by Nicolás Medina Marañón and Miklós Kiss
Our video departs from an interest in the use of the split screen in Vince Gilligan and Peter Goud’s television series Better Call Saul. More specifically, we are interested in the use of the split screen as both a technique featured in the show as well as a hermeneutic tool that can be employed to unveil meaning about the show. In both cases, we argue, the split screen is related to the series’ focus on character development.
We understand the split screen technique as an experiential effect that calls attention to itself and, thus, has the potential to be recognised for specific purposes. For this, we start by focusing on a set of its functions as used in the show, including both traditional functions (compressing action, breaking down action, bridging time gaps, repetition and double framing, stressing contrast and similarity, illustrating stylistic repetition, recursive dialogue) as well as character-related functions (solidifying traits, comparing development of characters’ careers, showing characters drifting apart, strengthening connections between characters, highlighting change in the characters’ relationship, bringing to the fore the cyclicality of the characters’ dynamics) – often with the former functions working in service of the latter.
After making a distinction between three types of splits in the show, namely (a.) actual split screens, (b.) ‘split screen-like’ staging/framing, and (c.) split screens across scenes (‘split scene’), we ultimately aim to analyse two crucial moments in two distant episodes of the show: season 4, episode 10 (‘Winner’ 00:57:20 – 00:59:20); and season 5, episode 10 (‘Something Unforgivable’ 00:55:15 – 00:57:15). Cleverly prompted recursivity through variation, memory-triggering through repeated crosstalk (through dialogue, gestures, and cinematography) across distant scenes, we argue, are key ingredients in this series that essentially revolves around subtle character development.
There are two dimensions to the cyclicality of the crosstalk established between these two scenes. On the one hand, there is a cyclical aspect constructed through stylistic patterning formed by aspects of performance, editing, and cinematography, which makes the relationship between both instances more explicit. On the other hand, there is a recursive dimension to the dialogue established between these two moments. The reciprocal dialogue does not only mimic the dynamics of each scene individually, but, more crucially, it highlights a cyclical aspect of the show’s thematic core – in which the protagonist duo is alternately stunning one another by disclosing their dishonest scheming, advising against further pursuing said scheme, or trying to convince each other into joining their scheme.
Beyond analysing the variety of split screens used in Better Call Saul, our ultimate aim is to demonstrate the hermeneutic potential of the technique in videographic criticism by bringing together distant but key recursive moments (moments of essential connections that viewers, in their original elongated viewing experience, might be missing out on creating), that is, by dismantling the show’s sequential editing into a powerfully revealing synchronous ‘split scene’.
Nicolás Medina Marañón is a member of the film section at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. There he conducts seminars in film analysis, film history, and videographic criticism in the Arts, Culture and Media programme. His research mainly focuses on narrative ambiguity in contemporary cinema analysed from the perspective of cognitive film theory, studying the means through which narrative film engages emotions and cognition to trigger provocative and affecting experiences in the audience. He recently co-authored an article (with Hilde van der Wal and Steven Willemsen) proposing a cognitive narratological approach to the study of the ambiguous-unreliable narration in Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 feature film Burning.
Miklós Kiss is Associate Professor of Audiovisual Arts and Cognition at the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His research focuses on contemporary audiovisual media through intersecting narrative and cognitive approaches. He is co-author of the books Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video (with Thomas van den Berg, Scalar, 2016) and Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema (with Steven Willemsen, Edinburgh University Press, 2017), and co-editor of the volume Puzzling Stories: The Aesthetic Appeal of Cognitive Challenge in Film, Television and Literature (with Steven Willemsen, Berghahn, 2022).