The Better Call Saul season five finale finally revealed the real Kim Wexler in a scene that slyly redefined the entire nature of the series. (Note: major spoilers for “Something Unforgivable” lie ahead.)
While holed up in their luxury-hotel hideout from the cartel, Kim and Jimmy start playing a silly game in which they come up with ways to torture their nemesis, Howard Hamlin. One-upping each other with escalating, hypothetical misdeeds has always been a form of foreplay in their relationship, but when they resume the game after having sex, it takes a turn. Kim proposes hatching a scheme to frame Howard for a crime he didn’t commit, like misappropriation of funds, which would lead to the Sandpiper lawsuit being settled and Jimmy (and, by extension, Kim) finally getting compensated substantially for his work on that case. Slowly it dawns on Jimmy that she’s not kidding.
“Kim, doing this, it’s not you,” Jimmy says. “You would not be okay with it, not in the cold light of day.”
Kim just smiles. “Wouldn’t I?” she asks. When a stunned Jimmy says, “You’ve gotta be shittin’ me,” Kim, on her way to the shower, responds by shooting a pair of finger guns at him, a move that’s pure Saul Goodman. It’s so Saul Goodman that it even mirrors the gesture Jimmy made in the previous season’s finale, when he announced his new identity by pointing his fingers at Kim and saying, “It’s all good, man.”
This moment, near the end of the terrific fifth-season finale, is Kim’s version of the same thing. She’s announcing who she is. It’s jarring, even for Jimmy, who can’t believe the finger gunshot sounds he’s hearing. But it shouldn’t be. This is who Kim Wexler has really been all along.
Better Call Saul, as a prequel to Breaking Bad, has always been viewed as a study of how one man, Jimmy McGill, went from less-than-ethical attorney to fully corrupt, sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman. Unlike Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned meth lord in Breaking Bad, Jimmy doesn’t start out morally centered and gradually become infected with power. Better Call Saul shows us that Jimmy was always a huckster who could get away, metaphorically, with murder ever since he was a kid. There was a germ of Saul in his nature from the get-go, but nurturing, along with bad decisions and the rivalry with his brother Chuck, bent him toward his more devilish side.
The fun of watching Jimmy’s arc in this series doesn’t come from wondering whether he’ll make right or wrong choices. We’ve seen Breaking Bad. We already know he’s going to make wrong choices. It’s the how and why of it that’s fascinating.
With Kim Wexler, a lead character who didn’t exist in the Breaking Bad realm, Better Call Saul has done something it couldn’t do with Jimmy. It has allowed us to feel the shock and disappointment of realizing someone we think we can trust isn’t trustworthy. In that sense, Better Call Saul isn’t just a show about a con artist. The series itself is a con artist that has conned us into thinking that Kim is someone she isn’t. We’re not just viewers or fans. We’re Better Call Saul’s marks.
Throughout this season, you’ve probably found yourself flummoxed by many of Kim’s choices. I know I have. I couldn’t believe it when, after being completely screwed over by Jimmy during the negotiations over Everett Acker’s property, she went from almost breaking up with him to deciding they should get married. I also couldn’t believe she resigned from Schweikert & Cokely, and was frustrated that she didn’t immediately try to get an annulment when it became clear just how shady Jimmy’s/Saul’s business had become. “Kim Wexler wouldn’t do this,” I said to myself.
But Kim Wexler would, and she did. That’s the whole point. The way that Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan, Rhea Seehorn, and the rest of the show’s creative team developed this character has breathed new life into the antihero drama at a time when it feels desperate for fresh oxygen. In most of the great antiheroic prestige dramas of the past 20 years, you know upfront that the main characters are capable of terrible behavior. We like Tony Soprano, Omar Little, Don Draper, and Walter White not because of their awfulness but in spite of it and out of the faint hope that maybe they can somehow try to redeem themselves. We like Kim Wexler, on the other hand, because she doesn’t seem like the sort of person who will break bad. She seems smart, put together, and determined to walk a straight line, even though sometimes she slips and goes a little crooked. She doesn’t seem like an antihero so much as a flawed but ultimately heroic supporting player.
There are good reasons to make these assumptions about her. Throughout the series, she has often advised Jimmy to try to exercise better judgment, particularly during his conflicts with Chuck. She’s also admonished him when he’s done things that are self-destructive. But I also think Better Call Saul has been pretty good at conditioning us to see Kim in a certain light. Her backstory has always been nebulous, in part because Gilligan and Gould weren’t sure where they were going with her character, as Gilligan recently told me.
Over the seasons, we have gotten some information about her background. We know she lived in a small town on the Kansas/Nebraska border before moving to Albuquerque and, assuming the story she told Acker about never owning a home is true, didn’t necessarily grow up with a ton of advantages. This season’s flashback, in which we saw a young Kim refusing to get in the car with her tipsy mother, further confirms that she did not have an easy childhood. It’s fair to assume that Kim has always had to be a scrapper and that she’s always been stubborn and self-sufficient. In an interview this year, Seehorn said she also imagined that given how naturally Kim takes to duping people, she had probably been around scammers in the past, if not been one herself.
But we don’t see that on the surface throughout Better Call Saul, especially in season one. We see a woman with an impeccable ponytail, who always looks polished, and who has played by the rules within the legal profession, enough to rise higher in her career than Jimmy ever has. We see someone who conducts herself professionally and is well respected by her clients. We see someone capable of guilt, who empathizes with Jimmy and even with a man like Everett Acker. She has a particular affinity for anyone who appears to be getting screwed over by the establishment. That’s because Kim doesn’t like the establishment herself and hates being perceived as part of it, as her interactions with Acker this season illustrate.
It’s also worth noting that Kim Wexler is a woman, and we are conditioned to see women as the maternal Jiminy Crickets who try to steer men back onto more proper paths. Kim has sometimes served that role for Jimmy. But she’s also duped a guy into paying for an expensive bottle of tequila (she still treasures the fancy cap from that bottle), and swapped out planning documents against the best interests of Mesa Verde, and orchestrated a fake letter-writing campaign to get another client exonerated, and, this season, colluded with Jimmy to put pressure on Mesa Verde to change the plans for their call-center site. She’s been doing some pretty bad things in extremely plain sight, but because she did them with Jimmy, we tended to write them off to his poor influence on her.
In fact, that’s exactly what Howard Hamlin tries to do in this finale when he lets Kim know that he offered Jimmy a job, an offer that Jimmy not only turned down but responded to by throwing bowling balls onto Howard’s car and sending prostitutes to accost him at a business lunch. Instead of expressing concern, frustration, or embarrassment on her husband’s behalf, Kim asks, “And that’s it?” after Howard finishes reporting this breaking news. Then she bursts out laughing. On first viewing, this plays like a pure moment of comic relief and dramatic irony. Having been confronted by Lalo Salomanca and knowing she and Jimmy could be in the crosshairs of a drug cartel, a bowling-ball tossing doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. We get why Kim may find Howard’s self-righteousness so amusing, even if Howard doesn’t. But on second viewing, especially in light of everything else that happens in this episode, her response seems darker in nature.
Howard expresses concern for Kim and implies that perhaps she left Schweikert & Cokely and dropped Mesa Verde as a client because Jimmy talked her into it. For what isn’t the first time this season, someone is telling Kim that Jimmy’s not good enough for her.
“Do you know how insulting that is?” Kim says, genuinely angry. “I make my own decisions, for my own reasons.”
This, too, is Kim Wexler telling us who she is. For a whole host of reasons, it was hard for us to see it clearly before. But by the end of this finale, we know: Kim Wexler hasn’t been a good lawyer coerced by a shifty man into chipping away at her moral center. She’s a grown adult who has been playing a form of dress-up in becoming a proper, rule-following, well-paid attorney. In her final appearance of season five, with her hair fully let down and wearing her Kansas City Royals shirt, she’s finally back to being the scrapper that she really was all along, the absolute opposite of a Howard Hamlin.