perhaps, who Kim Wexler was all along. When Howard Hamlin expresses worry that Jimmy has led her astray, she rebuttals, “I make my own choices, for my own reasons.” We should have known, for this is the same woman who told us in season two that she never needed anyone to save her. Jimmy simply allowed Kim to indulge in those behaviors. She always chose her own courses of action, willingly and openly, to the point at the end of season five when, concocting a plan to take down Hamlin, even Jimmy seems aghast at the lengths she would go to sabotage a man’s life and career. As Seehorn has so pointedly put it on several occasions, Kim’s behavior is that of a recovering addict who still hangs out with people who are using. Kim wasn’t brought down by her love for Jimmy, but her love for him allowed her to indulge certain impulses that she had either long-repressed or engaged with at some earlier point in her life.
First and foremost, Kim’s throughline has always been her concern with what was fair and unfair, what was just and unjust. She worked her way up in HHM by starting in the mailroom with Jimmy, balancing the job with law classes at the University of New Mexico. Kim, like Jimmy, was a natural hard worker, a hustler, and it was this common point that allowed her to recognize herself in him. Whatever differences they may have are superficial compared to this. But Kim’s journey over the course of five seasons has been the slow realization that the law does not correspond with justice, and the eternal hustle doesn’t necessarily make a contented life. Kim’s passion is in pro bono work, helping people who didn’t get a fair shake. But her client that keeps the lights on, the growing regional bank Mesa Verde, slowly disillusions Kim. Is the law’s purpose to help banks and people like its silver spoon CEO make more money? After nearly overworking herself to death for Mesa Verde — crashing her car in the process — something inside of Kim slowly breaks, an inner control freak unravels, and she decides to play God. In her eyes, what would be more just than screwing over the privileged Howard Hamlin to get a massive settlement that allowed her to do all the pro bono work that she pleased? By the time she reaches this inevitable conclusion in season five, one begins to wonder if it will be Kim’s influence over Jimmy that completes his final transformation into the Saul Goodman we know in Breaking Bad.
Like many other characters in the Breaking Bad universe, Kim’s moral devolution occurs with a series of small choices that have consequences she cannot come back from. Wrestling with questions of morality, and justifying one’s ethically gray actions for the sake of some greater good has always been Vince Gilligan’s bread and butter. Kim Wexler is no different in her journey. Like Jimmy, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), and the other prominent characters of this Breaking Bad universe, her moral journey does not turn upon a single tragedy or a traumatic backstory. Rather, Kim keeps dipping her toe into morally gray waters, and by the end of season five, it begins to seem more and more likely that she is headed down a path she can no longer escape from.
Better Call Saul has managed an astonishing feat as a prequel — a show that has created almost unbearable tension out of an ending we already know we are colliding toward. Gilligan and Gould have made us care about the “how” more than the “what” — it’s not about what will happen to Jimmy McGill, for we already know the fate of this man in Breaking Bad. The Saul Goodman we see in Breaking Bad isn’t totally unrecognizable from Jimmy McGill, but the leap is enough that something has clearly changed him, maybe even broken him. This is likely the impact of the characters who do not appear in Breaking Bad, but how they will impact him, we are still not sure. Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), in only 12 episodes, has already created a menace so terrifying we immediately understand why Saul is so scared of him when Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White hold him at gunpoint in the desert. Much like Kim, we do not have a strong idea of what will happen to Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) or his father either. Not a lot of characters survive this universe, for even those that we know make it out of Better Call Saul alive — like Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) — eventually meet a bitter end.
And this is how Kim Wexler has ultimately become one of the major engines driving this narrative to its conclusion, for we know that whatever happens to her will ultimately set up the Saul Goodman we see in Breaking Bad. Having re-watched Breaking Bad after my first binge of Better Call Saul, Kim’s non-presence felt distracting in almost every scene with Saul. Little callbacks to their relationship (planted of course retroactively), like Saul, asking for a dollar as a retainer, or using Ice Station Zebra Associates as the name of his holding company, tell us that Kim is clearly still on his mind, to the point that the fact she’s not mentioned is unnerving. Of course, before Better Call Saul existed, this wasn’t a source of dread because Kim was not known to the audience. But now, every Saul Goodman scene in Breaking Bad carries a very real tension for those of us watching its prequel arrive at a place that will ultimately set up the characters we see in Walter White’s world. A couple of seasons ago, Kim’s non-presence may have easily been explained by her and Jimmy calling their relationship off, which even seemed inevitable toward the end of season four as we saw Kim and Jimmy momentarily drift apart from one another. Yet, the magnetism of Rhea Seehorn’s understated performance ensured that Kim would stick around, for better or worse. And while we are thankful to continue watching Seehorn’s performance, it also comes with the very real prospect that we will see Kim meet a grim fate, whether that means death, disappearance, or even incarceration — all of which seem like not-improbable theories by the end of season five.
Given Kim’s connection to our protagonist Jimmy, our interest in what happens to her — and how it affects the Saul Goodman we see in Breaking Bad — is of paramount concern. What makes it all the more fascinating is how the character grew in narrative importance over the course of five seasons, sneaking up on us and our expectations for this series, becoming a protagonist in her own right. The morally assured person we saw in the first few seasons, who toed the line of ethics only once in a while, seemed to be someone Jimmy would drift from as he turned more and more into Saul Goodman. The initial expectation of dread in earlier seasons was that we were scared for the day Kim would part ways with Jimmy, and we would more than likely not see her character as much, or ever again. That dread is something wholly different now — we wonder now who this woman is, where she came from, and what terrible destination she is hurtling toward. Not bad for a character the show runners weren’t even sure would make it past the first couple of seasons.