The pilot episode of “Mad Men” introduces Don Draper, a smooth-talking ad man in 1960s New York. Don is in the midst of a professional predicament — he must sell cigarettes to an increasingly risk-informed market — as well as a personal one. We meet his girlfriend early in the episode, unaware of his wife and children back in the suburbs.
The episode’s title? “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Its correlation with the cigarettes in the story line is conspicuous, but the 1930s tune-inspired title also captures a series-long motif. Don is an enigma, a man with a cloudy perspective of his own emotions and others’. Creator Matthew Weiner’s choice not only represents the series’ central figure, but it sets a precedent for wordplay in episodes to come.
There’s no formula for a great episode title, and showrunners each approach the task with their own philosophy. Some favor complex patterns, others opt for simple descriptors. But in this golden age of television, when series’ creators are considered auteurs and fans dissect each detail of their favorite shows, episode titles seem to matter more than ever.
Heightened viewer engagement is at the root of this shift, said Manny Basanese, an assistant professor of screenwriting at Emerson College.
Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here
“When there were three networks, TV had to be more homogenous and broad in its appeal,” Basanese said. “Now that there’s so much more of this narrow casting going on in terms of what’s being produced, there’s a chance that a show might resonate more profoundly with some viewers.”
Viewers that connect deeply with a series are likely to analyze it online with fellow fans, sometimes after binge-watching an entire season in a few sittings. Showrunners often take note of these public reactions to different creative decisions, and run with what works well. Over time, positive reception of more complex titles may have evolved into an industry-wide appreciation of the art.
“I think a lot of this is just the producers responding to how much more interest viewers have in all the detail and wanting to understand things more fully,” Basanese said.
In choosing episode titles, showrunners look to set a tone consistent with their shows and genres. ABC’s “Quantico” follows the lives of FBI recruits training at the Quantico base in Virginia. It’s a thriller with a terrorism-focused plot, and each episode is named after the last articulated word within it. The resulting titles — “Run,” “Drive,” “Yes” — relay a sense of urgency that reflects the high-stakes stories told.
“The one-word titles of ‘Quantico’ ’s episodes do give you the energy of the show,” creator Josh Safran said in a telephone interview. “That staccato, one-breath energy.”
Consistency in that tone is key to building a cohesive series. Dark comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is about a dysfunctional, politically incorrect group of friends, perfectly captured by the season 11 episode title “The Gang Goes to Hell.” A sharp contrast, “The West Wing” is known for its didactic optimism, exhibited by “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” which references the show’s upstanding president.
For all the concern over episode titles, some showrunners forgo them altogether. But even then, there’s a purpose behind their decision: For a series with a sweeping story arc that parallels a novel, episodes might be numbered like chapters rather than given names. Political drama “House of Cards” and telenovela-inspired comedy “Jane the Virgin” both utilize this style.
“I want the audience to feel like they’re in the hands of a storyteller who knows where they’re going,” “Jane the Virgin” creator Jennie Snyder Urman said in a telephone interview. “It’s all part of a larger plan. In my mind, the chapter titles bring that out. It makes it feel like it’s part of the journey, and the journey is still continuing.”
A common practice for showrunners who desire the unifying effect of chapter titles without forfeiting any creative freedom is to employ a theme, like cultural references. Every episode of the teen hit “Gossip Girl” is a cheeky spin on a film title, such as “There Might Be Blood” and “Raiders of the Lost Art.” “Grey’s Anatomy” went the musical route; each episode is named after a song that resonates with the story lines.
Some shows use chronology itself as a way to create a secret puzzle, mimicking the series’ plot twists through episode titles. Viewers discuss their theories, and the reveal is often as surprising as one that would occur within the show’s narrative.
Fans of “The Good Wife” correctly figured earlier this year that the show’s seventh season would be its last by working out creators Robert and Michelle King’s code involving the number of words in each episode title. “Better Call Saul” creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould similarly made full use of their crime drama’s season-two titles. The first letters of the season’s 10 episodes spell out “Fring’s Back,” a reference to “Breaking Bad” villain Gus Fring that potentially answers an open-ended question in the season finale.
Gilligan and Gould’s acrostic puzzle plays into the trend of heightened viewer discussion.
“It’s hard to complain about people paying attention to every aspect of the show,” Gould said in an April interview with Vanity Fair. “It certainly reminds us again that we better keep all our i’s dotted and our t’s crossed in every aspect of the show.”
Streaming services have made viewers more aware than ever of episode titles; we click on the ones we want to watch. But it’s the creative decisions of modern showrunners that are keeping viewers engaged in their possible meanings.
“With a good episode, you remember its title,” Safran said. “And with a good title, you remember the episode.”Sonia Rao can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @misssoniarao.
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.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.