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‘Stranger Things’ & ‘Westworld’: How a Sci-Fi Editing Race Could Lead to a Best Drama Win

For the past five years, the editing race winner has lined up with the Best Drama winner.

“Stranger Things”


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For the past five seasons, the Best Drama editing winner has gone on to win the Best Drama prize as well. So if you want a potential barometer for this year’s big prize, the three crucial editing nominees are “Stranger Things,” “Westworld,” and “Better Call Saul.”

This doesn’t mean that “The Crown” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” won’t win Best Drama, but it’s noteworthy that they weren’t among the editing nominees. Neither were “House of Cards” or “This Is Us,” the other Best Drama nominees, as “Stranger Things” and “Better Call Saul” each got nominated for two episodes.

However, while “Better Call Saul” significantly saw Jimmy (nominated Bob Odenkirk) getting more Saul-like from “Breaking Bad,” it’s very much the dark horse. The real smackdown is between the dueling sci-fi newcomers, “Stranger Things” and “Westworld.” Both have their advantages (the Upside Down versus the robot rebellion), but “Stranger Things” has become a nostalgic phenomenon, so it’s hard to argue with that.

“Better Call Saul” ( “Witness” and “Chicanery”)

Season 3 was all about facing consequences, with the ethically-challenged Jimmy going over the edge in his rivalry with sociopathic older brother Chuck (Michael McKean). And this hurt Jimmy’s relationship with law partner/love interest Kim (Rhea Seehorn), the keeper of his conscience. Meanwhile, the “Breaking Bad” universe reared its ugly head with the introduction of Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and his drug cartel rivalry with Hector (Mark Margolis). This became a further omen of Jimmy’s downhill slide.

This meant that the slow burn suddenly heated up for editors Skip MacDonald and Kelley Dixon, giving them more confrontations to amplify, while at the same time continuing to experiment with creative montages. This not only lent a sense of unpredictability, but also focused on public and private moments for Jimmy, Chuck, and Kim.

Michael McKean as Chuck McGill, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul”

Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictur

In “Witness,” Chuck continues to set traps for Jimmy, playing off their sibling issues, while Gus gets introduced in an inspired choice by Dixon. He encounters Jimmy rummaging through the trash and flashes that iconic smile. Then after ignoring Kim’s clear-headed advice about leaving well enough alone, Jimmy breaks into Chuck’s house to steal the incriminating tape from last season. Thinking he’s won, Jimmy berates Chuck. But Chuck anticipated the move and arranged for two investigators to witness the break in. Once again, Jimmy gets undone by impulsive behavior.

In “Chicanery,” the sibling rivalry reaches the breaking point, which editors MacDonald and Dixon emphasize with suspense and sadness. Jimmy fights for his professional life before the New Mexico Bar Association over his felonious activity and, at first, it looks bad. That is, until Jimmy’s delayed chicanery pays off, when he humiliates Chuck by exposing his Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome as a fraud.  But MacDonald holds on that suspenseful beat just long enough for Chuck to totally lose it. But it’s a win-lose for Jimmy, who’s well on his way to becoming Saul.

“Westworld” (“The Bicameral Mind”)

In re-imagining Michael Crichton’s adult theme park gone berserk, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy tapped into a philosophical exploration of consciousness, creativity, and destruction, And the 90-minute finale was defined by a series of shifting points of view and multiple timelines among the theme park hosts and guests and programming center engineers, which Andrew Seklir adroitly handles with surprise, suspense, and clarity.

The “Westworld” maze literally cracks open in the opening sequence, when we see inside the machinery of conflicted host, Dolores (nominated Evan Rachel Wood). That’s because she literally represents the maze, which is the MacGuffin. And her journey of self-awareness and free will propels the climax. Dolores unlocks her secret past, confronts her sadistic oppressor, the Man in Black (Ed Harris), who also turns out to be her love interest long ago, and experiences pain and grief. Only then can Dolores lead the robotic revolution to escape Westworld enslavement.

“Westworld”

The series was edited like a 10-hour movie and to better keep track of each story line, Seklir color-coded the scenes. This provided a global roadmap, which was particularly useful when playing with structure and rhythm in the finale. In effect, the editor was navigating his own maze.

“Stranger Things” (“The Vanishing of Will Byers” and “The Bathtub”)

The Duffer Brothers created a sensation for Netflix with “Stranger Things.” It was very much an ’80s homage to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. They captured just the right lived in sense of suburbia for their fictional Indiana town called Hawkins (shot in Atlanta), and their scary Upside Down became a real-life “Dungeons and Dragons,” including the Demogorgon monster.

The challenge was coming up with something more than pastiche, and the Duffers succeeded with an authentic story and appealing characters. Like “Westworld” editor Seklir, “Stranger Things” editors Dean Zimmerman and Kevin D. Ross also approached it like an eight-hour movie. In the opener, “The Vanishing of Will Byers,” it was crucial to hook the audience with the various character threads (the Byers family, the kids, the high schoolers) and the threat of the monster. Zimmerman, who hails from features with producer-director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”), also enjoyed stressing comedy whenever possible with well-placed reaction shots.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things

Courtesy of Netflix

In “The Bathtub,” the storylines for the adults, kids, and high schoolers all converge for the unifying purpose of saving Will (Noah Schnapp) and defeating the monster. For Ross, the challenge was achieving a delicate balancing act. That meant he had to trim the scene when the government agents chase them on their bikes.

Speaking of which, the Duffers and editors were oblivious to direct references, including the “E.T.” moment with the kids on bikes. Actually, it’s an upside down version with a van flying over the kids rather than the kids flying on their bikes. And part of the cutting success was having the freedom to do jump-cuts or other visual tricks. Also, it really helped having the visual effects, mixing, and color-timing on the back end once all the episodes were locked so Zimmerman and Ross could fine-tune the episodes.

Will Win: “Stranger Things”

Could Win: “Westworld”

Should Win: “Westworld”

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