This past Sunday, still mourning the loss of Breaking Bad for another year, I attempting to fill the awful, gaping void by finally catching up with Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It proved to be a damn good choice, not just because it’s a terrific movie, but also because it shares in common with Breaking Bad one of the aspects I love the most about the series: it demands your undivided attention by providing a ton of information visually.
Sometimes when I watch a movie with a group of friends, they’ll get on my case for insisting that everyone, you know, watch the movie – not check their phones, or carry on a conversation, or make some food in the kitchen while assuring that they’re “still listening to it.” It’s not that I’m a cruel taskmaster (well…not so much that), and sure, some movies (or TV shows) can be viewed passively and you won’t miss a thing. But when it comes to the movies and TV shows that actually use the unique nature of their mediums to do more showing than telling, I’d rather not even put them on if some people in the room aren’t going to surrender to them – because in that case, they’re missing the whole damn point.
And Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Breaking Bad are two of the best examples, because they don’t just require your attention, they gainfully reward it. And yes, consider this your warning that tons of spoilers for both follow.
With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I confess that even while giving it my undivided attention I often felt adrift. I haven’t read John le Carré’s novel, and the film’s byzantine plot of double (and maybe triple) agents and the spies tasked with unmasking them coils around itself, folding and overlapping, in an Escher-like way that’s often reflected in the way Alfredson shoots certain interiors (see above).
But what I’m more interested in considering here is how much information is provided visually. Consider, for starters, this tiny detail:
The first time we see George Smiley entering his home, we see him remove some kind of notch from his doorway…but we’re not told why, or what exactly it is, and it’s glanced over quickly. It’s left up to the viewer to figure out what significance it has, and we either intuit on our own that its purpose is to know for sure no one’s been in his house while he was gone (if the door was opened, the notch would fall), or we don’t.
OK, not a big deal – a cool detail, an example of how careful and methodical Smiley is, and a little fun for us if we picked up on its function. But the detail comes back over an hour into the movie. When Smiley returns to his home after some time operating out of a hotel…he notices the notch is missing. He enters the house cautiously, because he knows someone’s inside – and because the notch was previously (if vaguely) established, so do we. We didn’t have to be told it, and it didn’t have to be hammered home to us, and both of those facts make the quiet, tense scene all the more exciting – and rewarding.
I also, by the way, love another visual detail that follows in this scene: Smiley, still on guard, enters his dining room, and we see a man descending the stairs behind him. But once Smiley sees a knife on his dining table, it has the counter-intuitive effect of making him relax – he now knows it’s Ricki Tarr, a fellow MI6 agent and a man who (we obliquely learn) Smiley apparently served as something of a mentor to. Again, the knife detail isn’t spelled out (“I knew it was you – I saw the knife,” or some such clunky exposition). It’s only explained when we later see Ricki pulling out the same knife in a flashback, and presume that Smiley – having known Ricki for a while – is familiar with his weapon of choice:
And it’s exactly these kinds of “visual tells” that Breaking Bad has excelled at throughout its entire run, making it the most visually entertaining show on television. Even its AMC sibling Mad Men (a show I enjoy slightly more overall) doesn’t match it in terms of audacious, detailed, and exhilarating visual storytelling. But again, it’s the sort of thing that requires your attention to appreciate.
A great example comes from the latest mid-season finale (and again, SPOILER WARNING if you’re not all caught up with Breaking Bad). It ends with the revelation of Hank finally, finally discovering Walt is Heisenberg, a shocking discovery made in the most undignified way possible: happening upon a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” given to Walt by a former meth cooking assistant, while sitting on the crapper in Walt’s home (quoth Homer Simpson: “Let’s just say, I’m sitting in the right chair“).
But this was not the first time the book shows up in the episode: Probably you noticed (although it was easy not to) that the book was established literally in the second shot after the title screen, as Walt reaches for a towel after a shower:
Did you need to notice the book in this early shot in order to understand or appreciate the twist at the end? No – and that’s why I like it so much. It’s these kinds of details, even when they’re not necessary, that makes the show a joy to watch.
One of my favorite examples of Breaking Bad’s “show, don’t tell” tendency is one of the earliest, from the third episode: After seemingly having a heart-to-heart with the imprisoned drug dealer Krazy-8, who’s locked to a post in the basement of Jesse’s (deceased grandma’s) home, Walt’s ready to let him go rather than become a murderer…until he goes upstairs to throw out the shattered pieces of the plate he broke earlier when taking a sandwich to Krazy-8. Out of some kind of self-defense impulse, it occurs to Walt to reassemble the shards of the plate before tossing them…and he doesn’t like what he finds:
And just like that, rather than plainly spelling out Krazy-8 is secretly holding onto this makeshift weapon (say, maybe a shot of him down in the basement, slyly tucking away the missing dagger-like shard into his shirt sleeve), we’re allowed to figure it all out right along with Walt. As he cries, “No…No! Don’t do this,” we’re right there with him – it’s clear his only choice now (other than, you know, surrendering to the police) is to murder Krazy-8 before Krazy-8 murders him.
I still remember that this shot was the moment I knew I would love this series. It was an early statement that this will be a show that demands active viewing, and rewards it. You know that everything you see, even (or especially) when it seems out-of-place or random, is there for a reason, and it’s a trust that creator Vince Gilligan and his crew never betray. And five seasons later, you’ve been trained to know that a simple insert of a gun in a bag means we’ll be seeing much more of that gun in the scenes to come (poor Mike never saw it coming).
I don’t intend to come off at all as a snob here. My point isn’t to belittle other people’s viewing habits or movie/TV choices – it’s simply to explain and herald my own. In a recent piece on Vulture, TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz looked at the way the best dramas of recent years turn viewers into “therapists” – inviting us to attempt to intuit, on our own, a character’s motives without the shows spelling things out for us. I suppose you could consider this a look at the way great direction can also turn viewers into detectives – picking up clues, keeping them in mind even when they’re (deliberately) for the moment left inexplicable, and trying to piece them together as the film/episode pulls us along.
I watch and enjoy so-called “mindless” entertainment as much as the next person, and if that’s all someone wants to watch, well, to each their own. But for me, that’d be the viewing equivalent of rabbit starvation. There’s just nothing better than starting a movie or TV show and realizing it’ll demand that you be an active participant in its entertainment.