Television is about to change forever.
As difficult as it is to believe we’ve reached this point, the series finale of Better Call Saul is slated to air August 15. This means that otherwise ordinary Monday in late summer also marks the end of the Breaking Bad Extended Universe as we know it. For the first time since the George W. Bush administration (!) TV is going to be without the clever, suspenseful, and groundbreaking world dreamt up by series creator Vince Gilligan.
If they haven’t already been published, the retrospectives are coming. The full episodic rankings are in the works. The think pieces about morality and tragedy are being polished for publication. And no doubt, all of it is a worthy use of internet space. The two shows shaped the most recent Golden Age of television, helping to usher in and then sustain the era of Peak TV. When it’s over and we look back at the pop culture-defining programs, we’ll likely remember different things. Some will recall Breaking Bad’s slow climb to the top of the TV mountain that mirrored Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) own terrifying and ruthless rise; some will remember the devastating tragedy of Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) devolution into sleazy Saul Goodman; and others still might ruminate on the peaks and valleys of Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) personal journey or Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) heartbreaking monologue about the death of his son.
But while Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul proved to be equally competent in their ability to tell tense, transformational tales and feature career-defining performances, they are unified in other ways, too. Notably, they’re linked by a use of striking visuals and filmmaking techniques, whether it is expert blocking and lighting, skillful deployment of color (or lack thereof), frequent use of unexpected points of view, or the use of montages to both speed up and slow down storytelling. Perhaps more than any other shows in recent memory, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are as much about the way things look and are perceived as they are about the narrative unfolding.
This dedication to visual storytelling is evident from the very beginning, as the montages are present at the starting line. In the pilot of Breaking Bad, the familiar technique of editing together many relatively short shots is used to depict Walt and Jesse’s first cook in the RV. There was no way for us to know it then, but we were witnessing the birth of one of the creative hallmarks of the show and, eventually, the franchise. Over the years, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul would return to this technique again and again, using the often (but not always) dialogue-less sequences to deliver essential information and context. But not all the montages were created equal, or even served the same purpose.
The montage in Breaking Bad’s iconic Season 2 episode “4 Days Out” reveals how far Walt and Jesse have come since the pilot, now working in comfortable harmony to craft their product during a marathon cook session in the desert. They are efficient. Everything is precise and measured. They are a well-oiled machine. But they’re also still Walt and Jesse, as evidenced by a quick moment of a silhouetted Walt trying one of Jesse’s Funyuns before disgustedly throwing it out. Compare this montage to the party sequence in Season 4’s “Thirty-Eight Snub” that gives us a glimpse into a despaired Jesse’s damaged psyche in the wake of killing Gale (David Costabile) that uses blurred, frantic visuals to parallel his mental state. And then there is the often GIFd, humorous montage of Jesse goofing off while waiting for Walt in the lab in Season 3’s “I See You.” These are all very different montages, but they offer context into these characters and where they are in their lives at any given time, sometimes breaking up the dramatic tension that came to define the show.
But while the montage was present and used often in Breaking Bad, one can argue that it wasn’t until Better Call Saul that the creative team truly honed its craft. The prequel spinoff co-created by Gilligan and Peter Gould often uses the technique to reveal intricate processes, to build layer upon layer of information in order to show the work that goes into getting things done, or how people get from point A to point B, be it physically, emotionally, or mentally.
For example, in Season 1’s “Mijo,” we witness Jimmy going through the repetitive motions as a public defender. Slipping into this role every day is like putting on a constrictive costume for a show that isn’t enjoyable, and it slowly wears on Jimmy, paving the way for him to eventually give it up for a life that’s firmly outside the lines. But if this montage depicts Jimmy slowly (but quickly) being worn down, the montage in Season 2’s “Inflatable” sees him in his element. It depicts his sophomoric attempt to get fired from Davis & Main. This means the introduction of colorful, garish outfits that clash with the buttoned-up office environment, playing the bagpipes, and even repeatedly not flushing the toilet at work. Throughout the four-plus minute sequence, we’re also treated to shots of an inflatable tube man, or airdancer, that mimic Jimmy’s flashy suits and erratic behavior, all the while using picture-in-picture editing to add flair and style.
While the repetitive sequences in “Mijo” and “Inflatable” show us an escalation in events, they also reveal Jimmy’s mental state and priorities. But he’s not the only subject of the show’s many montages. In Season 2’s “Rebecca,” we’re treated to a similar, but more structured montage that depicts Kim cold-calling acquaintances from numbers written on colorful Post-Its while doing her thankless job late into the evening, all in an attempt to escape HHM. She’s diligent in her attempt to create a new opportunity for herself, refusing to give up or settle no matter how many times she strikes out.
Elsewhere, in Season 3’s “Mabel,” Mike wordessly and obsessively takes apart his car in search of a tracking device he doesn’t just suspect, but knows has been planted. It’s the show treating us to Mike’s intricate process, effectively revealing why he is so good at what he does without the need for any kind of verbal explanation (a wise choice for a man of few words). It’s also a perfect example of the show’s unique ability to create engaging sequences out of the seemingly mundane. Gilligan and Gould long ago realized there is something inherently fascinating about watching someone competent do their job, or even learning how plans come together, and they deploy this type of visual storytelling as often as they can, often to great effect.
It’s not just about the narrative or even the action depicted on-screen, though. It’s also about how it’s filmed and edited together. In Season 4’s “Something Stupid,” Jimmy and Kim are shown in split-screen, a powerful visual representation of their diverging paths over a period of several months. Initially shown together and occasionally crossing over into the other’s frame, the two slowly drift apart as Jimmy embarks on his new venture selling phones in the wake of losing his law license while Kim’s career takes off at Schweikart & Cokely. Like the montage in “Inflatable” (and so many others), the sequence—which is paired with Lola Marsh’s cover of the track that doubles as the episode’s title—also lasts several minutes, contradicting the conventional belief that montages are meant to be relatively short as they deliver a lot of context in a condensed time frame.
While plenty of TV shows and movies are more than content with telling viewers something, Better Call Saul blissfully would rather show us, and the results are dramatic, memorable works of art. They sometimes even reveal answers to questions we don’t even know we have until much later. The show’s creative team has mastered slowly building montages for reasons that don’t become clear until much later, whether it’s Mike attempting to throw a pair of shoes onto a power line, Jimmy forging numbers on a document, or Mike searching Nacho’s (Michael Mando) house and breaking into his safe. These are sequences the contents of which only really make sense once we know the bigger picture, and the steady, frequent deployment of them over many years of making television means they’re flawless and their eventual payoffs exquisite.
It’s a type of dedicated, measured filmmaking that trusts viewers to not just understand there is more coming, but that they’ll respond to the images they see. While so many of us are using multiple screens at once, Better Call Saul still demands one’s full attention in order to not just know what’s going on, but also to get the artists’ intended effect. This arguably cannot be said about many shows in 2022. So while Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul will both be remembered for the morally challenged men at their centers and the complex stories told, they should be revered for the ways in which they successfully challenged TV norms and storytelling techniques while taking their signature creative visuals to the next level. With the slow, inevitable decline from the peak era of prestige TV, there’s a good chance we won’t see anything like them ever again.
Kaitlin Thomas is a journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Polygon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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