Titles with Character: The Subtle Significance of Episode Titles

I often wonder how much brain space gets devoted to naming TV episodes. The title of last night's Breaking Bad, for example, worked on so many levels. (In the interest of providing no real spoilers ahead, please forgive the vagueness.) "I.F.T." was an abbreviation for the final line of the episode, signifying a drastic shift in the show's focus and hinting at how the drama is going to unfold. Shortening it—aside from obvious language problems—gave it even more power to linger in our minds and in Walt's. Perfect. But was it totally deliberate?

In the case of Breaking Bad, I think so. Last season, the show's episodes carried such cryptic titles as "Seven Thirty-Seven," "Down," "Over," and "ABQ," all of which worked as metaphors for their episodes' content. Later, you could look back and see they spelled something out, and everything clicked. Episode titles have the power to emphasize what's important in a given episode, as well as to weave together clues on a grander scale.

Titles make rich dramas even richer. "Meditations In An Emergency," the superb Season 2 finale of Mad Men, called back to an earlier episode and set the necessary mood—frantic calm, if that makes sense—for the events to unfold. And without the title of Lost's Season 3 finale, "Through The Looking Glass" (which by my count is the best episode the show has ever done), we'd have lost some of the gravity of the final big reveal, and missed out on the sense that Lost, after a shaky season bereft of mythology, was back.

Of course, the effect is minimized when there's not a ton at stake, as is the case with comedies. Chuck, for one, uses its episode titles simply to stand apart from other shows. Each installment is labeled "Chuck Vs. Something-Or-Other," a simple little reminder of the silly low-impact drama Chuck faces—and in "Chuck Vs. Tom Sawyer," a reminder of the show's silliness in general. 30 Rock subscribes to a similar mentality, with episode titles like "Generalissimo" and "Cooter" evoking chuckles by name alone. As TV gets richer on all dramatic and comedic levels, episode titles can serve like hash tags on Twitter: a little burst of subtext, humorous or otherwise.

Did I just compare a TV thing to Twitter? Truly, we are living in the golden age of entertainment.

Do you pay attention to episode titles? Do you think they affect your viewing experience?

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