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story.lead_photo.caption Rhea Seehorn portrays rising corporate attorney Kim Wexler on "Better Call Saul." The program airs on AMC. (AP)

I am worried about Kim Wexler.

I know I should not be worried about her because Kim Wexler exists only as a character, a role that actor Rhea Seehorn plays in a television show. It is silly to worry about people who are not real.

Kim is one of the main characters on AMC's Better Call Saul, what you could call the show's deuteragonist, the second-most important on the show after protagonist Jimmy McGill, who, in the fifth season of the show, had nearly completed his transition into Saul Goodman, one of those bottom-feeding lawyers who embraces his bottom feeding -- who wears mustard-colored shirts and produces loud television and radio commercials and slaps his picture on bus benches and billboards.

You probably already know about Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) because he is one of the supporting characters -- not the deuteragonist or even the tritagonist but an important part of the texture of the show -- on Breaking Bad, which always gets mentioned when people start to talk about the "best" TV shows of all time.

Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad in that it occurs in the same universe and a lot of the characters overlap. (It also covers some events that happen after the Breaking Bad timeline.)

I worry about Kim Wexler because while she is a prominent character in Better Call Saul, she doesn't appear in Breaking Bad. So far at least, we have seen no trace of her in the monochromatic scenes set in Omaha after the events of Breaking Bad.

This might mean that she dies in either this -- the fifth -- season of Better Call Saul or in the promised sixth and final season. Or maybe some other catastrophe befalls her. Or maybe she just gets sick of dealing with Jimmy/Saul and moves on. She could get a better job in a new town.

Even though Kim's been a deuteragonist for more than four seasons, we really don't know that much about her. She's a lawyer who first met Jimmy when they were both employed in the mailroom at Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill, an Albuquerque law firm where Jimmy's brother Chuck (Michael McKean) was one of the lead partners. Jimmy had come to work there at the behest of his brother after spending years as a con man. Chuck wanted "Slippin'" Jimmy to have honest work, and Jimmy might have wanted that too.

When we first meet Kim in season one, she is an associate at HHM, and she wears a poker face and suits from Marshall's or T.J. Maxx, low heels and her hair in a tight ponytail. She is a consummate professional -- an up-and-comer at the firm, which had seen her potential early and paid for her law school education.

Bob Odenkirk (left) plays Saul Goodman and Michael McKean is Chuck in a scene from season one of Better Call Saul.
Bob Odenkirk (left) plays Saul Goodman and Michael McKean is Chuck in a scene from season one of Better Call Saul. (AP)

Meanwhile, Jimmy, who had gone to law school at night, is practicing out of the back of a nail salon after being told he had no future as an associate at HHM. (What Jimmy does not know is that his brother Chuck is the one who decides he is not HHM material.)

While Jimmy is struggling, Kim seems to be on the fast track to partner. No doubt she feels some guilt over this. So she endeavors to help him when she can.

In that first season, it is clear she has a history with Jimmy and that her residual fondness for him is tempered by serial disappointments. She isn't just a girlfriend character -- she seems more like an ex-girlfriend who had stayed in touch but is, for the time being, holding Jimmy at arm's length. Her focus is on her career. Despite his natural talents (easy patter, common touch, extraordinary intelligence and ability to improvise) Jimmy is a distraction, something upon which she could run aground. He is her kryptonite.

Or, rather, he is more like her cocaine.

Jimmy is not a good guy, though maybe he has had long stretches where he has tried to be good. His natural inclination is to exploit whatever anomalies he finds in any system he inspects. He is naturally inclined to cheat, though this inclination is counterbalanced to some extent by a nuanced moral sense. Jimmy will only cheat people he believes deserve to be cheated: people who bluster about their wealth in bars, people of conspicuous means, unthinking corporations, heartless insurance companies ....

When Kim (literally) lets her hair down, she can go along with this. Jimmy is not a good guy, but he's fun and well-meaning. And, like her, wounded.

It isn't until this season we find out Kim had an unsettled, peripatetic childhood ... that her single mother often woke her up in the middle of the night to move her (barefoot) from one apartment where the rent was overdue to the next. She never had a home.

She's a stranger in Albuquerque; she moved there for work. Her favorite movie is To Kill a Mockingbird.

For a while, she works with Jimmy in a practice they start together. She secures a major client, Mesa Verde Bank and Trust; he gets disbarred.

In season five, she's working for another corporate firm. Mesa Verde is still her prime client but she cares a lot more about the indigent offenders she defends pro bono. Jimmy gets his law license back and starts a new practice as "Saul Goodman," a name he used last season when he worked through his disbarment by selling prepaid burner phones to criminals.

Kim and Jimmy are living (and pointedly sleeping) together in an upscale apartment complex. She drives an Audi; he still has the yellow 1998 Suzuki Esteem with the mismatched door he had in season one. (Jimmy's car is remarkably beat-up for what, in 2004-set season five, would be a 6-year-old car. But then it's really no more beat-up than it was in season one, set in 2002.)

They are a couple, but not a particularly happy one. Their dissatisfactions don't seem to have as much to do with their relationship as with the arcs of their now separated careers. Kim is in danger of being pulled into the mainstream of corporate practice, of becoming one of those lawyers she was pretending to be back in season one, handling documents and attending to details for big businesses, fighting bloodless wars of motions and carefully couched threats.

The only clients she seems to care about -- the ordinary citizens caught up in the judicial maw after making poor choices -- aren't paying clients. Like the system itself, she finds herself privileging the powerful.

Jimmy claims that he's "standing up for the little guy." But he's not. His clientele almost exclusively consists of low-lifes and junkies, the sort of folks that take his "50% off" offer as license to run off a string of misdemeanors. As Saul Goodman, Jimmy has signaled his willingness to step over ethical and legal lines, even though he can still rationalize his decisions as moral.

Saul Goodman exists because Jimmy needs what the spy agencies call a "cut-out" -- a persona to buffer him from the things that must be done. Saul is Jimmy's alter-ego, a secret sharer, a layer of insulation, a Mr. Hyde.

Kim still likes, maybe loves, Jimmy. But she hates Saul ... even if she understands his usefulness.

In this season's first episode, Kim has a client, who like a lot of petty criminals fancies himself special. While she has secured a good deal for him -- he can plead guilty to a lesser charge and spend a matter of weeks in jail -- he's convinced he can go to trial and convince the jury of his innocence. He will charm them.

This is a bad idea and Kim knows it. So Jimmy/Saul suggests that he pretend to be a prosecuting attorney and that they stage an argument in front of her client, with Jimmy threatening to pull the current deal. She rejects his plan; she won't lie to her client. But after Jimmy leaves, her client asks her about the man with whom she was having an animated discussion.

She tells him it was an assistant DA and that they want to pull the deal and go to trial. Her client chooses to do the only sensible thing and take the deal.

So Kim achieves a good outcome; she saves her client from himself. But she oversteps a line; she has misled her client. It is perhaps a venial sin, or maybe not a sin at all in that it causes no harm except to Kim's idea of herself as a lawyer who does not lie to her clients. It is hardly the first time she benefits from Jimmy's pragmatism.

But it kills off a little bit of her soul.

Bob Odenkirk (from left) plays Saul Goodman on the AMC drama series Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are co-cre- ators and executive producers of the series.
Bob Odenkirk (from left) plays Saul Goodman on the AMC drama series Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are co-cre- ators and executive producers of the series. (AP)

One of the things that is most interesting about Better Call Saul is that most of the characters are dynamic. Jimmy McGill is still in the process of becoming Saul Goodman -- his arc from charming grifter and consigliere to murderous criminal is perhaps not that long but it is definite. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), also an important player in the Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad universe (some might argue he's the co-deuteragonist), is also evolving, from a conflicted corrupt cop and broken parking-lot attendant to a hyper-competent fixer. And Kim too is changing, alternately repelled by and attracted to Jimmy, who she senses is being claimed by Saul.

About the only static character is ruthless drug kingpin/chicken shack magnate Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who remains icy and remote, an implacable Machiavellian presence. Fring was the Mephistophelian pole to which Walter White (Bryan Cranston) drifted in Breaking Bad. (And while our portrayal of the devil has changed over the years -- moving from a furry bestial shape with horns to something more human -- evil is a constant.)

Matt Dillon and Archie Bunker never changed. Bart Simpson is forever 10 years old and a fourth-grader. Television shows used to be closed loops, every episode a kind of reset. But then, TV used to be a box in the corner of the room where tiny people sang and danced and tried to entertain us.

Now TVs are picture windows through which we might watch characters grow and evolve, almost in real time. Better Call Saul is unusual because we've seen how it works out for so many of the characters. We know that Jimmy McGill will slide into Saul Goodman, and later collapse into Gene Takovic, manager of a Cinnabon store in Omaha.

We see the deaths of Gus Fring, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) and Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). We see Walter White reveal himself as a monster.

Kim Wexler came from nothing, she scrambles up all the way into the professional class only to find that banking law isn't as fulfilling as she hoped it would be. She's watching a man she cares about slide down a long and slippery slope. And, sooner or later, she's going to disappear.

Or maybe not. Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan has said that if they were to do another spin-off show, it would be the Kim Wexler show. Maybe that means her arc doesn't end when Better Call Saul does. Or maybe we'd get another prequel, some Bastard Out of Carolina story about a young girl being dragged around Kansas by a mother who can't quite screw together an adult existence.

I don't know why we care so much about these people who never were, but I think it has as much to do with the actors who inhabit them as the people who plot it all out and shape it for our screens. Another actor would mean another kind of Kim, maybe a less regretful and grief-struck one, maybe a more blatant one, maybe one that we wouldn't worry so much about.

While we should be careful not to confuse actors with their roles, we should acknowledge the art and mystery of this sort of casting -- this marriage of character and performer, this indelibly created image that seems to carry the full faith of personhood.

God save Kim Wexler; God bless Rhea Seehorn.


Style on 03/22/2020

Print Headline: What will become of complex Kim Wexler?


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