Though most other premium cable viewers have spent the last few days gushing about the twist that closed out Dexter, I want to take a few minutes and discuss a trope used in the final minutes of Californication's season finale.
As viewers of that episode know, the closing scenes of that episode featured Hank Moody telling his soulmate/mother of his child Karen a MAJOR secret that had been building up over the last few seasons. It couldn't have come at a worse time, as the two had finally worked through their differences and were preparing to move back to New York with their daughter. To say Karen didn't take it well would be an understatement. She starts shouting at him, practically breaking down. Then it gets worse for Hank as he goes outside only to run afoul of the cops, who are looking for him thanks to a fight he got into earlier. Hank, in no mood for this, decks one of the cops and is hauled off in handcuffs as his daughter cries.
What I found interesting about this scene is the decision not to let the audience hear either Hank's confession or Karen's reaction. As he starts to talk, a remixed "Rocket Man" comes up on the soundtrack and plays under all remaining action in the episode. Though there are a few phrases that can clearly be read on Karen's lips, the intent is that the audience isn't privy to the full conversation.
It's a trick I've seen other places, and it's been used to good effect here. While some might see it as a cop-out that the writer's didn't fully pen Hank's confession, I think they made a smart choice. It's a device that's useful when the audience's imagination is far more powerful than any dialogue the writer could craft.
The first time I saw this technique used was in an episode of ER called "Love's Labor Lost," the famous episode when Dr. Greene spends the whole show trying to save a pregnant woman, only to lose her on the table. Earlier in the show, the baby had been delivered and the father went to the maternity ward to check on him. After the mother dies, we cut to the father rocking his son, smiling, still clearly unaware of the tragedy. The shot is framed through the glass of the door, from outside the room. Greene enters, and that's where the shot stays - behind the glass. Green has his back to us and is at some distance, and since "we" are outside the room, we can't hear what he says. We don't know exactly how he breaks the news to the father, we don't know how he attempt to console him. All we see is the father react, his head turned skyward in shock.
The scene had stronger tension for not being able to hear Greene. We already know the bad news, and the direction has forced us to watch from a distance, almost voyeuristically. It's more creative and probably more effective.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer also used this technique at least twice, both in scenes involving characters being told that other characters had been killed. (In case you're interested, the episodes are called "Passion" and "The Body.") Another reason this is probably a wise move is that it keeps the emotional moments from becoming to overwrought and unbearable. We're spared the anguished hysterical cries of grief. Our mind fills in the blanks without subjecting us to the uncomfortable sounds of a teenage girl breaking down as she hears her mother has died.
Never forget the power of silence. Sometimes you need to cut yourself off from the crutch of dialogue. To give a Yogi Berra-like bit of advice, if the scene is emotional, don't be afraid to let emotion carry the scene.
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