Stories, cheating, ending

The US spy drama Homeland chugs on, probably losing viewers even as the story picks up, but you could say that it’s getting what it deserves since it cheated so comprehensively in the first few episodes, all for the sake of a dramatic twist.

In the first few episodes we saw our heroine Carrie apparently being sold down the river by her boss, the usually sympathetic Saul. Later we discovered this was all part of a cunning plan to entrap an Iranian terrorist mastermind.

But the root of our anger with Saul was a shared emotion with Carrie, when she sat apparently on her own, apparently reacting with disbelief as she took in the news that she had been betrayed. This could not have happened if, as we now know, Carrie was in on it all along. Now I feel betrayed, not by the CIA, but by the programme makes, the storytellers.

It’s not the first time, and this cheating can take subtle forms, some more satisfying than others. There’s the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, a great film in many ways and unfairly pilloried for its alleged sentimentality. I suspect the sugary music soundtrack is responsible for that misapprehension of sentimentality, and Spielberg must take some blame for approving it (all the more ironic given that the sound design is one of the most powerful elements of the astonishing opening with the Normandy beach assault), but I think he is successful in his stated aim of honouring what those soldiers did, giving us an unflinching narrative of what they went through, and rightly, literally saluting them without embarrassment at the end.

I admire the film so I don’t knock it lightly, but it does cheat, by way of a camera convention. At the beginning we see an old man shuffling through a war cemetery, falling on his knees in front of a cross. We are not shown the name on the grave and the camera zooms in close to the man’s eyes, then the film cuts to the Omaha beach landing in 1944. By cinematic convention that close up to the eyes suggests that what we’re now seeing is the old man’s memories, and because the camera next focuses on Tom Hanks’ trembling hands we conventionally assume that he is the younger incarnation of that older man. So we spend the rest of the film in some confidence that our hero will survive. The cheat can be justified partly because it makes Hanks’ eventual death more shocking and so gives more force to the revelation that the older man is in fact Private Ryan, who was saved by Hanks. It is (like Homeland) deliberately misleading, though it has more integrity than Homeland: it never shows anything that could not have happened, but instead simply manipulates our emotions through the conventions of film storytelling.

You could say with justice that all stories are selective in what they choose to tell and the order in which they tell things, and that they do this to manipulate our emotions. This is is what stories do, and it’s potentially what makes them so powerful: we call people who are particularly good at this manipulation, who can always carry us with them, “master storytellers” and we admire them. But we submit to this manipulation in the expectation that there will be a reward, that the journey will take us on a journey we enjoy and that there will be some satisfaction at the end of it.

This can make ending itself problematic: there is a contract to be fulfilled. We feel frustrated if a story ends without resolving the different strands it may have introduced, unless it ends like The Sopranos, which doesn’t so much end as stop mid-sentence, forcing us to reflect on the artificiality of endings, the folly of our own desire for resolution. Shakespeare as so often has his finger on this particular pulse, when Antony hears of the (faked) death of Cleopatra and says to his lieutenant “Unarm Eros/For the long day’s task is done and we must sleep.” Antony is being vain (as so often) characterising his life as a task, and this sad vanity puts a pressure on that single word “done”, which then itself spans the distance between something which is finished and something that’s simply over (the word means both things).

Perhaps surprisingly, on reflection The Sopranos’ ending feels right. It is at least aesthetically satisfying. The series self-consciously drew on soap operas, spinning multiple storylines that threaded the banality of ordinary life with extraordinary violence. One of the reasons I can’t bear soap operas is that they don’t have an ending; they go on and on like a pub bore. The Sopranos turned that tedium on its head, telling stories of domestic tensions within a world where antagonism was routinely fatal.

Not everyone was so satisfied, and after the final episode the interwebs were buzzing with people speculating on what might have happened next, eking out hints from the smallest clues as if they could be significant, all of which missed the point: the story was over and whatever happened next is beyond the story, beyond what we could reasonably expect to know.

In this light I see the proliferation of fan fiction on the internet as a kind of collective derangement. We like stories partly because they come to an end and yes that may be a wrench (think of Dickens’ wistful letting go of his own story at the beginning of David Copperfield), but it is part of the pleasure, the experience of something achieved. I guess you could see the desire to continue a story as a kind of tribute, but it’s one that shows scant insight into whatever made the story entrancing in the first place.

On the other hand we have all seen films or TV dramas that end frustratingly up in the air, and which then feel like acts of bad faith by the writers. The worst example in recent TV history must be the successful French supernatural series Les Revenants: I sat through eight episodes spellbound, but part of that spell was the belief that sooner or later the mysteries of what was going on would be explained (that seems to me part of the viewers’ contract with the programme makers). I suppose you could say that the series was remarkable in that it ended without explaining a single thing, but I felt more irritation than admiration, and though the prospect of a second series might promise that deferred insight, I’ve already lost my trust in the writers to reward my attention.

There is after all the example of Lost. I stayed with the first series, watching the increasing complication of the present day narrative and the back stories, enthralled by the prospect that all these different strands might be tied together. American fiction has form here, in the greatness of the hard boiled detective genre, particularly in the hands of Hammett and Chandler, where every element of the plot proves significant (and contrast it to the flaccid plotting of English writers like Agatha Christie, loaded with red herrings). Unfortunately it became increasingly clear in Lost that this was not going to happen, that the writers were making it up as they went along. I stopped watching. I let those other lives go, and I’m glad I did so.

I’ll stick with Homeland for the time being. I understand that a fourth series has already been commissioned, but if that series is going to command my attention it will need to go in a radically different direction. Plots often have a very determinate shelf life. I think this is what Aristotle meant in his Poetics, when he distinguished “action” from “plot”, with the action being whatever it is that drives the particular train of events, the plot being the sequence of events. The action is like the spirit that must make itself material in the plot. Though he’s hardly been in the third series, Homeland is still running on the emotional energy created by the idea that the hero Brody might betray his country; it’s an energy that continues to drive interesting questions of allegiance and truth among the other characters, but it’s almost used up (and has been squandered by pursuing the utterly uninteresting story of Brody’s suicidal daughter, rather than more relevant questions about the fidelities within Brody’s marriage and friendships). A fourth series is going to need to find a new “action”.

This one could run and run. In future blogs I’ll be exploring ideas about storytelling in business, what goes wrong and what goes right, and how those corporate stories can play on our sense of ourselves.


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