What makes a good TV character? There is, of course, no one answer. It can vary quite radically from person to person. For some, an interesting character means something they can relate to. For others, it must serve the plot nicely and it does not matter much whether it is interesting in itself or not. I also have an answer to this question, which I will give shortly.
What makes for a good character?
First, let’s explore how important a character is to a story. It is said that we are in a Golden Age of Television (though some say it is coming to an abrupt end). After the HBO series ‘The Sopranos’ arrived in 1999, and in the years afterward when the medium saw some of the best writing ever seen on any screen, small or big, fans of the “serious” (I use the term lightly as for me, all forms of entertainment are equally valid) movies sat up and took notice. They realised that TV had become as much, if not more so, a place to watch exciting stuff as cinema was.
And the prime reason was that the medium, due to its sheer length, let the writing breathe. There was much more leeway for writers to craft plots and draw characters that felt authentic and that could grow over time. In many ways, TV’s Golden Age has been driven by characters. The plots of the shows that are normally considered the best, like ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, and ‘Breaking Bad’, could often be meandering. Imperfect, at least. What we remember them for are characters like Tony Soprano, Omar Little, and Walter White. My point is, it is TV’s length that allows for characters to develop in a more believable way than a film’s two or three hours and it was the stronger character development that drove TV’s Golden Age.
My answer to the question I started this piece with? For me, a good character is one that feels like if it were dropped into the real-world, people will not question its existence. They would not find it too dramatic, too extra. It would blend in perfectly well with us and would feel just like another person. Kim Wexler of ‘Better Call Saul’ is one such character. it is not as if Saul Goodman is not interesting. He obviously is and is the main reason the show is so big, but he does not feel like a real person. He is too dramatic for the real world.
The anatomy of Kim Wexler
Played by Rhea Seehorn, who should have won multiple Emmys for her performance already, Kim was conceived as a love interest to Jimmy McGill, Bob Odenkirk’s fast-talking lawyer who is better known as Saul Goodman of ‘Breaking Bad’. But Kim grew up to be so much more than just a love interest. It was as though she had a life of her own beyond the script in some other parallel world and the writers could get a glimpse into that life and put that faithfully on paper.
The place Kim has in the life of Jimmy is apparent from the very first scene we see them together. Jimmy kicks a dustbin repeatedly after an encounter with Howard at HHM. The scene zooms out to show Kim leaning against a wall outside, smoking. Jimmy comes out and stands beside her, takes the cigarette out of her hand, inhales, and puts it back in her mouth. “Couldn’t you just—?” Saul begins to ask but Kim cuts him off. “You know I can’t,” she says. She goes back inside and uprights the dustbin.
There were dents on the dustbin before Jimmy began to kick it. This, none of this, has happened for the first time. Apart from the clever, subtle storytelling, the scene demonstrates Kim’s role in Jimmy’s life. They are clearly romantically involved or were, and Kim cleans up Jimmy’s messes.
The scene painted Kim as a character who liked Jimmy, but could not compromise with her work ethic. Unlike Jimmy, who was effusive and silver-tongued she was far more reserved and rarely showed emotion. While ‘Better Call Saul’ is mostly about Jimmy’s transition, which is compelling enough, the infinitely more interesting story (as per this scribe) of Kim breaking bad, so to speak has eclipsed it.
‘Better Call Saul’ became less Saul’s story and more Kim’s
We thought it would be heartbreaking to see Jimmy become Saul Goodman, and it is indeed a tragedy, but somehow Kim turning into this darker, less conscientious version of herself is more affecting.
Initially, Kim is repelled by Jimmy’s wily ways and shortcuts to get ahead, for she is a completely self-made woman who cannot comprehend that mindset. Tightly wound like her ponytail, she is genuinely a good person, or was anyway, and likes to help the helpless and meant what she said. She did not have any guile in her. In comparison, Jimmy was all guile. But Kim was also romantically attracted to him, though the nature of their relationship is deliberately kept vague for most of the series. It appears to oscillate between friendship and relationship.
Kim falls under Jimmy’s influence
But gradually, Kim falls under the spell of Jimmy and his cons, later enthusiastically taking part in them. Even when she realises that not only Jimmy is reckless and will always bounce back to being a con artist no matter how much he regrets his prior actions, he is also an extremely bad influence on her. Perhaps without meaning to, she puts a blind eye to his actions as he ventures into illegal and even immoral territory, and that is Kim’s tragedy. Well, that and the element of curiosity in her with regards to Jimmy. She clearly appears titillated by pulling a fast one every now and then with Jimmy.
The ‘pranks’ that Jimmy and Kimmy played became more and more severe. In the end, they were not shenanigans but became way more serious as they got involved with the cartel. All the while, Kim continued to break bad, so to speak, unwittingly drawn to the thrills of being on the wrong side of the law — without getting caught, of course.
There are still a couple of episodes remaining of ‘Better Call Saul’ and the fate of Kim is uncertain. But whatever happens, the fact remains: Kim Wexler is one of TV’s most incredible characters, perhaps the best character in any TV show right now, powered by an astonishing Seehorn who should take all the accolades in existence.
‘Better Call Saul’ season 6 is streaming on Netflix in India.