Better Call Saul: Art of the Montage

Like Breaking Bad before it (but better in almost every way – fight me), Better Call Saul loves an out-of-context cold open, a seemingly inconsequential detail or character beat which will come around in a few episodes or seasons, and a long montage.

In fact, like this groundbreaker before it, Better Call Saul brings us montages at their most exquisite. Sometimes it serves to add stylisation to the story, sometimes it serves to compress time or amp up tension, often it serves to drive home exactly how methodical and patient or irrational and dangerous a character is, sometimes it merely exists to be admired.

Let’s talk about these ways.

[As for links vs not-links, I linked all the samples / video breakdowns I could readily find, IE were on YouTube. Everything else, you’re on your own, but I tried to name episodes. Stan is streaming BCS in Australia, which is where I did most of my rewatching, and I think in the US AMC and Netflix have it.]

Stylisation 

Like everything from depth of field to framing, montage elements and style can inform the audience about the dramatic irony of a situation, a character’s state of mind, passage of time, etc. Exaggerated or specific types of stylisation are often used to suggest another time period or genre (IE there’s a ‘type’ of 80s montage which feels very Ferris Beuller’s Day Off) or poke fun at a style now seen as dated, gauche, or absurd (as BCS nods to with “he’d never seen so many star-wipes!”)

BCS’s hyperstylised montages are often tied to a con, whether heightened with crossfades, colour, and floating graphics [below] when Jimmy and his old mate Marco run scams in dive bars, or continually showing tequila receipts between the merriment as Jimmy and Kim swindle a rich arsehat in 2.01 “Switch”.

The former evokes seedy joints, inherent vice, low-rent grifters and the movies which romanticise them. The latter is more clinical, reminiscent of legal transactions and the sort of clerical paperwork Jimmy and Kim would have to file HHM, but still has the overlapping and intercutting with talk and drinking which get you into the excitement Kim feels at running the con.

Time and Tension

After painstakingly filling identical capsules, Nacho practices dropping a pill bottle into a dangling jacket pocket. Back to back, the sequences drive across how he is willing to do the meticulous, boring, mundane work like Mike, but also take big risks with high stakes. The repetitive sequence where he mostly misses shows-not-tells us what he’s going to try to do as well as demonstrates how difficult the manoeuvre is, and these expectations enable one of the most tense, suspenseful will-he-or-won’t-he-pull-this-off scenes in recent memory in “Slip.” 

Back in the ‘getting across mundanity with humour’ column, we see Jimmy calling his clients after he is disbarred. As discussed in the Better Call Saul Insider podcast for 3.06 “Off Brand”, the same end technically could have been achieved by showing a long list of names, having Jimmy make one phone call, cross off the last name, sigh, and call out “Francesca, I’m done!” But it wouldn’t have the same effect; with the montage, we feel how long this must have gone for him, and it shows how he can put in the work when he really has to.

That sequence is similar to Kim calling around to get a leg up [that’s the montage, and this a video breakdown of it].Yes, BCS did TWO montages of lawyers calling their clients on the phone, which sounds boring, but both are different, funny, visually interesting, layered with symbolism, and serve the story.

Last, though technically not a montage, BCS will take time across episodes to rejoin a character at various stages of a project such as painting their new law office or going through a predetermined number of bankers boxes of files, to let the audience know how things are painstakingly progressing.

Mike’s Montages

Many of the show’s best silent sequences involve Mike; these are often more evenly paced than something like Kim’s routine, and generally not crossfaded like Jimmy’s schemes or Nacho’s desperate plans. Sometimes passage of time is shown with a growing pile of pistachio shells, but often we get what feels like every move he makes, starting with a truly excellent break-in sequence in Season 1, which introduces us to the methods of this man we know to be an accomplished criminal. Better Call Saul needs to impress on us not just how accomplished Mike is, but why, and showing-not-telling his methods does just that. The show continues to show us how precise he is as he tracks a target over multiple sequences a la 3.02 “Cobber” and auditioning architects for the bunker in “Quite a Ride.”

The shoes over telephone wire is perhaps the most famous, and it hits all the Better Call Saul specialties from the opening paragraph: a montaged, contextless open, which ties into a long prior oner-which-feels-montage-esque of a truck being searched, and which pays off later in a massive way.

Mike’s dismantling of his car to find a tracking device shows his patient methods, which BCS compares and contrasts with those of Jimmy, and also Chuck. Consider the way Chuck’s increasingly frenetic tearing apart of his house to find electric current in “Lantern”. Both men are getting frustrated, but only one is letting it affect his search patterns and become destructive. Mike’s evenly paced sequence ends in him calmly abandoning his car. Chuck’s ever-quickening emotional maelstrom in an outraged destruction of his house and then himself, the montage serving as final depiction of his mental breakdown and an outward manifestation of whatever you consider his condition to be.

Mike and Werner’s crew building a cave in “Something Stupid” is fantastic in itself, and also reminiscent of those 12 perfect, silent minutes digging up a grave in The Americans‘s “Amber Waves”.

For Their Own Sake

Making Cinnabons is the most pertinent example; every season we have a beautiful black-and-white flash-forward to our hero slaving away in a mall food court, including a sumptuous cinnamon-roll-making sequence. Do we really need this to get an idea of how Jimmy’s life is going? Well . . . yeah. This is a show which can take Kim’s morning routine and not only make it zip, but build a picture which comes into play later as she digs herself a hole of overwork, exhaustion, and sameness. The show builds the lives of its characters – the routine and prosaic as well as the irregular and terrifying – through montage. So showing Jimmy’s future in montage makes perfect sense.

It’s also so damned pretty to look at.

Montage which are ‘shortcuts’ or pure stylisation can still add up to something more when used for the same thing over time. For example, we see multiple mini-montages of people going to visit Chuck; shooting these sequences gives a ritualistic, almost religious feel to the way people, particularly Jimmy and Howard, have to strip away parts of the modern world before approaching Chuck in his home, and the constant repetition does indeed feel like genuflecting every Sunday, over time.

Similarly, we see Gus repeatedly cleaning El Pollos Hermanos; Jimmy cutting up and photocopying paperwork (“Fifi”) and running his cell phone scam (“Piñata”, “Quite a Ride”), various drudges and underlings making drops and practicing law.

Last but not least, we have Jimmy-into-Saul in “Inflatable” (clip not online, but there’s a great comparison of this montage to the above Kim-makes-phone-calls here). The colours of his shirts, the way the pacing gets across his determination and (along with Odenkirk’s physical acting) brings in the Saul dynamic. With no exposition needed, we know he’s back, baby.

Stray Observations

Another video breakdown of BCS’s use of montages. 

– Obviously I didn’t hit them all, nor did I delve into the music choices and how that worked with the editing, because I’d be here all year, but I’d love to do a more thorough breakdown of one or two montages in the future. Feel free to drop your favourite in the comments and say a bit about why you love it!

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