The Directors Who Make Television Cinematic

Six scenes from Emmy-nominated shows that demonstrate how the golden age of TV isn't just about dialogue
Vince Gilligan directs Bryan Cranston in Season 1 of Breaking Bad. (AMC Networks)

The prevailing sentiment is that TV is a writer’s medium, and film is a director’s medium. And indeed, from The Sopranos to The Wire to Breaking Bad to True Detective, the last decade or two of television has been inundated with excellent writing. But that doesn’t mean TV can’t be a director’s medium, too—many “golden age” shows have also had fantastic directing. In fact, many respected movie directors are taking notice and flocking to the small screen.

Directing a 40- to 60-minute TV episode might, on the surface, seem limiting for directors. But the time constraints can sometimes actually free them up to be more creative (and it should be noted, most directors are aided by equally skilled cinematographers). Watching some of the most famous scenes from this year’s Emmy nominees for outstanding directing for a drama series prove that TV isn’t just a writer’s medium:

(Spoilers ahead)

Boardwalk Empire, “Farewell Daddy Blues”

Tim Van Patten

Veteran director Tim Van Patten, who has worked on eight different HBO shows, ended the latest season of Boardwalk Empire with this exquisitely arranged dream sequence. The shot of Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) walking towards the cabin is gorgeous—like he’s stepping directly into a painting.

Breaking Bad, “Felina”

Vince Gilligan

Vince Gilligan is quickly becoming something of a TV legend. He has already won many awards as writer and showrunner of Breaking Bad, and now he’ll try to add a directing award to his mantle. The episodes of Breaking Bad that Gilligan directed (just four of them) were some of the ones fans liked the most. The end of this clip features an excellent non-diegetic music choice, something the show was known for.

Downton Abbey, “Episode 1″

David Evans

When so much of Downton Abbey takes place inside the walls of the Yorkshire mansion, it can be a bit hard for a director to really captivate an audience. But here, David Evans uses some clever quick cuts and jerky camera movements to bring life and vigor to an otherwise routine scene. Brian Percival won the directing award for the show’s first season, although it was considered a miniseries then.

Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall”

Neil Marshall

Game of Thrones is as cinematic is TV gets. The Night’s Watch attempt to defend Castle Black is reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from the Lord of the Rings (though that had a far bigger budget). Neil Marshall, who is no stranger to grand battle sequences, makes it about as intense and epic as a TV budget will allow.

House of Cards, “Chapter 14″

Carl Franklin

When House of Cards was announced, some were skeptical about what a Netflix streaming series would look like. Helped by acclaimed movie director David Fincher, the series showed immediately that it could look and feel as sumptuous as anything on cable or pay TV. Fincher directed only the first two episodes, but the show has since then carried on the dark, chillingly quiet atmosphere he created. Carl Franklin’s direction of a notorious character’s demise is Fincherian: It happens so suddenly—as it would in real life—before the killer walks calmly off into the night.

True Detective, “Who Goes There”

Cary Joji Fukunaga

In the scene that launched a thousand think pieces, Fukunaga and director of photography Adam Arkapaw (who already won Outstanding Cinematography in the Creative Arts Emmys for the same episode) track Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) for six minutes as he weaves in and out of houses amid a gun fight—without a single cut. Fukunaga directed every episode of True Detective‘s first season, just as Steven Soderbergh is doing for The Knick on Cinemax. 

The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards air Monday, August 25 on NBC.

Presented by

Adam Epstein writes and produces for Quartz.

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