How Better Call Saul Became a Tragic Love Story
Better Call Saul was always designed to tell the story of Jimmy McGill's downfall. We just didn't know that he would take Kim Wexler with him...
The following contains spoilers for Better Call Saul season 5.
That Better Call Saul ends in tragedy has been a given since the moment it was first announced. Just in case anyone watching was unfamiliar with its predecessor even the very first scene of Saul’s very first episode made it clear that things do not end well for Jimmy McGill. While some specifics of how he ends up dragged into Walter White’s orbit and a subsequent flight into lonely obscurity remain uncertain, the end result has been set in stone from before the first minute of the show even aired.
The biggest source of tension in Better Call Saul has become the increasingly central figure of Kim Wexler, Jimmy McGill’s now-wife and occasional partner in crime. The prevailing theory for a long time suggested that Kim will eventually leave Jimmy when his Saul shenanigans became too much. Gloomier pundits speculate that death will do this newly married couple part. It’s only been in the last season that a third theory has gained, if not prominence or likelihood, then a higher degree of presumed possibility than before.
What if Kim is still with Saul during Breaking Bad? What if the real tragedy at the heart of this show is not the moral descent of Jimmy McGill, but that of Kim Wexler?
There’s a twisted appeal to the idea. Over the course of its five seasons to date Better Call Saul has gradually made Jimmy and Kim’s relationship the most important aspect of its story, creating deeper viewer investment by the year until arriving at a place where we almost want them to stay together despite knowing it would be terrible for Kim and couldn’t last anyway. Even if Kim is still present in Saul’s life circa the Heisenberg days, she’s demonstrably nowhere to be seen in the greyscale world of Gene Takovic. Besides which a flash forward last season to the late-Bad era, specifically the hours before Saul’s own flight from justice, didn’t convincingly depict a man torn up about the prospect of leaving the love of his life. Which at this point Kim undoubtedly is.
It’s strange to re-watch early episodes of the show knowing just how crucial Kim would become. She barely had a single line in the pilot and remained essentially a secondary character for the bulk of the first season. It wasn’t until the second year that she became really prominent and even then her relationship with Jimmy looked more like a fling between friends than the source of immense impending emotional turmoil.
The writers have been open about the ways in which Kim’s complexities and demons revealed themselves slowly over time. Unsurprisingly this mirrors the experience of the audience; we have spent five seasons slowly getting to know this wounded, clever, empathetic and morally flexible woman only to realize, in the final moments of the latest episode, that maybe we didn’t know her nearly as well as we thought. It’s a moment that seems jarring because it’s supposed to, because after five years how much do we really know about Kim and what drives her?
The reveal shocks Jimmy too. After all, occasional walks on the wild side notwithstanding, Kim has always been the one who pulls him back, who holds him to account without descending into Chuck-esque finger wagging. But if Kim is willing to go even further than him in order to get back at a man who, realistically, has caused her more pain than he ever caused the person who saw fit to throw bowling balls at his car, what is left to stop said person fully embracing Saul Goodman and becoming the consigliere to the future most dangerous man in Albuquerque?
It’s in the season five finale, arguably a quieter one for Jimmy and Kim than many might have expected after the previous week’s showdown with Lalo, that hints of the unexpected endgame of Better Call Saul start to become clear. Throughout its entire run Saul has excelled at swerving left when we expect it to swerve right, somehow making doing so always feel entirely logical and indeed, inevitable. As such the notion that Kim might be in part culpable for the last ethical plunge of Jimmy McGill is one of those classic Saul reversals writ large; a surprise in the moment, less so when you consider the pattern of the series and more specifically, this relationship.
It’s no hot take that Saul struggled to find its voice early on. Watching over the first season again it lurches often inelegantly between crime thriller, black comedy and character study and even ends in a place that could, for the easily satisfied, provide all the explanation necessary for how Saul became Saul. But as the second season honed in on the two strongest forces in Jimmy’s life, Kim and Chuck, and the tug of war for his soul represented by the influences both exerted on him, it found a core conflict that was both subtler and sadder than Breaking Bad.
It’s no surprise that for season two and three Chuck dominated the show, allowing Better Call Saul to seemingly reveal itself as a Shakespearean drama of two brothers pitted against each other by their shared inability to move past their own worst traits. The loss of Chuck is partly why the show seemed to have a little less direction in season four. But, much like the malleable identity of its titular character, Saul was just finding its latest guise; that of a doomed love story.
There aren’t many relationships like Jimmy and Kim’s on television. Two adults who come together without fanfare after years of friendship due to mutual understanding and support. They make each other laugh, they forgive each other (or rather, Kim forgives Jimmy – a lot) but ultimately it appeared for the longest time that they were just too fundamentally different to go the distance.
The season five finale turned that idea on its head. What if the thing that dooms Jimmy and Kim is not their differences, but their similarities?
Both kicked down repeatedly, both harboring resentments towards the judgmental bastards of the world, both enamored by the thrill of a clever con; just look at the time in season four when, after the split screen montage of “Something Stupid,” they appeared ready to come apart only to reunite after their elaborate scheme to get Huell out of trouble. It’s not a stretch to look at the bigger scale versions of scamming sleazebags in bars as solutions to the injustices that have marred both of their careers. Jimmy has been in that place for years. Kim, on the evidence of season five, has either just got there or has been there all along but covered it with the biggest con yet seen on the show.
Season five ends with our couple closer than ever and yet, timeline wise, we know that their end (whatever form it takes) can’t be far off. Beyond that, it ends in a place where Jimmy, still traumatized from his first prolonged exposure to the ugly truth of the world he will one day inhabit, seems to be actively pulling away from his destiny. Would there, in the end, be anything more tragic than Kim being the one to finally take Jimmy by the hand and lead him to the door of Heisenberg’s empire? An empire that, on the evidence, she will have nothing to do with?
It suggests that the answer to the central question of the show – what turns Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman – has been hiding in plain sight all along. Of course it’s not as simple as Kim Wexler’s decision to break bad being the sole reason. Jimmy’s war with Chuck, his own weaknesses and his rejection from the circles he previously longed to inhabit have all had essential roles to play. But at a point in the narrative where all that remains is the final slip and fall, the idea that it may be Kim Wexler who gives the push is darkly fitting. After all, Jimmy has been eroding Kim’s moral foundations for years. It’s about time she repaid the favor.