Creating dread and portent with a single image: Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul.jpg

If you know me, you know I injured myself while watching Breaking Bad in a frenzy of suspense and anxiety. I love that show. I think it’s the best television series of all time. Even though it put me in the ER.

Now I’m watching Better Call Saul, the prequel centered on the sleazy, endearing attorney from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman. Like BB, this show is a character study. It’s sharp and blazingly funny and occasionally heartbreaking. It has built its own world, which only occasionally crosses paths with characters from BB. So when it does, it jolts us. As in the image above.

Ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut is being drawn into Albuquerque’s criminal underworld by doing occasional protection jobs for low level criminals. But he’s gotten in deep, and some very bad guys are putting pressure on him. He has resisted, but in this scene, he sees how badly he’s outflanked. He’s watching over his little granddaughter as she splashes in the pool. Then he looks up and sees two tiny figures on a distant rooftop.

Watching at home, all the hairs stood up on my head. Mike has never seen these two before, but the audience has. They’re the Cousins, hitmen who’ll shoot and kill twenty migrant workers in the back of a truck with the same dismissive ease with which they’d discard a gum wrapper. With their shaved heads, richly colored suits, their cowboy boots with silver skulls on the toes, they personify casual, hungry evil. We first see them in Breaking Bad, crawling on their bellies across a Mexican desert to the shrine of some dark, twisted saint, where they pray for divine help to kill Heisenberg.

When they appear — tiny, motionless, like toy plastic Army Men set on the roof — dread falls heavily over the scene. In the bright sunlight, positioned before the spire of Albuquerque’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, they’re like demons summoned from the Beyond.

That’s because this scene is an example of Dramatic Irony. In literary terms, dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows events before they happen. We know what awaits all these characters, years in the future. They don’t. Because of that, we watch — riveted — not because we’re curious about what’s going to happen, but in dread of the disaster that lies ahead, and with compassion for somebody who’s heading for a cliff.

The writers handle this brilliantly. This scene — minimalist and foreboding — weaves together plot threads that go back, and forward, for years. It amplifies and deepens them. If any of us can approach this level of impact with our own writing, we’ll be lucky.

When this image appeared on my TV screen, I shouted, “Oh, my God.” But this time I didn’t wave my hands wildly and stab myself in the eye. I know what’s coming. I can wait.

One response to “Creating dread and portent with a single image: Better Call Saul

  1. Totally agree. BB one of the best shows ever on TV, and Better Call Saul is standing proudly next to it.

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