it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken
matociquala

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narratological layering in popular television shows (or) why I am obsessed with this program



The narrative bone I am currently chewing is the layering of the very obvious surface narrative with a secondary true narrative, which is presented but never explained.

(spoilers)

For example : in the episode entitled The Popular Kids, the surface narrative has Cory giving himself away when he shows up at the LOD house and his manipulation of Morgan and Reid becomes transparent to anybody. But upon a second viewing, note the reaction shots of Morgan and Reid after he speaks up in the meeting at the police station.

That is when they're sure. After that, they're working--independently--to get him to hang himself. That's why Reid is so reluctant to allow Morgan to send him off. Because he knows Cory is the unsub, and he isn't sure Morgan knows. And Morgan knows, and thinks Reid might not.

For second example, the most recent episode, entitled Revelation, has a couple of fabulous moments. The one that really clicked for me is in the last round of Russian roulette. On the surface, it's a fairly standard thriller situation. One of Our Heroes is captured and forced to choose which of his friends will die. The villain has already extablished his credibility by making evident the consequences of a similar game, earlier, and his apparent object here is both making Reid further complicit, while humiliating him in front of his team and breaking any trust they have in Reid.

On the surface, it looks as if Reid first protests, tries to sacrifice himself, and then at the last moment figures out a way to save himself and get a clue to his friends.

But watch that again.

I think Reid's first shocked reaction--kill me!--is genuine. It's an outburst. And then he calms down and starts thinking.

Looking at it from a character perspective, this is a young man whose major established heroic character trait is an egoless willingness to risk himself, for his team-mates and even for mentally ill criminals. He's so courageous he's stupid with it. And this is something we see again and again and again: Derailed; Somebody's Watching; Fisher King Part II; Sex Birth Death. Reid may not look like much, but he's a fearless little bastard, and absolutely vicious in a fight. (In fact, it's how he got himself into this situation in the first place.)

It is a mistake to assume that Reid is in any way, shape, or form an innocent. He may be inexperienced, even naive in certain limited ways... and generally gentle, soft-spoken, and insecure... but there are no accidents of characterization in this show. And the man's a card sharp. Who cheats. And a fair amount of the time, that flinchy stammering is a put-on designed to lower someone's defenses.

Looking at it from a narrative perspective, the unsub, like the Goblin King, has no power over him. He can threaten the team, but they are all together, aware of what he is doing, aware of what he is doing to Reid, and all of them (except Garcia) are profoundly competent to defend themselves. And once Reid realizes that, and gets over the shock of the earlier murder which he was forced to participate in, his demeanor changes completely. He goes from animated to composed, almost steely.

Poker face.

And he's staring down the barrel of that revolver from under eighteen inches of distance.

POP QUIZ! Which of these four revolvers is loaded

Yep. From that point on, when he gets past his reflexive offer of self-sacrifice, he is buying time. Raphael loaded the gun with a single live round, no blanks. Reid knows what chamber the bullet is in. He can see it advancing. And he knows exactly how long he had to arrange a convincing moral failure.

Watch his face each time Raphael pulls the trigger. He doesn't flinch. But the first time Raphael tried this game, at the beginning of the ep when his sight was blurry and he was disoriented, he cringed away from the gun.

And the fourth time Raphael squeezes the trigger, when he discharges the shot that Reid has avoided into the wall, he flinches too.

He's got nothing at risk but his own life. Which was at risk already.

And the narrative doesn't bother to *tell* the viewer any of this. There is no hint that the surface narrative is not the only thing going on here.

And they do this sort of thing consistently.

I am so trying to learn to do that.

I'm also fascinated by the layers of characterization, and the consistency of characterization. The way we are presented with characters who seem to be stereotypes. And then again and again have it demonstrated how they are not, and the levels and layers come back and echo and built. The very structure of the show encourages the audience to play the same detective games the characters play, to build profiles and consider implications and try to figure out what people are hiding. The weekly episodes are just an engine, the surface boom that keeps you tuning in while they play these incredibly complex narrative games.

We are encouraged to assume that Gideon is divorced, for example. The stereotype of Gideon is divorced. (Like the stereotype of Reid is innocent and physically incompetent, and the stereotype of JJ is the perky cheerleader, and the stereotype of Hotch is ambitious and consumed with his own career goals (and again and again, people make the mistake of assuming that Hotch is his stereotype, much to their eventual chagrin.)

But I think Gideon's wife is dead. (The clues are in Riding The Lightning and Blood Hungry and What Fresh Hell, if you care to go look for them.)

And then there are the meta-narrative games. The thematic discussion it undertakes, about the nature of free will and personal responsibility, which alone is brilliant. The way it deconstructs its own genre--the thriller--in a number of interesting ways. (The Person In Peril often rescues him or herself. The Person In Peril is fairly frequently male. The Villains... aren't. They are often terribly pathetic people who have been brutally betrayed, time and time again. The Question of Evil.) The lovely lovely dissection in The Big Game and Revelation regarding violence-and-shock-as-entertainment, in the middle of one of the most viscerally horrible hours of network television I have ever seen. Not because the violence was graphic, or extreme, but because it was real violence, and heartbreaking with it. It was, in fact, far less graphic than many things I've seen on TV.

And it hurt so very much more, because it was pathetic.

Individual episodes, especially on a plot level, can be heavyhanded. But this is the show that can humanize a terrorist at the same time it demonstrates just how evil he can be, that is shockingly responsible and humane in its depiction of the most nauseating things they can get away with on prime time, that allows characters to break, and fail, and to be wrong, without becoming villains. 

And that does this layered thing that captivates me, and that I am coveting greater skill in, so effortlessly and without explanation that you could miss that the understory even exists.

If you're watching the magician's patter, you may never even see the magic trick.


If you're new here, don't worry. This is how my brain works. It will absolutely fix on some element of narrative and worry it to death for a while, and then give it one last shake and snap its neck and on to the next obsession.

Sadly, I never give up on the old obsessions. They just layer up.

However, over time, this does begin to present the illusion of being a well-rounded person.

There's a reason I have this as my default icon.
Tags: geeks with guns, narrative analysis, writing craft wank
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