Sound and Silence in AMC's Better Call Saul

The advent of television brought stories with images and sound into our living rooms, and our consumption of media has never been the same. In recent years, however, television has had to compete with laptops, tablets, and phones, making the viewing experience qualitatively different. Dialogue is equated to plot; explosions and gunshots and the sounds of fighting to action. Without these aspects, other screens may draw our attention away. At the same time, shows that push the artistic boundaries have experimented with episodes and storylines that are silent, or have long stretches with very little dialogue (including “Hushon Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or sections of “Fly” on Breaking Bad.

The AMC series Better Call Saul focuses primarily on the titular lawyer (here known as Jimmy McGill), a more or less reformed con man who has turned his talents to the law. His gift is language, and he uses it to manipulate and shape the people around him, however, the show also uses montages with musical accompaniment, and scenes with little or no dialogue, to great effect. The secondary protagonist, Mike Ehrmantraut, is an ex-cop turned reluctant hit man, and his storyline features some of the most powerful scenes, which have little to no dialogue. An absence of dialogue, however, does not mean an absence of sound, or a lack of skillful manipulation.

In season three, in the episode “Sunk Costs,” Mike’s goal is to get a truck stopped at the border between Mexico and New Mexico and searched for drugs. To do this, he uses sound to manipulate the perceptions of the truck’s driver and passenger. This crucial scene plays out without any dialogue in English, and any viewer who equates dialogue to story, whose attention wanders to one of their other screens, will miss out on this part of the plot.  In Theory of the Film, Bela Belaz states, “A silent glance can speak volumes; its soundlessness makes it more expressive because the facial movements of a silent figure may explain the reason for the silence, make us feel its weight, its menace, its tension.” Put another way, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul editor Chris McCaleb states, "I think in the best shows or movies ... it finds the truth in those silences and doesn't bombard you with noise. If you are just getting bombarded, it ceases to mean anything. You stop connecting to it." These scenes with little dialogue require the viewer's full attention -- something that is not easy to capture, but which rewards the viewer many times over on a show like Better Call Saul. Careful observation of this scene demonstrates that as much of a master manipulator as Saul Goodman can be with words, Mike Ehrmantraut is his equal when it comes to sound.

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