Discover more from Decoding Everything
'Saw X' Shows How To Reboot a Franchise The Right Way
But can Tobin Bell keep playing this character forever?
This post will contain spoilers for the Saw franchise and basic plot details from Saw X that are evident in the trailer.
I’m one of the sickos who’s seen every Saw film (several of them multiple times!). What it is that keeps me coming back to this franchise that often tops out at about 35% on RottenTomatoes?
For one thing, the concept is irresistible. In most of the Saw films, Tobin Bell plays John Kramer, AKA the Jigsaw Killer, who places people in elaborate mechanical contraptions that force them to self-mutilate in order to escape death. Typically these folks are guilty of some type of personal misdeed, but, to put it lightly, the punishments they are subjected to are wildly disproportionate to the crimes. But there’s something strangely fascinating about watching bad people get punished in outlandish machines — and to see how far they will go (or not) to survive.
The second reason this series enthralls me is a metatextual one. You see, a decade and a half ago, the filmmakers behind the Saw franchise made a radical, ultimately catastrophic decision. They decided to kill off John Kramer in Saw III. John Kramer, who was already suffering from terminal brain cancer, gets offed by a participant in one of his games.
It was bold. Tobin Bell as John Kramer was the primary selling point of the series. His indelible voice and performance made this franchise what it is. The decision to kill him came off like a bold statement from people shepherding the franchise: The Saw franchise can evolve! It can move beyond its roots! Tobin Bell doesn’t need to keep playing this character forever! Heck, maybe we can even stop making these films some day!
This plan might have even worked if they had ended the franchise around that time, but the movies kept making money and so they kept making them year after year. And despite many new ideas of moving beyond John Kramer as the central driving character of the series, the Saw movies could never escape from his shadow. John Kramer kept returning in increasingly weird and implausible ways. In this sequel, here were a bunch of traps that John Kramer set up before he died! Maybe this time he told someone to set up a bunch of traps and then they did it for him! Or maybe one of Kramer’s acolytes just used John Kramer’s voice to make the traps and went rogue!
This has led to the screenwriters of this series basically pretzel-twisting the timeline of Saw in hilarious ways to keep John Kramer in the mix. For instance, one of the great reveals of the Saw franchise is that Saw IV takes place during the same time as the events of Saw III. The Saw timeline is now full of ridiculous justifications for why John Kramer is somehow still killing people all these years later, which get more elaborate and unbelievable with each subsequent film. And to quote the great Marie Kondo, I love mess.
Despite this ingenuity, the returns on Saw films rapidly diminished. After Chris Rock spearheaded an attempted reboot in 2021’s Spiral: From the Book of Saw — a critical and commercial failure — it really felt like this franchise was dead for good.
Back to Basics
All this context is why Saw X, out in theaters now, is such a breath of rancid, bodily-fluid-infused air that is so characteristic of Saw settings.
Having not seen any trailers for the film, I started watching Saw X and was stunned to see that John Kramer was still alive and well and played by Tobin Bell in this film. This version of Kramer still had brain cancer and was desperate to find a cure. So he enlists in the help of a sketchy doctor, Cecelia Pederson (played deliciously by Synnøve Macody Lund), who promises her patients miraculous results — results that Kramer has already witnessed via a friend who’d also gone through treatment.
My mind started spinning. Were we seeing a film that was going to retcon the whole franchise? Was Saw X a hard reboot that erased the events of Saw III onward? Is John Kramer finally going to live again?!
Not quite. Turns out Pederson and her entire gang of medical professionals were grifters who tricked John into thinking he’d been cured when in fact, no operation had been performed at all. Their plan was to take the money and run but Kramer had other designs for them. Saw X still takes place in the main Saw timeline — it just happened at some point before John Kramer died. And it opens up the possibility that maybe he got up to a bunch of other adventures we didn’t know about before he died.
Saw X has a deep understanding of what people love about this franchise. It’s a pretty simple equation really:
John Kramer + Awful People + Horrifying Traps = Box Office Gold
Just mastering that would already be an achievement given how terrible some of the previous Saw films have been. But Saw X actually goes beyond that: it takes its time to let us get to know its characters, some of whom are actually sympathetic. The movie spends a good 40-50 minutes just on setup before someone is even inflicted with a real trap (probably a record for the Saw franchise). As a result, it’s arguably the best Saw film since the first or second one.
Meanwhile, it’s just a delight to see Tobin Bell back in the role again. Bell is playing Kramer in flesh and blood, not as a disembodied voice on tape or some other bullshit. Bell was probably around 80 years old when he filmed Saw X but he hasn’t lost a step and is as enjoyable as ever playing an overly self-serious serial killer who has deluded himself into thinking he doesn’t actually kill anyone. Each of the traps is as unfairly and ridiculously designed as they have been in the past. The film is just a fun reminder of what this series does best, but it also serves as a template for any other moribund franchise looking to reboot itself: Just give the people what they want and add some emotional stakes to it.
So no, Saw X doesn’t take place on an alternate timeline. John Kramer is still going to die of brain cancer sometime after the events of Saw X. But with any luck, Jigsaw still has a few traps to lay in his future…as long as he takes care of all of that before Saw III happens.
Hope you enjoyed this post! You can support me by subscribing and sharing it.
Other Stuff David Chen Has Made
Also on Decoding TV, Patrick and I kicked off our weekly reviews and recaps for Loki season 2, which is off to a very promising start.
On Decoding Reality, we kicked off coverage of both Love Is Blind Season 5 and The Golden Bachelor. Check it out on Apple Podcasts!
On Tiktok, I discussed Target’s recent announcement that it’s closing 9 stores because of rampant theft and crime (also available on Instagram).
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser