What Made Better Call Saul a Master Class in Visual Storytelling: A Video Essay

A decade ago, nobody inter­est­ed in pres­tige dra­mat­ic tele­vi­sion could have ignored Break­ing Bad, Vince Gilli­gan’s AMC series about a down­trod­den high-school chem­istry teacher who becomes a cal­cu­lat­ing and sav­age crys­tal-meth deal­er. Such was the crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess of the show that, less than two years after it end­ed, it was resumed in the form of Bet­ter Call Saul. The title char­ac­ter Saul Good­man had been the afore­men­tioned teacher-turned-deal­er’s lawyer in Break­ing Bad, and the lat­er series, a pre­quel, traces the half-decade jour­ney that brought him to that point: a jour­ney that began when he was a Chica­go con man named Jim­my McGill.

Bet­ter Call Saul’s six-sea­son run (one episode longer than Break­ing Bad) came to an end this week. Dur­ing that time, the show has received even stronger acco­lades than the one that spun it off. To get a sense of what makes it such an achieve­ment in a field crowd­ed with some of the most ambi­tious cre­ators of pop­u­lar cul­ture today, watch the video essay above by Youtu­ber Thomas Flight.

Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured his visu­al analy­ses of auteurs like Wes Ander­son and Bong Joon-ho as well as shows like The Wire and Cher­nobyl. Five years ago, he uploaded a video explain­ing “why Bet­ter Call Saul is bril­liant”; now he argues that it’s a “mas­ter class in visu­al sto­ry­telling.”

“ ‘Show, don’t tell’ is such com­mon advice in film­mak­ing and screen­writ­ing that it’s basi­cal­ly a cliché at this point,” says Flight, “but it’s also much eas­i­er said than done.” He goes on to draw from Bet­ter Call Saul a host of prime exam­ples of show­ing-not-telling, orga­nized into four cat­e­gories of its spe­cial strengths: “props as sym­bol­ic objects,” “visu­al per­for­mances,” “char­ac­ters in process,” and “sto­ry­telling with cin­e­matog­ra­phy.” Bet­ter Call Saul’s cre­ators make rich use of objects, ges­tures, expres­sions, places, angles, and much else besides to tell — or rather, show — the sto­ry of Jimmy/Saul’s trans­for­ma­tion, as well as the trans­for­ma­tions of those around him. But which of those char­ac­ters will star in Gilli­gan’s next, sure­ly even more ambi­tious series?

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Break­ing Bad Craft­ed the Per­fect TV Pilot: A Video Essay

Watch the Pilot of Break­ing Bad with a Chem­istry Pro­fes­sor: How Sound Was the Sci­ence?

The Sci­ence of Break­ing Bad: Pro­fes­sor Don­na Nel­son Explains How the Show Gets it Right

Watch the Orig­i­nal Audi­tion Tapes for Break­ing Bad Before the Final Sea­son Debuts

Break­ing Bad Illus­trat­ed by Gonzo Artist Ralph Stead­man

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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