For all that creative and protracted silence has long had a place in television history, there’s something about the way it’s been showing up on our screens recently—both in Evil’s “S is for Silence” (Paramount+) and now Only Murders in the Building’s “The Boy from 6B” (Hulu)—that suggests some sort of leveling-up is on the horizon.
But first, an important example from the great High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (Disney+), which aired last May. About halfway through the second episode of the second season, Olivia Rodrigo is struck silent.
Or at least, that’s what happens to her fictional alter ego, Nini, who—coming off a double-star turn as the lead of both High School Musical: The Musical (fake) and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (real)—now finds herself at a fancy drama boarding school in a whole new state, separated from her friends, on forced vocal rest. “VOCAL REST IS ACTUALLY VERY GOOD FOR YOU,” a grimacing Nini/Olivia tells the show’s imaginary documentary crew via a series of gigantic, Love, Actually-style poster boards. “IT HELPS MAKE FOR A STRONGER VOICE.”
Funny, sure. But also, on that more meta-level HSMTMTS is so comfortable occupying, just plain true. Television, after all, is an artistic medium that relies on being both seen and heard. In that context, silence (aka, “vocal rest”) can be a powerful tool. It can also be a bit of a gimmick.
And I don’t just say this because it’s been rare, historically, for there to be more than one major addition to the Silent Episode canon every few years (although that’s also true). I say it because silence, as it’s deployed by both Evil and Only Murders in the Building (both in their seventh episodes this year), isn’t some simple, one-off stunt: It’s structural. And that, at least as far as the future of (interesting) TV goes, makes it infinitely flexible.
But gimmick or not, rendering a scene like this, or a character (The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda), or even an entire episode (Twilight Zone’s “The Invaders,” Buffy’s “Hush,” Mr. Robot’s “405 Method Not Found”) as silent can bring important elements of a story into sharp relief. Actors have to work harder to make themselves understood. Directors, cinematographers, and editors have to work harder to be precise in their visual language. And audiences, most critically, have to commit their full attention to catching the nuances of all that hard work. (Meaning, these days at least, that we have to put down our phones.)
Anyone who’s caught up on Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is likely to already have a sense of what I mean by this. But just to make it clear: In “The Boy from 6B,” this Silent Episode structure shows up through the episode’s point-of-view character, Theo Dimas (James Caverly), who is Deaf. In keeping with the shifting narrative framework established in the first episode, this means that the narrative—and by extension, the audience—spends the bulk of the episode inside Theo’s head. In practice, it means spending the bulk of the episode in silence.
Spoiler Warning in the next section for Only Murders in the Building’s “The Boy from 6B”
This isn’t a pure silence we’re talking about, though. Rather, it’s the muffled, rumbling kind of silence you might “hear” when you’ve sunk yourself to the bottom of a deep pool. (Or, say, if you’ve just had a massive bomb go off right next to your ear, à la Daybreak’s wildly effective series finale on Netflix.) This is the silence of Theo’s inner world, on the verge of almost being able to discern something sharper than bass thumps and pressure changes, but never quite getting there—a not-so-subtle reflection of how Theo has, under the suffocating thumb of his corpse-robber of father (Nathan Lane), learned to relate to the outer world.
This isn’t to say that Theo spends the episode shirking his narratorial responsibilities. To the contrary: When Theo needs to make the kind of narrative aside to the audience that previous POV characters have made via voiceover, he turns to the camera and signs sarcastically. “These fucking people,” his eyes and fingers say simultaneously as yet another resident of the Arconia offensively flubs what has to be like their hundredth interaction. These fucking people!! we think right back, as the episode’s ongoing silence invites our every ounce of outraged empathy. Similarly, when he needs to hand the action over to the podcast crew, he hands it over all the way: What would have been a series of muffled bangs for Theo, in one instance, becomes the click of locks and creak of hidden doors as Mabel and Oliver practice their slapstick sleuthing; in another, meanwhile, what Theo would have experienced as little more than an indiscernible buzz becomes the sexy soundtrack to Charles and Jan’s (Amy Ryan) lustily wordless Scrabble date.
This fluidity of perspective-shifting turns critical as the episode reaches its double climax: In the present day, this translates as the slapstick silence of Mabel and Oliver’s skulking, which shifts ominously back to a deep-water muffle as Theo catches sight of their shadows in the funeral home basement and whips around to confront them. In the past, meanwhile, it manifests as Theo seeking out a distraught Zoe (Olivia Reis) on the Arconia’s roof after her New Year’s Eve screaming match with Oscar (Aaron Dominguez), only to find his own attempts at romance devolving into a shoving match that ends with her tripping over the edge and plummeting, silently, to her death.
When we watch him stumble back to his dad’s apartment and vomit on the floor? Silence. When he tells Teddy exactly what he did, and exactly who saw him do it? Silence. When Teddy corners Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that Tim telling anyone about what he saw Theo do would end with Tim dead? Silence. Teddy further souring the deal by dragging—oh, what’s her name?—into it? Silence. Theo picking his side by carefully and coldly spelling out M-A-B-E-L? That’s right: More silence.
Theo’s deafness, it turns out, isn’t just key to making sense of Teddy’s whole criminal deal—it’s key to the whole series. And the silence that comes with it is, in a word, structural.
A now spoiler-free discussion continues below!
The silence in “S is for Silence,” interestingly—while just as functionally integral to Evil’s Season 2 goal of untangling the dark morass where reason ends and faith begins—could not, in practice, be more different. Descending on the audience as Kristen (Katja Herbers), David (Mike Colter) and Ben (Aasif Mandvi), find themselves charged by the Vatican with assessing a possible case of posthumous sainthood at a monastery in upstate New York, Evil’s silence comes laden not with any one character’s traumatic personal history, but rather with a whole community’s monastically devout intention. This is because Evil’s silence is the result of a vow—a vow which, in this case, comes with the particularly chilling addendum that, should it ever be broken, the locked, suppurating cabinet the monks have spent 130 years guarding would let loose a demon bent on destroying the world.
As far as the history of Silent Episodes goes, this is about as un-gimmicky as a show could get. For one thing, given Evil’s very premise, the idea that Kristen, David and Ben would at some point end up at a monastery of any sort is entirely reasonable. Honestly, it would be weirder if they made it through the series without investigating a bunch of silent, smartphone-savvy monks. Similarly reasonable is how each member of the trio approaches such a spectre of professionally enforced silence—David treating the monks’ vow with faithful gravity, Ben with eye-rolling resignation, and Kristen with rebellious disdain. Their philosophical divisions, in turn, introduce a valuable (and excruciating) element of tension, as the disbelief guiding both Ben and Kristen threatens, with increasing intensity, to break the silence and let the demon free.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing about the sound that does exist in “S is for Silence” is muted. To the contrary, between the monastery’s snow-empty grounds and the distillery’s cavernous, barrel-filled depths, the sounds of monastic life that do pepper the long, spooky hour all but ring out. What’s more, unlike in “The Boy from 6B,” Evil’s silent episode does feature spoken dialogue—namely, whenever the trio slips away to a barren neighboring field to have a whispered tête-à-tête about what they’ve seen and where their heads are at. Rather than easing the tension being built up by the vow of silence within the monastery’s walls, however, the increasing intensity of these whispered colloquies just ratchet everything up. All that David, Kristen and Ben have time for, after all, is the absolute briefest exchange of necessary information. After that, it’s back to the silence, back to their cells, back to being trapped in their own heads—with literal gags stuffed between their teeth!—right at the point in the season’s overarching story that they need to just talk to each other.
(Conversely, in letting us see how each character behaves in a vacuum, isolated not just from each other but also from the respective vices they depend on back in their real lives—meditation; spying on Leland; self-harm via crucifix—the monastery’s silence gives the audience greater insight into each character’s soul. David’s being a running string of Fuck. Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck Kristen fuck fuck…fuck? Both hilarious and illuminating.)
That both Evil and Only Murders in the Building are deeply interested in investigating the intersections and contradictions between what we know, what we desperately want to know, and what we can’t ever know isn’t, I think, incidental. As an inherently clarifying narrative device, silence is a perfect fit for stories steeped in the ineffable. At the same time, I think the fluency with which each series uses silence proves how universally practical (and un-gimmicky) it has the potential to be, regardless of how much mystery is anchoring your story.
Or, as Nini might say: “IT HELPS MAKE FOR A STRONGER VOICE.”
Find the stronger voice, all other shows! Just let silence show you the way.
Only Murders in the Building is streaming on Hulu (new episodes every Tuesday). Evil is streaming on Paramount+ (new episodes every Sunday).
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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