Will ‘Better Call Saul’ Breakout Rhea Seehorn Survive the Finale? ‘Death Is Not the Only Tragic End’

Photographs by Ramona Rosales

Rhea Seehorn’s fiancé doesn’t know if Kim Wexler lives. Neither do her stepchildren, who recently became “Better Call Saul” fans — and now demand similar answers about her fate. There are just six episodes left before the “Breaking Bad” prequel wraps up its six-season run in August. How it all ends is still a closely guarded secret.

Seehorn, of course, won’t entertain guesses about her character’s destiny. But she offers a twist: Maybe the question isn’t whether Kim dies — but what happens if she doesn’t? “Death is not the only tragic end,” she teases.

Rhea Seehorn Variety Cover

All we know from the “Breaking Bad” timeline are the characters who later pop up in that show — starting with Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, aka Gene Takovic. Bob Odenkirk’s now-iconic role, which began as a one-note huckster lawyer on “Bad,” evolved into a textured, deeply flawed yet sympathetic lead in “Better Call Saul.” It’s a prequel that has in many ways surpassed its originator in complex storytelling.

But what’s made Saul such a compelling character also comes down to the actor co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have paired with Odenkirk: Seehorn, as the equally complicated Kim, a budding lawyer who managed to escape her past as the daughter of a huckster — only to wind up being married to another.

Kim Wexler gave Rhea Seehorn the platform she needed to showcase her talent. As “Saul” comes to a close, this is her moment to capitalize on all of the accolades and good will, which Seehorn fans hope will include her first Emmy nomination.

“Here’s a character who was never mentioned or even alluded to on ‘Breaking Bad,’ and yet she’s become the focus of so much love and concern,” Gould says. “It’s the greatest compliment in the world because it says that we’ve accomplished something that we were hoping to do, which was to make a show that could stand on its own. And Rhea’s been an enormous part of that. I think it’s a tribute to her brilliance that people are this concerned about her.”

Odenkirk attributes that interest to the relentless effort Seehorn has put into making Kim a three-dimensional character, one who can say a lot even when she’s saying very little. “She brought all that texture and depth, seriousness and playfulness in certain moments,” he says. “These writers write characters that add layers every time you see them. And she just dug into that and showed everybody just how great she is.”

Says Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin on the show: “You think she’s good on-screen? You should be in front of her and have a front-row seat, because that’s what I’ve had. I would like to think that someday I’d be as good as Rhea Seehorn.”

Odenkirk and Fabian know how much sweat Seehorn puts into playing Kim because they’ve lived through it. The three of them were roommates in Albuquerque, in a house that Odenkirk bought to get away from the dreariness of living alone in a hotel during production. Instead, the roomies went on TV binges (Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country”) and cooked for each other (Fabian’s an amateur chef), but most of all, they spent hours workshopping scripts, deconstructing scenes and rehearsing in the kitchen.

“It was theater nerd camp,” Seehorn says of their time together. “The whole cast shares this idea that if you are given this level of writing, you want to explore every possible line read there is.”

Says Fabian: “It was like a college-roommate situation. We’d all go to work together and spend all day together. And then we’d drive home and sit in the kitchen into all hours of the night, going over the day’s events and, more importantly, going over the scripts. Rhea was really great about saying, ‘Did you get the schedule change? Your big scene got moved up two days; you want to work?’ She cared about the work.”

When Seehorn signed on to direct this season’s fourth episode, she took over the downstairs as her war room. “There was paper and drawings and Post-its, just like Kim, everywhere!” she says, copping to the fact that she was the messiest person in the house — something Odenkirk and Fabian don’t dispute. While thinking about her scenes, Seehorn will paint, work on embroidery, finish a jigsaw puzzle or write a to-do list.

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Ramona Rosales for Variety

“I also write my lines over and over — and now I sound like a crazy person — but the script, the font and the slant of how I’m writing lines begins to also make me think about things in a different way,” she says. “And I start to look at punctuation in a different way. And I leave these things everywhere in little piles unfinished.”

Seehorn tackled directing the way she does acting: by going above and beyond expectations. “She made her interest known to us a while ago, and I really didn’t have a single hesitation,” Gould says. “I knew she’d do really well because she’s bright and she’s organized and she has incredible focus. And also, she’s generous and other actors love her. And so did the crew. She also went out of her way to shadow directors on other shows and spent a lot of time watching how television gets put together.”

On “Saul,” Seehorn and the show’s other actors are such fans that they stick around to watch their cast mates’ performances — even when they’re not scheduled to be on set that day. That’s what inspired Seehorn to try her hand at directing. “I like helping people break down a script. I like talking about the beats of the scene. I love performers,” she says. “But this is not a beginner’s kind of show. It’s pretty advanced directing. So I was reticent to say anything, [but] they came back and offered me a slot. And then I was terrified. But they bent over backwards to make it possible for me to prep even more than normal.”

That on-set and off-set camaraderie is also why Seehorn and Fabian happened to be in the right place, at the right time, when Odenkirk suffered a heart attack.

“There’s so many things that day, and I know Bob feels the same way, that are just like gifts from the universe,” Seehorn says. “I don’t know how else to put it, because he didn’t go to his trailer. If he had, he would be dead, or significantly brain damaged. Thankfully, living together did not make Bob Odenkirk hate Patrick Fabian and Rhea Seehorn. Somehow my messy piles everywhere and thousands of unfinished jigsaw puzzles did not drive him to the brink of not wanting to be near me. So he came and hung out with us.”

The actors would take breaks in an empty studio, in little plexiglass cubicles where they could get work done — or in Odenkirk’s case, watch a Chicago Cubs game while on his exercise bike. Seehorn and Fabian were chatting when they saw Odenkirk fall over.

“We ran to catch him because it’s a concrete floor and didn’t want him to hit his head,” Seehorn says, “and then realized that something much bigger was going on. We realized that he was having some kind of cardiac arrest.” Seehorn and Fabian screamed for help, and soon staffers — including Rosie Estrada, the set’s COVID officer and former medic, took over.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone in my life as upset as Rhea was that evening,” Gould says. “I’m sure she held it together in front of people, but I think she was rocked in just a profound way.”

Seehorn says she and Fabian ordered “a ton of pho from our Vietnamese restaurant,” and invited colleagues over to the house to hold each other up. “We were in shock,” she says. “It was awful. We didn’t know if he was going to make it, even after they got him to the hospital. I barely remember, but I’m sure I had a lot of wine.”

Understandably, Odenkirk doesn’t remember anything from those events, but being reminded of how Seehorn and Fabian were there to help still makes him emotional.

“After hearing all the stories from all the people and hearing what Rhea and Patrick did, kneeling down, Rhea holding my head, Patrick grabbing my hand, them yelling at me to stay here, I mean, it was a massively impactful, devastating scenario that everyone participated in except for me. But having heard it, it sits with you and it will resonate through the rest of my life,” he says. “And our friendship will too.”

It makes what was already going to be an emotional goodbye to “Better Call Saul” and Kim Wexler all the more meaningful for Seehorn.

Starring on, and eventually getting to direct, one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television wasn’t really a career goal for Seehorn while growing up. Deborah Rhea Seehorn was born in Norfolk, Va., but as a kid moved around — Japan, Arizona, Virginia Beach — due to her father’s job in the Naval Investigative Service. She was back full time in Virginia by her teenage years, right around the time she embraced her middle name. (And if you don’t know by now, it’s pronounced “Ray.”)

Rhea Seehorn Variety Cover Story

“I went by Debbie until 13 or 14,” she says. “It’s a perfectly lovely name. But it always felt ‘other’ to me.” As a kid, she gravitated toward older shows on Nick at Nite, as well as more contemporary comedies like “Soap,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later, “The Golden Girls.”

“I remember constantly wondering how some actors can take you on a journey, no matter how outlandish it might be, and other people seemed inauthentic,” she says. “I didn’t understand it was a craft.”

Seehorn avoided her high school’s drama program, a bit too self-conscious about her budding interest in acting. And yet both of her parents (who divorced as she entered her teen years) dabbled in the arts as hobbies: Her mother did musical theater in high school, and her father was a painter and sketch artist.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Seehorn began pursuing painting … and magic. “Being a magician was a big one for a couple of years,” she laughs. “I bought all the kits. And by the way, no, I can’t do a magic trick. Never could. It didn’t stop me from believing that might work though.”

During her freshman year, she took an acting class as an elective and met Lynnie Raybuck, a teacher and actor who remains a mentor. Seehorn was soon gripped with studying acting techniques — and vocabulary like “the new school” or “practical aesthetics.” And no surprise, she was especially drawn to the work itself.

“It was ‘Oh, if you want to put in the hours, and if you want to not go out on Friday night and study harder, then one day, you might get a part at Woolly Mammoth,’” she says, referring to the Washington, D.C., theater company of which she’s still a company member. “I absolutely loved it. What was the given circumstance? What was going on before someone walked into this room? I loved looking at human behavior in that way.”

Seehorn eventually made her way to New York, working at Playwrights Horizons. But after a few years, Hollywood called. She flew to L.A., did a studio test and a network test, and was swiftly cast in the ABC multicamera sitcom “I’m With Her,” starring Teri Polo and loosely based on writer Chris Henchy’s life with wife Brooke Shields. That show didn’t last long, as was the case with other promising pilots and series that didn’t make it: There was “Eva Adams,” a body-switch concept in which Will Arnett’s egomaniacal sports agent somehow lands in Seehorn’s body. Another one, “The Thick of It,” from Mitch Hurwitz and Christopher Guest, was based on the U.K. series.

Other shows managed to last longer: Seehorn recurred as an assistant DA in “Franklin & Bash,” and played Whitney Cummings’ best friend in “Whitney.”

“There’s a lore of Rhea Seehorn,” Cummings says. “If you’re an actress, where it’s like if you’re testing for a TV show, if Rhea’s going in, just don’t go. There’s no point. Like, she’s the one to beat.”

“Whitney” lasted two seasons, and at that point, Seehorn had been thrown into the sitcom bucket by a lot of casting agents. “I was doing a lot of half-hour comedies, and people pigeonhole you,” she says. “I didn’t know that was a thing. I was like, ‘What do you mean I can’t get a drama audition?’”

But Seehorn had been auditioning for years with “Saul” casting directors Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas and Russell Scott. Gilligan and Gould had never seen Seehorn’s work, but these three had. They knew what she could bring to the show.

By now, fans of the “Bad”/“Saul” universe know the origin story of how Rhea Seehorn’s performance as Kim set “Better Call Saul” on its path. Gould and Gilligan had no grand plan for the character, who didn’t even have a last name for a while.

“Auditions are always a little bit fraught, and this was particularly high tension because it was a spinoff and nobody knew exactly what it was going to be,” Gould says. “When she walked in and started interacting with Bob, we all got very quiet. What we saw was something that we just felt — like, these two belong together on the show. That changed the writing of it and I think that really changed our thinking. We started realizing there was a chance with Rhea to create a character who, in her own way, is a little bit of a throwback to the wiseacre heroines of the screwball comedies. She has a Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck quality, from another time. That got us very excited about where we could take this character.”

Rhea Seehorn Variety Cover Story

Seehorn doesn’t have a lot of lines during the early episodes of “Saul,” but she didn’t need to. Her performance as Kim, and that relationship with Jimmy, made the producers decide not to have Odenkirk’s character morph into Saul Goodman as quickly as they originally planned.

Jeff Frost, outgoing president of Sony Pictures Television Studios, marvels at the dimension that she brought to the role. “If you just looked on the page, I’m not sure you would have seen the character that she’s developed it into,” he says. “When Kim starts to get engrossed in the schemes that Jimmy is participating in, you see a part of her personality that you never expected.”

Seehorn watched “Breaking Bad” at least three times, start to finish, to get into the groove for “Saul.” Gilligan and Gould famously don’t map out their stories too far ahead. They enjoy writing themselves into corners and then finding ways to get out of the bind. For Seehorn, that meant, early on, coming up with her own backstory for Kim.

“I thought that she had an alcoholic parent in the pilot,” Seehorn says. “I never told them, and we never talked about it. And then in that Season 5 flashback, you see my mom, and she’s an alcoholic. I was like, aha!”

Seehorn kept forging a path for Kim, but told Gould to let her know if any of her choices contradicted a future plan they had for the character. “They were watching what I was doing. And then that would inspire them to then follow this path,” she says. “I would then read that writing, which would inspire me to go this way. And I think we were feeding off each other.”

But where Kim is subtle and holds her cards close to her chest, Seehorn says any similarity between her and the charater ends with their mutual curiosity in people’s behavior and belief that one can always work harder to get ahead. Seehorn is much more self-deprecating than Kim — she still cringes when watching herself on older episodes of “Saul.”

“People sometimes say to my face, ‘Oh, wow, you’re a lot dorkier than Kim,’” Seehorn says. “I have to get very still when I play Kim. Because I’m not a still person and I express everything on my face. And she is inscrutable for the most part. I would love to have Kim’s ability to not fill silences, her ability to just observe people. I am not as strong, or I’m not even anything close to as confident as she is.”

AMC Networks entertainment president Dan McDermott notes that Kim has come to embody a lot of the themes of the series. “The complexity of morality, the idea of trying to do what’s right even if you’re maybe not getting there in exactly the most ethical way,” he says. “I think Kim Wexler — and Rhea Seehorn — are having their moment right now, and at a really good time. All of us are just going, ‘Wow.’”

Yet we’re also left wondering: Does Kim make it out alive? We know Odenkirk’s character survives “Breaking Bad” into a future of being on the lam and hiding in Omaha — as seen in the “Better Call Saul” flash-forwards. We also know the fates of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who both perished on “Breaking Bad,” which ran from 2008 to 2013.

The “Saul” cast responds in generalities when asked about the characters whose fates are unknown. “You should be worried,” Odenkirk says of Kim, before adding, “You should be worried about Jimmy too.”

But when it comes to finally recognizing Seehorn — including getting the actor her first-ever Emmy nomination — their lips are loose.

“I believe she has been grossly overlooked,” Fabian says. “In terms of just solid, consistent, amazing work, if you’re going to give an Emmy out for something like that, for God’s sake you at least have to nominate Rhea Seehorn. I just don’t see how you can’t.”

Perhaps in a sign that Kim does manage to escape “Better Call Saul” alive, there continue to be rumblings about a Kim Wexler spinoff (although Gilligan appears ready to give the “Breaking Bad” universe a rest for now). Sony and AMC, where Seehorn recently directed, executive produced and starred in the short-form series “Cooper’s Bar,” are vocally eager to keep her in the family.

“I think every writer and producer in Hollywood should be writing Rhea Seehorn projects and trying to get her,” Gould says. “I think everyone who worked on this show is trying to think about how she can be part of whatever their next project is.”

That includes Odenkirk, who already has a part in mind for Seehorn in his upcoming series, “Guru Nation,” a docu-style comedy about cults for Paramount+ starring and created by him and “Mr. Show” buddy David Cross.

“I hope I can get her,” Odenkirk says, for a part that is very un-Kim-like — an “impetuous, uncertain woman who’s scared and easily manipulated.”

Seehorn is choosing her next steps carefully: “I think I would like to direct again, and I’m going to prioritize what my next acting role is.” She says she’s looking at feature films, developing a limited series and reading scripts for regular series.

“I have a lot of trouble when people ask, ‘What genre do you want to do? What don’t you want to do?’ Because my answer is: ‘Really smart writing.’ But they’re like, ‘Do you not want to do sci-fi?’ I don’t know. If it’s ‘Severance,’ yes. If it’s ‘Black Mirror,’ yes. It’s complexity of role, complexity of writing. I would totally do comedy again, for sure. I very much like things that are hard to pin down.”

Styling: Jessica Paster/Uncommon Artists; Makeup: Kayleen McAdams/A-Frame Agency; Hair: Kylee Heath/A-Frame Agency; Look 1 (white dress): Dress: Azzi & Osta; Shoes: Sarah Flint; Look 2 (pink suit): Suit: Saloni