Monday, September 3, 2012

Narrative Traps

I've been thinking lately about narrative traps. Where it appears on the surface that the narrative has done one thing but upon further examination a different interpretation or direction reveals itself. 

I want to talk about a couple of narrative traps that I've seen recently in Breaking Bad and Prime Suspect.  The narrative trap in Breaking Bad is a more obvious and long reaching one and the narrative trap in Prime Suspect is more subtle but puts a whole different color on the first series. 

I think a number of people hit a certain point when they watched the opening of the recent Season 5 episode of Breaking Bad, "Buyout".  For them a final line was crossed and in the opening minutes of that episode Walt became a bad guy. 

With the start of Season 5 of Breaking Bad Sandra and I went back to the beginning and started watching Season 1.  It was good to go back to the start and see where things had been and how far they had come. 

But we quickly realized something.  The Walt from Season 5 was always there. When Walt was confronting Skylar about her plan in Season 5 and shooting all of her options down?  He did that in Season 1 when Jesse wanted to kill Tuco.   

When you first watch the show you feel like you understand where Walt is coming from and that he is a relatable, every-man character...on the surface.  But the emotions roiling beneath that character lead him and the viewer to some very dark places.

So while there is a narrative trap of sorts in Breaking Bad it really is more of a case of something hiding in plain sight. 

The narrative trap in Prime Suspect is a more devious one. 

There are a series of events that make up the endgame of Prime Suspect.  Tennison's chief detractor, Otley, is removed from the case.  Tennison's old partner, Amson, is brought on to the case from a different department.  They close in on and catch the bad guy.  The cops under Tennison all sign a letter saying that she did a commendable job and they want her to stay on as boss.

All is well.  Or is it?

A couple of small scenes that go by quickly and aren't brought up again deserve a closer look: 

1) Before Otley's removal from the case Tennison demands a list of the cops who have slept with prostitutes. 

2) Amson says Otley gave him the list. 

3) Before Tennison's support is announced there is a very brief scene where Amson says something to three of the detectives ( I can't remember the exact line but it was something like "...and especially you three...").

These moments are all given their own time on the screen and I think they are intended to be linked liked this: Amson gets the list from Otley. Sees the names of the three detectives on it. Uses that knowledge to get their support for Tennison thus making the support appear unanimous.

This adds a much darker wrinkle to the narrative then the surface would indicate.  That the support for Tennison wasn't wholly earned or honest but was manipulated behind the scenes.  Further still, what if Tennison knew and used Amson as her henchman. 

Do these narratives have traps in them?  Do you like narrative traps? Even if they undermine the story?

Currently Reading: Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth


Jay Stringer said...

I love traps like this, and use them a lot. SPOILERS. Ahem. Anyway.

I think it's great fun as a writer to put in a scene knowing that it really means something different to what the reader will take it to mean on that first reading. Even within mystery stories I think a lot of readers are still expecting a certain linear experience, where pieces of information will come along every few chapters but each page that they read can be taken at face value and adds up to the answer. I like the idea of laying traps within that, and giving information later on that totally changes the way an earlier scene should be read. I'm currently writing a third book in a trilogy and wondering to what extent I can get away with adding in things that show the reader that scenes they thought they had a handle on in the first book were not that way at all. There has to come a point when i gets too much and you lose the reader, but i've not found that yet.

I've not had quite the same reaction with BREAKING BAD, though. It's probably because I've watched all of it this year, catching up after years of hearing everyone else talk about it, but right from season 1 I've been watching the story of a bad guy. I've never rooted for Walt as an anti-hero or a desperate man seeking desperate measures or any of that. Now JESSE on the other hand....

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am finishing watching the first four seasons of MAD MEN and I see so many things I didn't see the first time. A truly good show requires more than one viewing because things are set into motion long before they play out in shows like this and you miss the early clues. I watched the first series of PRIME SUSPECT recently too and I see what you are saying. This sort of thing gives depth to the characters and the series because life does not unfold in predictable narrative ways.

Ben said...

I'm at Season 4, Episode 11 of Breaking Bad now and it was always in my mind that when Walter went into meth cooking, he opened a pandora's box he couldn't his own mind.

Like Bryan Cranston said in interview, he first read Walter as a guy who "gave up", so there is something profoundly life-affirming for him, at being a bad guy, because he is being defined. He is finally somebody. In season 4, Skyler is freaking out and telling him she's worried he's in danger and Walter said she shouldn't worry because HE IS the danger. I liked that. I liked the pride with which he said such thing.

But you're right, it is a trap and I live to find those writers who can trap me and lead me into false paths only to ram the truth back to my face. That's what I like the best in fiction.