Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Everybody Loves Kim: Breaking Bad on Better Call Saul

Breaking Bad and its spinoff/prequel Better Call Saul began with a premise that is familiar to nearly everyone. A mild mannered chemistry teacher moonlights as a producer of crystal meth in order to save his family from being bankrupted from his cancer diagnosis. However, as the title suggested it was initially a show about, well, breaking bad. This is particularly true of the first season in which Walter White is between two deaths, liberated from his life as a chemistry teacher, he not only cooks meth he also does all those things that we dream of but never do. He confronts someone who is bullying his son and blows up the car of an obnoxious lawyer.

As much as these moments of everyday rebellion form part of the cathartic identification with the show's everyman protagonist, which is to say white, male, and middle class, they quickly disappear soon after the first season.They are replaced by a different identification less cathartic and transgressive but more familiar. As I have mentioned earlier, cooking meth ceases to be a rebellion for Walt and eventually becomes his new job. Much of the rest of the series is about struggles around work. The rebellion of breaking bad gives way to more mundane worries about whether or not your boss is going to replace you with a cheaper and more pliable worker. The only difference is being replaced in this case means being killed not just being fired. Better Call Saul  continues this interest with work, even more so as it flips the script from "breaking bad" to trying to make it good, as Jimmy tries to break into the world of law. 

Work is not just a focus of both the shows' plots it permeates the entire way of understanding the criminal underworld and its relation to the world of law and order. Gus Fring, Walt's boss, not only runs a fast food restaurant as a cover for his drug distribution empire, but actually seems to run it. He is more often than not at one of his franchises dressed in a shirt or tie and shows up for work in a Volvo like a responsible manager. This is a persistent theme throughout the shows in which the front of a running a business becomes a full time business. Ed Galbraith, “The disappearer” that Walt, Jesse, and Saul turn to create a new identity does not just run his business from the front of a vacuum cleaner repair shop he actually runs a vacuum cleaner repair shop. He sells and repairs vacuums. Repeatedly throughout both shows the idea of a having a job as cover becomes its own full time job. Walt and Skyler do not just launder their money through a car wash, but spend their days there greeting customers. Similarly, in Better Call Saul, the veterinarian that serves as a clearing house for various blackmarket jobs actually works as a vet, so much so that Mike gets a dog and Jimmy a goldfish so they have a reason to visit his office. When Mike's money is laundered through a fake job at the Madrigal Electronics firm he actually shows up to work, stealing a badge to become the security consultant his fake pay stub claims that he is. A life of crime does not free one from their day job because work is the ultimate alibi, the ultimate justification for existence. The only exception this are the Mexican drug cartel, who lounge about by the pool all day, and this lounging proves to be their undoing. 

This last bit is part of the racial politics of the show that has as its core the fundamental belief that a white person could do a better job than all of the "foreign" competition if he just had a fair chance. I think that the show tried to address this in the latter seasons in which Neo-Nazis replaced the cartels as the villains, but a show that is predicated so much on the anxieties and fantasies of the white middle class can never really dispense with its investment in masculinity and whiteness. It is the former rather than the latter that I am going to address here. 

I think that this focus on work helps illustrate the popularity of Kim Wexler, Jimmy's friend, partner, and wife. In some sense it is hard not to view Kim as an anti-Skyler. Skyler, Walter's wife, was such an unpopular character that she published an editorial about it in the New York Times. The source of Skyler's unpopularity was the fact that she was in some sense the stereotype of the nagging wife, worried about little things like the fact that Walter's drug business would get him and their kids killed. Kim is in some sense reverse engineered from Skyler. She is the ultimate "cool girl" game for a good con, and supporting Jimmy as he shifts and turns from an associate at a successful law firm to Saul Goodman the "criminal lawyer" we know from Better Call Saul.

Reduction of Kim to a "cool girl", however, overlooks her own relation to work. Like many of the characters on Better Call Saul we only know very little about her background, we know only that she came from Red Cloud Nebraska, and had a childhood spent under the constant threat of eviction. Like Jimmy she worked her way through law school. It is for this reason that Kim starts the series as a believer in the virtues of hard work. When confronted with adversity she works harder. Working harder, working better, working smarter is her solution to every problem and obstacle. In season four she nearly kills herself overworking. It is at this point that her relation to work begins to change. When given the choice to either return to work immediately or spend time recovering she hits up Blockbuster and takes a vacation she more than deserves. When she does return to work she has more or less split her world of work in two. She continues to work for Mesa Verde Bank, a job that pays the bills and seems relatively neutral. A sort of neither victim nor executioner for an attorney. As a lawyer there are worse things you can do than help a bank open new branches. To counter this she spends more of her time, and much of her passion working for pro bono clients, doing good as a lawyer. It is worth noting that lawyers use this little latin phrase to simultaneously acknowledge and deny the fact that if you want to do good you have to forget about getting paid. 

This division works for Kim, until her work for Mesa Verde forces her to remove an unwilling tenant from his land. She can no longer claim neutrality in the conflicts that define society. [Spoiler Alert]. This eventually causes her to leave the law firm, to give up her lucrative position filing permits for a bank. It is worth noting that when she leaves she takes only one thing with her, the cork from a high priced tequila bottle that she and Jimmy got one of their"marks" to pay for. It is then in the final episode that Kim suggests a more radical break with the world of work than either Walt or Jimmy. She and Jimmy will scam their way into millions, destroying the career of one lawyer along the way, and that will make it possible for her to dedicate her life to her pro bono work, to doing good.

It is hard to say if Kim will break bad, or what the final season will entail, but she has broken something that the rest of the characters, and the rest of the show has held together, and that is work. Walter thought that he could do good for his family and make good money. Kim understands that making money is just a scam, a scam in which someone always gets hurt, and that if you want to do good then the first thing you have to do is free yourself from the demands of making a living.

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