The unique problem for television as a medium is that it has so much space to fill. A typical series is at least 10 hour-long episodes. By my math — I’ve worked it out on the back of this Talking Dead transcript — that’s ten hours of television. Ten hours of me sitting, watching, listening, presumably being entertained. Ten hours of storytelling. But the average script simply doesn’t have ten hours of storytelling. So the average television show fills out those ten hours with padding. I can think of very few TV series that wouldn’t be better off trimmed of their fat and compressed into movie-length features.
But then there’s Better Call Saul.
The brilliance of Better Call Saul is how it exists in moments that would be padding in other TV shows. It doesn’t just include mundane moments; it’s about those mundane moments. This season’s premiere featured Rhea Seehorn’s fastidious career lawyer agonizing over whether to use a semicolon, a period, or a pair of em dashes. It featured Jonathan Banks’ weary retiree draining the charge from a AA battery. And these aren’t even the titular characters. As Saul, who isn’t even named Saul yet, Bob Odenkirk mostly mopes, quietly, between outbreaks of desperate bluster.
Better Call Saul doesn’t twist very often, partly because we’re never going to be surprised by where it ends up. As with Breaking Bad, every opening scene reminds us that everything we’re about to see has already been resolved. But unlike Breaking Bad, which could surprise us by dropping airplanes out of the sky, we know exactly where Better Call Saul will end up. We know who lives and dies. We know who will drop out of the picture.
But it also avoids twists and turns because it doesn’t need them. It is to TV what arthouse movies are to Hollywood. It can afford to exist — even languish — in the negative space between plot developments, as dramatically arid as its New Mexican vistas. So why is such a morose show so captivating? This week’s episode is a perfect demonstration of two reasons.
The first is the cast. And not just the principals, including Michael McKean (like Odenkirk, he’s a comic actor adroitly playing a serious character), Patrick Fabian (his snake oil charm is the fulcrum of the underrated Last Exorcism), and Giancarlo Esposito (Finally! Was there ever any mystery about who wrote the “Don’t” note?). Better Call Saul is a meticulously cast series all the way down through its smaller roles. The wonderfully awkward Brandon Hampton as Earnesto, the oily Peter Diseth as Jimmy’s courtroom rival, and Tina Parker’s throwaway receptionist role from Breaking Bad now serving as a sort of bewildered child caught in the middle of an unravelling (?) marriage. I hope the series continues to develop, or at least include, these characters. I even hope to see more Molly Hagan (Matthew Broderick’s wife from Election) as a judge. This week’s most pleasant surprise was Kimberly Herbert Gregory as Chuck’s lawyer. You’d never know from her single quiet scene in McKean’s underlit study that she was a wildly dynamic exploding powderkeg in HBO’s Vice Principals.
The second reason this show is so captivating, and another example of its use of negative space, is how it’s shot. These stills from this week’s episode need no comment:
Even the composition is captivating. For example, here are three shots specifically framed to express the relationships among the characters in physical space:
Better Call Saul airs Mondays on AMC.