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Why "Better Call Saul" Is An Unexpectedly Feminist Show

As its third season begins, the AMC series shows that female representation matters as much behind the scenes as it does in front of the camera.

Posted on April 11, 2017, at 2:38 p.m. ET

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler.
Michele K. Short / AMC/ Sony Pictures Television

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler.

Writer Vince Gilligan’s vision of the criminal Southwest has always had one foot firmly planted in classic Westerns and the other in a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. In Breaking Bad, we had sandy shootouts and tarantula-flecked train robberies and suburban gangster Walter White (Bryan Cranston) plotting his way around Albuquerque with a black eye and a nose bandage reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Time-lapse sunsets washed across rock spires, and the pinkish taillights of the RV meth lab spilled over the purple nighttime desert like watercolor.

With the prequel Better Call Saul — now back for its third season this week the painterly palette and shot composition are even more precise and striking. The show is a prequel-meets-sequel that follows the life of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) before he became Saul Goodman, with most scenes happening before the action of Breaking Bad and, so far, only a few happening after the original hit show. Like Goodman himself, the show is more visually colorful than its predecessor, doing something with reds and blues that feels almost like a homage to Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, but with more plot. It took the full first season for Saul to really find its feet, but by Season 2 the show was on firm ground, both narratively and visually.

Better Call Saul’s onscreen world of lawyers and crooks, cops and conmen presents a rich and nuanced clash of masculinities. The men depicted are tender, stoic, pompous, frantic, kindly, violent, finicky — violent and finicky. They are flashy and drab, dapper and utilitarian. The show lampoons masculinity and alpha male posturing almost as frequently as it celebrates it — for example, the pharmaceutical company IT guy turned petty drug dealer (Mark Proksch) who, in the second season, goes out and buys a bright yellow Hummer with red flames painted on the sides, eyesore shoes to match, and a vanity license plate that reads: “Playuh.” Better Call Saul knows that hypermasculinity can be sexy, admirable, or threatening, but also that it is quite often ridiculous.

As a result the show is a Technicolor ode to masculinity that feels surprisingly, even improbably feminist. The show’s masculine depictions are so truthfully executed, in fact, that it’s a world of men who might be more familiar to women, where men are needy, vulnerable, and emotional, even clingy, much more than the usual, flattened stereotypes of suits and tough guys — the fictional man’s world typically made for male consumption. But this is a man’s world that sees through itself, with a neutral rather than a male gaze, and where women are always fully realized people no matter their function to the story, never props or set dressing. Better Call Saul has turned out to be an oasis of feminist non-objectification. It’s not just its depiction of Jimmy’s love interest Kimberly Wexler, Esq., played with the subtle fierceness of a Hitchcock blonde by Rhea Seehorn, although her presence is a big part of it. The show’s successful depiction of female characters also comes from hiring more women behind the scenes: writers, producers, and directors who can gut-check the show’s portrayal of women.

AMC/Sony Pictures Television

American television shows are often populated with average-looking men of all ages and shapes, and young, thin, conspicuously attractive women. And while the women of Better Call Saul are attractive, they are also, above all else, competent. They are judges, lawyers, servers, administrators, bartenders, doctors. Most are played as appropriately, refreshingly ordinary. More often than not they are, like the men in the story, over 35. They are receptionists and grandmothers, lawyers and ambitious stay-at-home mothers turned criminals, small business owners and coquettish retirees. And the men in the story mostly encounter them for what they are: a judge, not a “lady judge.” The show treats its women with respect, even if the male characters don’t always do so.

“The show is weirdly feminist,” staff writer and producer Gennifer Hutchison told me over the phone, “considering we have, like, one lady [main] character on the show.”

Almost all of Better Call Saul’s producers are women. Its line producers, its two on-set producers, and its post-producer are all women, as are a number of its department heads. Only 20% of its episodes are directed by women, but that’s better than, say, Game of Thrones, another fairly macho show, which comes in at just 6.6%. Of Game of Thrones’ 60 episodes that have aired so far, only four had female writers. Saul’s eight-person writers room now consists of three women, including Hutchison, and five men, up from two women last season.

Hutchison is the franchise’s longest-serving and most prolific female writer. Since Season 3 of Breaking Bad she has penned 11 episodes, including what is perhaps the property’s most iconic speech:

“I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”

She was Better Call Saul’s only female writer during Season 1, writing two of the ten episodes, including, perhaps coincidentally, the only episode that season to pass the Bechdel test (“Bingo”). She has also played a big part in the creation of Kim.

Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim, said she hadn’t initially thought of her character as being a feminist per se, but embraced the label when she started reading articles that championed her as such.

“I was so thankful that those articles, and many critics and fans, were speaking about the qualities of Kim that I — and the writers — felt strongly about,” Seehorn told me. “In terms of making her a rich, complex, interesting human being, with very specific ways of expressing herself, exerting herself, and dealing with external and internal conflict. I don’t believe that any of us set out to make a feminist character. But to be feminist, to me, is simply to believe in equal rights, equal legal protections, and equal opportunities, regardless of gender.”

Gennifer Hutchison with cast members from Better Call Saul.
Via Twitter: @GennHutchison

Gennifer Hutchison with cast members from Better Call Saul.

“We’re explicitly trying to not be political in any way,” Hutchison said of the the writers room’s decisions to include controversial topics on both shows. “And that just comes from the top.” She said that they always approached the story from a character perspective, but that the stories often ended up being political anyway, because of the circumstances that the characters were in. Realism breeds revelation.

But fans didn’t always interact with the show’s realism in the best way. When Jockey briefs–clad meth kingpin Walter White’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) understandably disapproved of him entering a death spiral of radioactive egomania and criminality, a number of viewers turned on the actress, as if she, personally, were hindering their beloved antihero. It was one of the worst sexist backlashes to ever befall a TV show.

“That was a horrible situation to go through, primarily for Anna,” Hutchison said. “It’s just ridiculous that she was put through that. There’s no reason for it whatsoever. Like, if you don’t like a character, cool, that’s fine, but don’t attack someone. And it was very clearly gendered. I mean, we had lots of characters that [certain] people didn’t like, but they were all men, so they weren’t getting personal, gendered attacks.”

That experience left a mark on the writing staff and showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and affected how they approached Better Call Saul. They wanted to make sure their new female lead, Kim, was “likable,” but in the end mostly just made sure she was herself: an active, rather than a reactive, character with her own needs and agency. The solution to her likability versus that of early-series Skyler White — if there ever was a problem to begin with — came not from changing her personality, but from showing more of it.

Seehorn wonders if it's the absence of attention given to certain stock traits assigned to female characters — biological clocks, marriage anxiety, body image — that makes Kim stick out as a feminist symbol.

“She is concerned with fitting in and playing by the rules in work — masking any perceived deficiencies of class, status, or economics when it gets her what she wants ... But that is very different than being burdened by needing to be likable at all times — a trait that I think is grafted onto female characters, and ingrained in female human beings, socially and historically,” Seehorn said.

These kinds of decisions matter. While television is not the world, it is a projection of the world (or at least a stylized version of it) as it appears in the heads of writers like Hutchison and actors like Seehorn, as well as producers, directors, showrunners, cinematographers, and designers. And the way people see the world — male and female — is not only deeply subjective, but also changes over time. That subjectivity can end up mirroring itself, until there is a dizzying Droste effect wherein sometimes the worst aspects of culture can be magnified and proliferated ad infinitum — so that a young woman can grow up in a media landscape where women largely disappear after age 35 or above 135 pounds, and do not reappear again except as terrifying crones or spunky Betty White grandmothers or large-bodied comic relief.

One way to break out of this cycle is to hire more women, and to listen to what they have to say. And listening to Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad’s insider podcasts, hosted by editor Kelley Dixon, you hear a host of female voices, be they from Dixon herself, directors, producers, designers, actors, or writers.

“Over the past three seasons I have had the pleasure of being encouraged, challenged and inspired by writer-producers Genny Hutchison, Ann Cherkis, and Heather Marion,” Seehorn told me. “Directors like Larysa Kondracki, Nicole Kassell, Minkie Spiro, and Michelle MacLaren, editor Kelley Dixon, producers, executive producers, and line producers like Robin Sweet, Nina Jack, Jenn Carroll, Diane Mercer, and Melissa Bernstein.” She went on to mention what she dubbed “the insane talents” of a slew of other female crew members, from costume designer Jennifer Bryan and her seamstresses to casting directors Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas, and Kiira Arai — not forgetting the show’s female props mistresses, script supervisors, special effects makeup artists, focus pullers, grips, set designers, and more. “I could go on and on and on,” she said.

Seehorn also made sure to remind me that Saul had more “stellar” female characters besides Kim, like Mike’s daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon), stickler attorney Erin Brill (Jessie Ennis), Dr. Cruz (Clea DuVall), senior bank counsel Paige Novick (Cara Pifko), embezzler Betsy Kettleman (Julie Ann Emery), nail salon owner Mrs. Nguyen (Eileen Fogarty), the court’s Beanie Baby–loving contract counsel administrator (Nadine Marissa), and even some more fleeting characters like server Sabrina (Amy Davidson), the victim of Jimmy’s infamous Kevin Costner con.

“I hope you print the whole list,” Seehorn added.

From left: Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo "Gus" Fring, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut.
Robert Trachtenberg / AMC/Sony Pictures Television

From left: Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo "Gus" Fring, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut.

I felt bad asking Hutchison what it was like to be a female television writer, rather than just a television writer, but her answer was illuminating.

“It’s something that is,” she said. “I wish it wasn’t a thing that had to be talked about, but it’s prevalent, and it infuses my entire job. There is this feeling of responsibility, of being the arbiter of something, and making sure it feels acceptable. Because I am a feminist, and I have to think about those things.” While she doesn’t have the final say, she is able to have a voice and speak up if something doesn’t feel right, gender-wise. “I’d love it if there could be a world where there are just writers, but until the fabric of the world is representative of that, there is a different feeling and a different responsibility.”

It’s possible that an all-male writing team would have been able to effectively dramatize Kim Wexler in a Season 2 episode where she diligently networks on the phone during her lunch breaks, dodging guys who use her professional efforts as an opportunity to hit on her — but I doubt it. Not for any malicious reasons, but simply because it might not have occurred to them.

That episode, called “Rebecca,” was written by Ann Cherkis. It got a lot of attention for Kim’s declaration to Jimmy that “you don’t save me, I save me.” But while that moment did feel organic and exciting, it’s reductive to see that as the show’s or even the franchise’s most feminist move. After all, no women were saved by men in Breaking Bad, either, and those women knew it. Quite the contrary: Their association with dangerous or danger-seeking men left them largely dead, bereaved, or destitute — the most likely outcomes when you’re a woman roped to a man who is either himself a murderous criminal or who associates with them, even if you are a murderous criminal too, like crooked chemical executive Lydia (Laura Fraser).

“The ‘I save me’ stuff wasn’t meant as a specific planting of a feminist flag,” Hutchison said. “It was just that she wasn’t going to be at the whim of another character.”

It’s hard to imagine the combed-over festival of sleaze that was criminal lawyer Saul Goodman romantically involved with such a put-together woman as Kim.

“I think when Saul was originally introduced he was kind of an across-the-board sleazeball,” Hutchison said. “And then when we started on Saul, we were like, wait, is Jimmy going to be gross with all the women? Because we didn’t really want that, and we had this cool character of Kim, whom we wanted to make more romantic.”

Strangely, it works. It may even be the most interesting romantic relationship on television. Compared to Breaking Bad, there is an almost curious lack of sex in Better Call Saul — though not a lack of sexiness. The show knows that eating pie out of the box in bed while wearing your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, or laughing together over a dirty joke with your mouths full of toothpaste, is ultimately far sexier than a lot of the huffing and puffing usually on display. It also lends an air of innocence to Jimmy that I suspect is setting us up for his fall.

I’ve heard other viewers of the show remark that Rhea Seehorn is a refreshingly “age-appropriate” match for Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy/Saul, even though she is a full decade younger. And I’m not sure I would call theirs a partnership of equals, either. It is, however, a rarely seen partnership of peers, and one where he is the more interested party, even though she deeply cares for him too. Despite what is clearly a long-term, loosely defined relationship, at times he appears to literally ooze puppy love for her.

Despite all these and other virtues, Better Call Saul is routinely undervalued, and ratings have not always kept up with its parent show. Some critics have complained that the show’s pacing is too languid — forgetting perhaps that Breaking Bad also had segments that felt glacial in order to build up dramatic tension.

Better Call Saul is a brightly colored tragedy that hasn’t turned wholly tragic yet (although in the first two episodes of Season 3 we may be seeing it start to). Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is back this season, and his re-entry is handled with understated yet satisfying cinematic flair. The way it’s shot, the Pollos Hermanos sign manages to look like the lettering from a horror movie, even though the font hasn’t changed. It is both thrilling and terrifying to watch the world of Breaking Bad, its characters, and its plotlines seep into the world of Better Call Saul and threaten to upend the established order. And maybe most exciting of all is imagining how Kim Wexler will take all this on — or attempt to. But just like adding more women creators can offer unexpected insights into a masculine world, sometimes the best thing that can happen to an established order is for it to be upended — no matter how much those who’ve grown accustomed to it may be reluctant to see it go.


Summer Brennan is a journalist and author.

CORRECTION

Michelle MacLaren's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.

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