Shhhh! The silent edition.
Usually, television and film are all about the “tell” and not so much about the “show.” Showing without explanation requires the audience to focus on the scene and (heaven forbid!) figure things out independently. Gilligan and company understand that - it's one of the many elements that make Breaking Bad a show you have to watch as opposed to one that you simply turn on while you putter about the house.
This week, I want to talk about not talking. Our everyday lives tend to be noisy, filled with street noise, the buzz of copier machines, the “ding!” to alert us that a tweet or e-mail has arrived, ringtones, and of course human conversation. However, studies show that the amount of emotional content we pick up nonverbally (through expression, tone of voice, posture, etc.) to be as high as 90%. If you’ve ever been involved in some minor escapade or another and been caught (say, by your mom or a teacher), you probably had a moment of thinking, “Uh-oh. It’s that look.” You’re in trouble and you can probably calculate fairly closely just how much trouble you’re in. That is the essence of nonverbal communication.
Just three examples to illustrate. I’ll try to stay spoiler-free, but know the first two come from Season 3 and the last one is from the first episode of Season 4. If you haven’t watched to that point, just stop now, okay?
SKYLER from the very end of Season 3, Episode 3 (“I.F.T.”). Skyler has taken a desperate road in her effort to get Walt to leave the house. Walt is in fine fettle, trusting that his efforts to manipulate the situation are causing things to break his way – she cares too much about the family to cause a scene in front of their son and his friend, whom Walt has cannily invited to stay for dinner. (“Look honey, I made pot roast instead of meth!”) Just watch her as Walt prattles on. There’s a monologue of frustration, disgust, and revenge in her face here, which gives her line that much more power when she delivers it. And now it's time for salad!
THE COUSINS from pretty much any episode in the first half of Season 3. Both are trained and ruthless killers and neither of them talk much. In fact, it’s Episode 6 (“Sunset”) before we hear a word from either of them. Silence can make a scene heavy with meaning and the meaning is often threatening or menacing. Think of seeing people meet each other at an airport – the ones who are happy squeal, stretch out their arms, and dash towards each other. The ones who just glumly stare at each other – well, that car is going to host a different conversation on the way home. From the cold open of the first episode of Season 3 (“No Mas” [which was directed by Bryan Cranston who plays Walter White]), something very, very creepy is going on here – and we don’t need dialogue to tell us that.
GUS from Season 4, Episode 1 (“Box Cutter”). To be fair, I could’ve picked nearly any scene with Gus. I find the casting of Giancarlo Esposito in this role to be downright inspired – he can do so much by staying so very, very still. Gus is a very dangerous man wearing a very pleasant face and that fools many people who interact with him. (I doubt his Los Pollos managers think of him as a particularly harsh boss, although he is very meticulous about how he wants even minor tasks done, for example.) To borrow an old phrase, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And at the end of this episode, he doesn’t have to say a word to get his point across. Also note the difference in Walt and Jesse’s reactions to what Gus does – it says a lot about the changing relationship between all three characters.
There's much more - Hector Salamanca's "bell of doom" comes to mind, which communicates so much without words - but it's a start!