Readers Write In #460: The Isolating Soundscape of Better Call Saul.

Posted on April 25, 2022

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By Kartik Iyer

The final season of Better Call Saul has begun. Over the course of the last five-six years, it has provided viewers with riveting drama and exciting storylines. People have stayed with the show for its characters. The writing of the show is exceptional. The plots are engaging. No loose ends stick out. Characters have fulfilling and convincing arcs. Their struggles are thoroughly fleshed out, examining actions and consequences minutely. Most importantly, the process of deciding how to act is the core of the show; like its predecessor, Breaking Bad.

The show rests on its details. The shooting of the show emphasizes it. The extreme close-ups of objects, shallow depth-of-field, sharp focus, and the way a frame lingers of characters. There is one more crucial element, apart from the writing and shooting that makes Better Call Saul stand apart. It is its phenomenal sound.

Carefully calibrated aural structures elevate the effect of the story and camera in the show. Tiny movements, light to heavy sighs, drops, breezes, crickets, creaking doors. Anything significant has aural representation. The most important one being ambience.

The city of Albuquerque in Better Call Saul is awfully quiet. Characters seem isolated in locations where there is no activity. They are caught in a void. They inhabit busy spaces: whether it is a salon or an office, a housing complex or a parking lot, there always seems to be a cloud of alienation hanging over their heads. It is an effect of sound.

All shows have sound, but it is not as detailed as Better Call Saul. For two reasons. It serves a thematic and a dramatic purpose. The thematic purpose is present in the show’s writing. Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman are two personalities. Two behaviours and attitudes that rest within a single individual. Jimmy is fighting a battle with himself. He is all alone in that. It is a conflict with self, one where he must face consequences for his actions. How to act? What to do? These are questions that nobody can answer for him. In the real world, we face these doubts alone. Nobody can help us. Like viewers watching Jimmy on the screen, we can only empathize. We feel this helplessness while Jimmy feels isolation. Deserted in a land of moral ambiguity, trying to tow the line between bad and evil.

Aurally, this atmosphere is conveyed by isolating Jimmy, and other characters who all face similar circumstances, in a vacuum. There is a strong foundation of a pervading ‘silence’ in the show. This ‘silence’ is the feeling of being hung in the air. When there is tension, there is increased sensitivity. Sounds around us seem loud. A classic example of this is in suspense movies. The creaking of a door is awfully loud when something dangerous is expected to come out of it. The world of Jimmy is one where one small choice can have dire results. He is walking a quagmire of dangerous consequences; avoid one, face another. In such a morally tense world, the sound conveys the thematic alienation and isolation the characters experience.

Dramatically, it increases the intensity of each scene. Sound helps elevate the tension the characters feel. Music apart, the gulps that Jimmy is so prone to taking, the change in his voice when he’s scheming someone as compared to him being genuine, the sound of Chuck’s silver sheets, etc. reflect the detail-oriented approach of the writing and the shooting. Without an exceptionally detailed sound, the visuals will feel impotent. Will we ever forget the sound of Mike’s grumps or grunts or Gus’s measured words? The sound conveys the sharpness of the show’s world. A slip of tongue can mean a slit of throat. They are walking on a razor’s edge. Everything seems crucial. Details matter.