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Slippin Jimmy and Kim Wexler in the middle of a con
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To Understand ‘Better Call Saul’s’ Kim Wexler, Look at Her Drink Order

The brilliant connection between Moscow mules and the ambitious attorney

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If you love a good Moscow mule, that spicy, tart combination of vodka, lime, and ginger beer that purists insist be served in a copper mug, there’s another drink you should really know about: the vodka buck. This variety of classic cocktail is made from a base spirit, lime, ginger, and soda. Sound familiar? A Moscow mule is nothing more than a vodka buck, redesigned with more whimsical glassware. A canny marketing trick, the mule takes a drink that’s already known to be delicious and gives it more sophisticated packaging. It is a charlatan, pretending to have a pedigree that it doesn’t.

Better Call Saul’s Kim Wexler (played by Rhea Seehorn) has experience with charlatans: her business partner and boyfriend is Slippin’ Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk, better known as Saul Goodman to Breaking Bad fans), a man who jumps back and forth between huckster and hero so often that even he isn’t sure where he’ll eventually land. Kim, with her carefully curled ponytail, off-the-rack suit separates, and sensible heels, is the opposite of Jimmy. (Indeed, the show often positions the two characters on screen as mirror images of each other, emphasizing this dichotomy.)

Kim defines herself by her dedication, her loyalty. After being treated horribly by the law firm where she worked her way up from the mail room to associate, her response is to double down and work harder — she’s determined to prove her worth. Kim doesn’t indulge in Jimmy’s habit of putting on a different mask when it suits the situation, changing personalities with the wind. She is the definition of a Good Girl, believing that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, her work will eventually speak for itself and she will be justly compensated.

And then Kim is introduced to the Moscow mule, its sleek presentation designed to obscure the less-than-romantic origin story, and her world suddenly becomes much more slippery.

The exact origins of the buck are blurry. Ginger ale and ginger beer became widely available in the 19th century, and by the 1930s, drinks like the gin buck and the Shanghai buck, made with light rum, were showing up in recipe books and bars across the United States. Notably absent? Vodka bucks.

No one was drinking vodka in the US in the early 20th century, which was a problem for John G. Martin, who added Smirnoff to his marketing agency’s portfolio in 1939. Coincidentally, his friend Jack Morgan, who owned the Cock ’n’ Bull in Los Angeles, had a surplus of his own ginger beer. As the men sought a joint solution for their overstock woes, it’s pretty clear how they ended up with the vodka buck. (Some versions of the story have them laboring over the recipe for hours or days, but that seems hard to believe, given that they didn’t actually develop one.)

But what about the copper mug, the thing that truly ups the cocktail’s Instagram (or Polaroid, as the case may be) quotient? According to cocktail historian Ted Haigh, it was another matter of easy access: Morgan’s girlfriend owned a company that made copper products. Martin took a photo of each bartender posing with the newly christened Moscow mule, complete with mug, to show the next bar on his list, and thus the first viral cocktail was born. Though the presentation conjured up visions of miners striking it rich in the Gold Rush, it was nothing more than a marketing ploy: calculated, deliberate, and, as it turned out, wildly successful.

Kim first encounters the Moscow mule in the second season of Better Call Saul. After she’s humiliated in court by her own firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, the opposing counsel, Rich Schweikart, invites her to lunch. He orders a Moscow mule for himself and offers Kim the same, making sure to mention the “old copper mug” that it’s served in. His implication is clear: This world could be yours.

Though she declines both the drink and his eventual job offer, we can see the change come over her face as Schweikart relays his own story of having been set up to fail by his first firm. The vision of herself that he reflects back, that of an overworked associate who will never be free of her humble beginnings as long as she stays at HHM, is not what she wants. She longs to rebrand, to slip into a new skin. The skin of someone who drinks Moscow mules at lunch.

Kim and her cronies toast her success in Season 3
AMC/Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul is set in 2002, on the cusp of the cocktail revolution birthed in New York at the turn of the century. That it is the Moscow mule, and not the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan, drinks with true cocktail pedigrees and rich histories, that has caught on in Albuquerque is telling. The faux sophistication of the mule resonates in the Better Call Saul universe, where characters, and Jimmy in particular, are constantly reinventing themselves. Heavy with unearned history and repackaged to be sleeker and sexier, the Moscow mule tempts Kim to rethink herself — you can almost see her wondering if she, too, could pull off such a transformation.

The next day, back at HHM, Kim is headed to lunch when she receives word that her boss has an urgent task for her, but that she can order in from that “new fancy salad place” and eat at her desk. Her jaw sets, and she walks out of the room. The camera immediately cuts to Kim at the restaurant from the previous day’s lunch, drinking a Moscow mule alone at the bar.

As she sips, each taste reassuring her that she doesn’t have to be the Kim that will toil away unnoticed at HHM for the rest of her career, a man approaches her with a second cocktail. And it is with that second mule that Kim decides yes, she can change her storyline and market herself anew. She calls Jimmy, knowing that he’ll go along with her newest incarnation, no questions asked.

AMC/Better Call Saul

The pair, pretending to be internet entrepreneurs Giselle and Viktor, con the man out of $10,000. The next morning Kim stares at the check made out to Ice Station Zebra Associates, their imaginary company, and tucks it into the corner of her mirror, unendorsed. She has toed the line of a new identity, and here it is in physical form: a literal check that she can’t cash. The Moscow mule makeover can only take her so far. Jimmy may slip back and forth between lawyer and loser, but that isn’t Kim’s world yet.

The Moscow mule reappears in the most recent season in an even more gratuitous fashion: In the eighth episode, “Slip,” an overhead closeup shows three copper mugs, filled to the brim with icy vodka, cheersing. The shot pulls out to reveal Kim with Paige and Kevin of Mesa Verde, her hard-won (and only) client, which has come to define her life over the last several months. But the celebration is cut short by the arrival of Howard, Kim’s old boss from HHM, who congratulates her on her success while also mentioning her time in doc review (a punishment for something Jimmy did) and referring to to her as his protege. Kim realizes that she is still not out from under the cloud of her former employer — despite all the success she’s had since striking out on her own, her history is showing through the cracks.

Kim excuses herself and marches up to Howard’s table, where she hands him a check for more than $14,000, a law school debt that HHM claimed to have forgiven but still held over her head. Riding high on the wave of Moscow mules and a new start, she returns to Paige and Kevin and, despite Paige’s objections, agrees to provide a friend of Kevin’s with legal advice. Old Kim was dedicated only to Mesa Verde, but New Kim can take on anything. She lets herself be carried away, believing that she has truly shed her unglamorous past.

Kim with her new partners
AMC/Better Call Saul

If that were the end of her reinvention, it might have been successful. A subtle shift to erase some of her history, but hold on to her principles for the future. But after seeing Jimmy lying on the floor of his office, his real back hurt as the result of a fake accident during yet another of his personal re-brandings, she decides, against her better judgment, to help him. Rather than passing the new client and his money along to a firm with more resources, as she had originally intended, Kim agrees to take him on herself.

The mule didn’t become what it was by changing what was inside the buck, though, and Kim’s decision to split her focus and dedication has disastrous consequences. Overworked and under-rested, she literally crashes and burns, her car totaled in a ditch along the side of the highway as she heads to an important meeting with the new client.

The accident isn’t drunk driving in terms of Kim’s blood alcohol level, but the influence of the Moscow mules is still keenly felt. She worked hard and did everything right, earning the trust and admiration of her clients, only for Howard to arrive and publicly remind her that, underneath it all, she is nothing more than a buck: one of many, nothing special. Hitting that tipping point results in her crash, but may still have further-reaching consequences.

In the season finale, Kim decides to push off her work responsibilities in favor of a Blockbuster binge. It could be that she’s just taking some time to heal and recover, or it could be that she has discovered, for better or worse, what Jimmy has known all along: If you don’t like the story, just change the character. After all, it worked for the vodka buck.

Leigh Kunkel is a food and travel writer from Chicago who loves cocktails, television, and dogs.
Editor: Greg Morabito

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