Women, Careers And Better Call Saul

Donna Bowman

Exclusive to the Working Woman Report

Television loves stories about men at work.

Better Call Saul is a show about such a man—a shady lawyer with an inflatable Statue of Liberty on his strip-mall roof and an ostentatious Constitution mural in his office.

It’s about where this man came from, and maybe also where he’s going after his work forces him to adopt a new identity as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha.

It’s a show, in other words, about television’s favorite kind of character for at least the past two decades: the antihero, the morally compromised man who digs himself deeper into tragedy because of some stubborn streak of masculinity or lust for power.

But in its second season, Better Call Saul has also become perhaps the best show about a working woman currently airing on television. She is Kim Wexler, a fourth-year associate at a successful Albuquerque law firm. When we first met her last year, she was Jimmy’s friend and sometime love interest, someone who understood him better than the other suits in the firm’s board room and did her best to help him, despite her frustration with his seeming propensity for self-sabotage.

In two remarkable episodes this season, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, along with their close-knit team of writers (including Breaking Bad veteran Gennifer Hutchison), have turned the spotlight on Kim, allowing her to emerge as a full-fledged protagonist in her own right. And they’ve done it by showing her at work.

How many television series, when the time comes to give depth or motivation to women, shift the setting to their home, family, or romantic life? Or add scenes showing their relationship with parents, children, spouses or exes? Those are the encounters and concerns that define the whole woman, unlike work which engages only a shallow portion of her being—or so it’s often assumed.

By contrast, the extraordinary scenes in season 2’s “Rebecca” that bring Kim to center stage focus exclusively on her work.

She stays late going over documents. She plasters post-it notes to the windows in a stairwell to make a temporary office. She networks like crazy, calling every school acquaintance and friend-of-a-friend she knows to drum up business.

We begin to appreciate her as a dogged, relentless, ambitious self-starter. Yet there’s one facet of her identity as a working woman about which we, and Kim as well, are beginning to feel uneasy. All those characteristics would seem to make her an ideal entrepreneur. Instead she’s an employee—and an underappreciated one, at that.

Even though her hustle and determination results in a major new client, her boss (still stinging from an incident where he felt she showed insufficient loyalty to the firm) declines to reward her. For her part, because the firm committed to her by putting her through law school, she feels obligated to commit to the firm—not just by repaying the tuition, but by being a good soldier and taking her lumps without complaint.

Another vision of work calls to her, however. She’s tried to steer Jimmy away from it, certain that the stability of being a cog in a larger machine (and aspiring to become a bigger cog someday) is worth all the attendant compromises. But now that he’s being micromanaged by that machine, she sees that he’s happiest being his own boss. And seeing what a good team they make running minor grifts on douchey suckers, she’s wondering if she would be happier out on her own with him. I can’t remember the last time a woman on television has been allowed to gauge her fulfillment simply by the conditions of her work.

No, what we usually see is a woman trying to “have it all,” and dealing with the constraints and frustrations of her job in the context of what she wants out of relationships. If she has to work long hours, she’s sacrificing her family or social life. If she’s ambitious, she runs the risk of being lonely. If she’s loyal, she’s somebody’s “work wife.”

Kim’s effort to get what she wants, at least so far, hasn’t entailed longing for things others might sacrifice to climb the corporate ladder. What she wants are the things she sees people enjoying at the top of that ladder: independence, respect, autonomy, and agency. But there is one way in which Kim is definitely a woman at work, and not just a worker who happens to be a woman. She knows that she has to run faster than everybody else just to stay in the same place, let alone get ahead.

It passes quickly and without undue comment, but there’s a key moment in that cold-calling montage in “Rebecca” when she tells a bunch of young men that they don’t have to stay late just because she is. They pack up and go with minimal shame. She knows that to be forgiven and wedge her foot back in the door, she needs to be perfect, while they can haul themselves up rung after rung just by being as good as expected.

And that’s the big difference between Kim and Jimmy.
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He reserves a part of his life where he is his own boss; she doesn’t feel like she has that luxury. When she finds out she has the same gift for spinning a yarn (and takes the same thrill in it) that he does, it’s a surprise to her. In her ten years of working her way up from the mailroom, she’s had no leisure to devote to discovering any talents not immediately demanded by her job.

Because it’s a prequel to Breaking Bad, the viewers of Better Call Saul have been waiting for Jimmy McGill, Esq., to start Saul Goodman’s business. But we’ve always assumed he’d do it alone. Wouldn’t it be a kick if it were Kim’s talents and desires as a woman entrepreneur that made it all happen?

For now, all we know is that she has figured out the treacherous rungs on the model-employee ladder of success—which have everything to do with the standards she’s held to as a woman. When she starts measuring herself not by a job somebody else gives her, but by one she gives herself, watch out. It could be something we’ve never seen on television before.

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