A few days ago, I watched the second episode of the second season of The Mandalorian, and was left rather entertained. Then, as is customary, I went to IMDb and checked out the episode’s average rating: a rather low 7.9, compared to the episode before, which holds a 9.0. I was curious to see why, and stumbled across a lot of low ratings, most of them describing the episode as a “filler episode”. Would I agree? Yes and no. It is not my aim here to talk about The Mandalorian, but I will say this – while it does not advance the plot, the second episode does enough in terms of lore integration and character development to not warrant this label. However, it does provide us with an interesting discussion point for this week.
What is a filler episode?
The general agreement is that a filler episode is an episode of a series that meets at least most of the following characteristics:
a. Does not advance the plot in any significant way, leaving you pretty much in the same place where you started in the grander scheme of things.
b. Does not really contribute to character development, or at least not to any development that feels relevant for the general direction of the series.
c. The tone or atmosphere of the episode does not align with the series’ overall tone or atmosphere – it can be too light, or too dark, or too dramatic, or too slow compared to the season average.
d. Same as above, but in terms of characters acting outside their usual scope, and not feeling like their usual selves.
Are they always bad?
Well, this is very subjective. I would say definitely not. This label gets slapped too often on episodes that merely check the first box, the one related to overall plot development. Because audiences display increasingly lower attention spans, they want to constantly be bombarded with new developments, plot-wise. If such instant gratification is delayed throughout the entire duration of an episode, that episode stands a significant risk of being labeled as a filler episode, without it deserving such treatment.
A great example of such a case is Fly – Season 3, Episode 10 of Breaking Bad. During this episode, Walt and Jesse discover that a fly is loose in their meth lab, and spend almost the entire time trying to get rid of it before it contaminates the end product. Although it still boasts a high rating of 7.8 on IMDb, it is by far the lowest rating of the season, compared to high 8s and 9s that all the other episodes have. And yes indeed, it can definitely be said that Fly does not push the plot forward in any shape or form. However, I found it to be a very ‘stabilising’ episode. It’s a welcome break from the relentless pace and sheer intensity of most other episodes, simply opting to take a step back and observe the two main characters in their new situation. It serves as a plot anchoring device, and also as a psychological study in some way. By observing Walt and Jesse’s interactions, the extent of their problems compared to that in most episodes, Fly really adds layers of complexity to the main characters, and takes a good look at where they stand.
A time and a place
Apart from a more in-depth analysis of the role of an episode, I would also warrant some attention toward where it is placed within a season, and how it is used. While a couple of filler episodes can be absolutely reasonably expected in a 20+ season, I would be far less forgiving with an 8-episode season. And it’s also how they are used within the plot. Our previos example, Fly, was inserted quite naturally within the larger scheme, coming at a fairly stable moment in the plot, and negating no previous cliffhangers. However, quite the opposite can be said about an episode that is artificially inserted especially towards the tail of a season, and does everything else but address the questions which the audience had coming into it. Something like this is definitely not good practice, and I would certainly be against it.
A good example of this would be The Lost Sister – Season 2, Episode 7 of Stranger Things. Here, Eleven undergoes a solitary journey to another city, finding a band of violent outcasts with superpowers similar to hers. This episode ticks all the boxes I mentioned before – it not only fails to advance the plot, but runs away from it altogether, the minimal character development is not meaningful in any way, the tonality is completely shifted in an unrecognisable way, and Eleven feels like a completely different character – before returning to her old self in the very next one. For the third last episode in a 9-episode season, and its failure to address any of the cliffhangers that were previously constructed, The Lost Sister was the low point of the entire series, and quite a disrespectful one at that. Flanked by ratings of 9.2 and 9.3, its rating of 6.1 shows a much more universal disdain towards it, and in this case, the ‘filler’ label is perfectly justified.