An Ode to Michelle MacLaren, A Truly Singular Visual Storyteller

From a cramped RV meth lab to a battle between a bear and maiden fair to the streets of Atlanta during a zombie apocalypse, Michelle MacLaren has taken us places. The director of seminal episodes of prestige TV shows such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and so many more, MacLaren is one of the greatest visionaries working in TV today.

My journey as a MacLaren aficionado started back in 2009 when Breaking Bad aired episode “4 Days Out.” I adored the episode — it remains my fave BrBa episode of all time — and watched it over and over again the week it was released. At some point, I noticed a credit in the opening sequence: Directed by Michelle MacLaren. A woman? Directing a show like Breaking Bad? A chill tingled up my spine. You see, even a decade ago, women directors in TV and film were few and far between. (Things have been improving, but gender parity in the director’s chair is unfortunately still far off.) So, seeing a lady’s name in the wilds of the small screen — on one of my favorite episodes of TV, no less — was a reason for me to celebrate.

MacLaren made her mark on Breaking Bad directing eleven episodes in total, the most of any director on the series. She was also an executive producer on the show and certainly had a hand in contributing to the visual language that provided a rich foundation for the narrative. In particular, she became known for her way of capturing the intractable beauty of the desert, using the severity of the stark open spaces and impossibly blue skies to evoke the unfeeling constancy of Mother Nature. She returned to the desert to direct the second episode of Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul and worked her magic to drop us right back into the shady side of the ABQ.

Throughout her time on Breaking Bad, MacLaren nimbly helmed some of the most downright violent moments in a series full of violence. In “One Minute”, she delivered sheer horror and hair-pulling suspense in a parking lot showdown between two psychotic cartel members and an unwitting DEA agent. Here, she cleverly rigged a camera to the underside of an SUV to get a key shot, and used various lenses and camera angles in order to portray the sadistic scope of the attack. The production value was so astounding that, when this episode aired, I had a friend tell me that he would have happily paid money to watch the episode in a theater. Then, in “Gliding Over All,” she directed a satisfying, blood-soaked montage in which ten prisoners are slaughtered in a matter of minutes. These were not the stories that women had traditionally been permitted to tell in Hollywood. But MacLaren’s talent and drive transcended any sort of gender stereotype, and she kept knocking every episode she was tasked with helming out of the park.

Breaking Bad showcased MacLaren’s singular vision, and she went on to make her mark on many other popular TV series. Notably, she was the only female director to ever work on the HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones. Her first outing in Westeros involved logistics for a bear-fights-woman sequence that took meticulous planning to pull off. MacLaren understands that the value of telling violent tales isn’t in depicting gratuitous bloodshed or even the basic threat of physical harm, but in honoring the horrific tension that accompanies the moments in which individuals are ready, willing, and able to impose their barbaric will on others.

In addition to her violent victories, MacLaren’s keen attention to spaces and places is one of the key factors that distinguishes her work. She’s a careful and considerate world builder; when she establishes a setting, she goes all in. In her work, she often goes wide on a location to establish presence and then proceeds to sneak ever closer to the action. Many times, she’ll film with natural obstacles in the foreground — think bookshelves in a library or cars on a street — as she skillfully reels us in to share emotional beats with the characters.

So it’s no wonder that David Simon teamed with her to create the look and feel of his HBO series The Deuce. Focusing on the seedy, lawless Times Square area in the ’70s, The Deuce followed a motley crew of sex workers, bartenders, and mobsters as they navigated rapidly changing times. MacLaren was on hand to direct both the pilot and the season one finale. Her focused approach to violence, coupled with her talent for making spaces come to radiant life, made her a prime candidate for the job.

While much of The Deuce takes place in loud and raucous tones, MacLaren made it a point to bookend the season with two distinct shots that effectively illustrated how times were rapidly changing. The pilot episode closes on an image of a dilapidated hallway in a no-tell motel where rooms are rented by the hour and both patrons and women come and go as they please. And then, as the world of sex work begins to evolve, the end of the season closes on another hallway: the hallway of a makeshift brothel where the patrons come and go, but the women stay. There’s nothing in either image to suggest any judgment or morality call about what’s happening behind the many closed doors; instead, MacLaren is providing a moment of neutrality for viewers to consider these spaces as a stage for human folly and connection.

MacLaren’s lively sense of setting and space was on full display in the recent revival of HBO’s In Treatment. The series takes place over four “weeks”, with each week broken down into four episodes. Each individual episode is dedicated to focusing on a therapist’s (Uzo Aduba) interactions with three clients and her own sponsor. MacLaren directed the first “week” of episodes, establishing the tone for each relationship.

Therapy is nothing but talking and sitting in a large room. Or, in the COVID era, therapy is often two people talking while staring at their respective computer screens. How does someone make that compelling and fresh on-screen? Michelle MacLaren knew how. Her direction of those four episodes is stunning in its patience and restraint. She captivates the viewer by drawing attention to corners of the space where one’s eye might naturally drift while avoiding eye contact or disclosing intimate details. (Or both.) She also takes the time to linger on challenging moments of silence, discord, and revelation, shoring up a connective tissue of catharsis that carries throughout the remainder of the series.

Up next for MacLaren? An adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ novel The Shining Girls. One part horror, one part sci-fi, and two parts newsroom thriller, the series debuts on Apple TV+ at the end of April. Naturally, MacLaren sets the stage for the narrative by directing the first two episodes of the series. She also serves as executive producer. I can’t wait for that telltale shiver of excitement to travel up my spine when I see her show up in the credits; her name is all I need to see to know it’s going to be good.