The art of the episode title

Feature Michael Noble 1 Sep 2014 - 06:45

Some TV episode titles have a beauty and charm of their own. Michael celebrates an overlooked art...

This article contains spoilers for Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones.

In a move that, if it was deliberate, seemed calculated to get the internet hivemind working flat-out, the final episode of Breaking Bad was called Felina. Appearing at first glance to be a brand name for cat food, it’s actually a multi-part reference to the Marty Robbins song El Paso, which features in the episode, an anagram of the word ‘finale’ and (brilliantly, given the clues inherent in the show’s logo), a compound of three elements from the periodic table Fe (iron), Li (lithium) and Na (sodium), or if you’re feeling generous, blood, meth and tears.

It’s an appropriately smart move on the part of a show that became known for its close attention to detail but the cleverness reflects a larger trend for titles that do more than act as mere descriptors and instead combine several elements of the episode, its characters and the wider show in a cryptic manner. There’s a lot of it about these days. Inspiration may come from a seemingly throwaway remark such as the season 3 episode of The Sopranos, Amour Fou, a French term meaning ‘crazy or all-consuming love’ which Tony’s New Jersey vowels mangle into appropriate Oedipal relevance, or from another cultural reference point, such as Bates Motel’s aping of Hitchcock film titles (Shadow Of A Doubt) or the literary referencing of Boardwalk Empire (Two Imposters, William Wilson).

The use of external references acts as an Easter egg for interested viewers. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the episode without even knowing the title (and these days, displaying the title as an onscreen caption, as a spoken ‘title drop’ or even on the TV’s EPG is relatively rare) but if you’re prepared to seek it out, the title can add an additional layer of meaning. Knowing the story of the Erlkönig, for instance, would give the interested viewer a sombre clue to the outcome of the episode of Boardwalk Empire that borrowed its title from Johann Goethe.

Such depth is relatively new. Back in the early days of television, episodes of, say, The Lone Ranger would come with title such as The Lone Ranger Fights On or Return Of The Convict, which offered pithy plot summaries, but were simply used to distinguish one episode from another. Its successor Western, Wagon Train, took a standardised formula for its editions, naming them after a guest character, giving us titles such as The Dora Gray Story or The Vincent Eaglewood Story. When Gene Roddenberry took Wagon Train ‘to the stars’ in the mid 1960s he brought the episode titles into the future with him. Powered by some of the leading Sci-Fi writers of the day, among them Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, Star Trek’s episode titles were capable of their own literary beauty. Some of them, including This Side Of Paradise, Who Mourns For Adonaïs?’ and For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky speak for themselves.

Star Trek may have been blessed with groundbreaking creativity but as Roddenberry’s famous pitch reminds us, its origins were firmly terrestrial. For the most part, formulaic titles reflect formulaic TV (an adjective that I don’t use as criticism) and continue today in conventionally structured shows such as sitcoms. Consider Friends as 'The One with the Standard Titling Model’ or think of The Big Bang Theory as ‘The Episode Title Formulation’ and you’ll see what I mean. Even the partly experimental Peep Show played with standardisation during its third series in which each episode was given an ing ending, even if it mangled the language to do so (Quantocking anyone?).

Of course, the most standardised method of titling episodes is to use numbers and these still abound in British drama. Programmes like Broadchurch, Line of Duty and Happy Valley have earned plaudits for their tight scripts, deep characterisations and superb performances but, were there BAFTAs for naming episodes, then they’d have to settle for a tie. What was the opener of the second series of Line Of Duty called? The same as the first series: ‘Episode 1’.

In some respects, this pedestrian titling model reflects the nature of the programmes concerned. It makes sense to give each edition of a single episodic story a numeric descriptor but that model also describes True Detective, which took names such as The Secret Fate Of All Life and Form And Void as its episode titles. It helps that the writer of True Detective was a novelist, as is Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, whose television adaptations retained evocative titles like The Dead Of Jericho and Last Bus To Woodstock.

Superlative psychological ‘whydunnit’ Cracker enjoyed the best of both worlds. It told its stories in episodic ‘serials’ like Doctor Who, with each instalment being labelled ‘Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3’, but those serials were given marvellous titles like The Mad Woman In The Attic, which played with gothic conventions and the nature of memory or Someday A Lemming Will Fly, a sweet meditation on futility.

In some respects, it makes sense to leave cleverer titles to the fortune of discovery. Take the sixth episode of the first season of Game Of Thrones. Called A Golden Crown, its obvious reference is to the bucket of molten gold that Khal Drogo pours over the head of hapless villain Viserys Targaryen. He even tells him, in Dothraki, that he’s giving him ‘a crown’. But that episode also portrays Ned Stark’s discovery that tyrant-in-training Joffrey Baratheon is unlikely to be the son of King Robert because unlike his father, he has the blonde hair of those ‘blonde shits’ the Lannisters, his own ironic ‘golden crown’. It’s a turning point in the narrative and sets in train the actions that would lead to Ned’s own extreme haircut at the edge of Ser Ilyn Payne’s trusty blade. In a strange contrast, the source novels use conventional models for their titles (A [Noun] of [Nouns]) and simple character names for chapters.

It’s reasonably easy to pepper a show with a light smattering of thematically-linked titles. The Wire, which took on a  new area of focus with each new season, reflected this in some of its episode titles. Season 2, which examined the docks, had titles like Port In A Storm and Undertow. Season 4 (schools) had The Boys Of Summer and Final Grades while season 5 (the press) had Not For Attribution and Unconfirmed Reports The final episode was called -30-, after the line that appears at the end of file copy, a neat ending for a show created by a journalist.

More recently, some shows have taken this tendency to its obvious conclusion and have adopted an entire theme for their titles. Reflecting its focus on fine dining (even if the ingredients are of dubious provenance), Hannibal’s first season was named after courses in French cuisine. Its second followed the theme but with titles inspired by Japanese cooking. Fargo’s use of tales and parables in its narrative has inspired its use of titles borrowed from fables and jokes and suits its mood of dark quirkiness. 

Orphan Black blends the cryptic with the thematic. Every episode of its first season was named for a quote from Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, while the second used quotes from Sir Francis Bacon, who developed the scientific method. There’s a strange beauty to decontextulised phrases such as Variations Under Domestication but the season one finale Endless Forms Most Beautiful has a deep poetic beauty all of its own.

Which is not to say that titles necessarily work in isolation. As compelling as they are, the best titles work as multifaceted clues that enhance the experience of enjoying TV and add a little something for that sort of viewer who is interested enough to follow every item of detail and enthusiastically discuss them. The best title in the world is only ever as good as the episode it names.

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