Better Call Saul just concluded its six-season run, ending on a nuanced and appropriately bittersweet note that, as a lover of Shakespeare, I quite honestly should’ve seen coming.
(And if you don’t want to see things coming, beware of spoilers ahead.)
Better Call Saul tells the origin story of Saul Goodman, the criminal lawyer to Walter White, the drug king protagonist of the multiple Emmy-winning series Breaking Bad (2008-2013), where Saul served as consigliere, Shakespearean fool, and comic relief from its increasingly violent storyline. For the subsequent prequel, however, co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould filled in Saul’s background, giving him a brother and co-workers who included confidant and girlfriend (and eventual wife) Kim Wexler, all of which turned a drunken porter of a character into Macbeth himself, with Kim as his Lady.
Saul, we learn, was originally an ambitious young lawyer named Jimmy McGill, who worshipped the older brother in whose law firm’s mail room he continued to flounder. Kim, a lawyer and former intern at the same firm, shared Jimmy’s ambition and had her outrage fueled when she saw his work being diminished and devalued as much as hers. Kim built up Jimmy’s confidence and encouraged him to continue pursuing his law degree, admiring his willingness to work hard and emphasizing how much he deserved his success despite his inability (or unwillingness) to always adhere to legal and ethical niceties.
Like Lady Macbeth, Kim fears Jimmy’s nature: not that he’s “too full of the milk of human kindness” to succeed, but that he’s always inclined to take shortcuts that could get him disbarred. Yet as their attraction to each other grows, it’s Kim who takes the lead: In the final season, she plots their most nefarious scheme and suffers the greatest crisis of conscience when it results in unexpectedly fatal consequences. She immediately abandons both her legal career and her husband, triggering Jimmy’s final devolution into the corrupt persona of Saul Goodman and his eventual involvement in the events of Breaking Bad. Like Lady Macbeth, Kim is tormented by what she’s done, but it takes years of living a new life in Florida before she washes “out [the] damn’d spot” of blood on her hands and confesses her crimes to the Albuquerque district attorney.
In an interview the night after the finale aired, the Emmy-nominated actor who played Kim, Rhea Seahorn, called Better Call Saul “the Shakespearean tragedy of Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler and their relationship,” a judgement she was probably only able to reach after filming the entire series. Co-creators Gilligan and Gould have been frank in interviews about not knowing what they had in Kim and Jimmy in the first few episodes, or how compelling and dramatically urgent their relationship could be. But they discovered that Kim and Jimmy make a good team: while he’s charming, inclined to cut corners, and impatient (one can easily imagine him saying Macbeth’s line “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly”), Kim is organized, detail-oriented, conscientious, and — despite her best intentions — attracted to Jimmy’s roguish con man skills. Importantly, they both have been denied opportunities and, in Lady Macbeth’s words, “art not without ambition.”
But while Kim was in many ways the soul of the series — the ethical bar against which Jimmy’s extra-legal shenanigans with Albuquerque’s drug cartel could be measured — she also proves to be “made of sterner stuff” than Jimmy, cruel and threatening when necessary, willing to impulsively propose marriage as a legal recourse, and able to improvise in unexpected situations, like when she stands up to a drug cartel killer to defend her husband.
Since Kim doesn’t appear in the parent series Breaking Bad, I worried her character would die: not by suicide like Lady Macbeth, but at the hands of one of the many violent characters Jimmy intersected with. Fortunately, Better Call Saul’s writers understood the style of show they were creating: while Breaking Bad was a tragedy whose hero dies as a result of his own hubris and villainy, Better Call Saul, despite its many intensely serious and violent moments, is — in Shakespearean terms — a comedy. Kim and Jimmy stay alive, end up married…though, true, they subsequently get divorced and Jimmy goes to prison…but ultimately they both achieve a small measure of redemption, confessing to and accepting responsibility for their crimes. In co-creator Gould’s words, “They’ve regained their humanity,” something the Macbeths never do.
Central to both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are strongly Shakespearean themes of transformation and identity, a thesis that was stated clearly by high school chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad’s very first episode:
I prefer to see [chemistry] as the study of change…It is growth, then decay, then transformation.
But with any character — Walter White, Saul Goodman, Kim Wexler, or the Macbeths — the question is always: Do they actually transform, or are they revealed? When Walter adopts the nom de meth “Heisenberg” as his drug kingpin persona, has he become someone else or the person he’s always been? When Macbeth kills everyone between him and the throne, becoming the king the witches foretold, was that destiny inevitable? Did Lady Macbeth, having become the Queen, kill herself out of guilt over the murder she committed and the killer she became, or was she haunted by the woman she always was? Whose natures did Lady Macbeth and Kim really fear — their husbands’ or their own?
Kim, to her credit, never assumes a new identity and apparently lives a quiet life, prepared to accept whatever consequences come her way. Jimmy, who assumed multiple identities over the years, declared himself at the end to be, once and for all, “James McGill,” the name he was born under. But in a lovely Shakespearean irony, the prison population only recognized him as the shyster lawyer who advertised on TV. In addition to the 86-year prison sentence he’s serving, Jimmy’s ultimate punishment, in the words of co-creator Gould, is to “be playing [Saul Goodman] for the rest of his life.”
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