“Raising the stakes.” It’s something genre writers think about (hear about, read about) a lot. With some genres, like thrillers, mysteries and romances, the common wisdom is that action has to start very soon on the page and, to paraphrase the immortal fictional character Ron Burgundy, “escalate quickly.”
Part of the appetite for instant action and rapid escalation comes from movies and television; part, I think, comes from the increasingly common habit of reading on a small screen, which makes each swipe “feel like” a page, and give the brain the sense that you are turning, turning and turning without much going on. While I’m not sure I accept “rapid escalation” as a given, it’s helpful to be able to do it when you want to.
If you want a model of rapid escalation plus deepening mystery, watch the first episode of BBC America’s brilliant science fiction thriller, Orphan Black. You can purchase it On Demand, or maybe find it for free with commercials.
Some background. This is science fiction, so you have to be willing to suspend disbelief. As part of the launch, BBC America did a great job of hinting that the show was SF without releasing any clues. Then, in the first episode, we meet Sarah Manning.
We see Sarah waking up on a train coming into the station in Toronto, Canada. Her heavy make-up, punked-up clothing and a bit of rough language slot her into a certain class within the first fifteen seconds of the show; Sarah is blue-collar and a punk. On the platform, she makes a phone call and asks to speak to someone named “Kira,” but the person on the other end of the call hangs up. It’s plain that Kira is important to Sarah. Sarah notices a woman at the other end of the platform, crying as she steps out of her shoes, takes off her jacket and drapes it over her purse. Sarah heads toward the woman, but it is plain she’s not acting out of compassion, she’s just going in that direction. She reaches the woman, who turns to face her. The crying woman looks exactly like Sarah. A moment later, she has stepped off the platform and into the path of the oncoming train.
That’s in Minute 01.
Minutes 02-05; Sarah is shocked, confused, but her survival instincts kick in, and she snatches the dead woman’s purse. We get a few quick shots of exposition: ID for the dead woman, Elizabeth Childs, and the fact that she has two smart phones and one is pink. We meet Felix, Sarah’s foster brother (from this point on if I mention Felix I will call her his brother, because in every way except DNA that’s what he is); we learn that Kira is Sarah’s daughter; Sarah has stolen cocaine from her violent criminal ex-boyfriend Vic, and that “Mrs. S,” Sarah and Felix’s foster mother, has care of Kira and will fight Sarah for custody. We learn that Sarah had a vague plan to sell the coke, grab Kira, and start over. Now she plans to go to Beth’s flat, and at Minute 06 we see a mysterious phone call from someone named Art.
In the next act we see Sarah searching Beth’s apartment; seeing a picture of Beth’s boyfriend; uncovering a smorgasbord of prescription meds, learning that Beth has $75,000 in a newly opened account, watching videos of Beth and practicing her more middle-class accent and vocal tone.
Meanwhile, Felix has gone to the morgue to identify the dead woman as Sarah Manning. Sarah’s new plan is to fake her death, take the money, get Kira and start over.
At Minute 13 Sarah pulls her first impersonation of Beth, at the bank. We see her get into Beth’s deposit box and be baffled by photocopies of IDs and birth certs of three women, all of whom look exactly like her. By now, the canny viewer sees where the plot is going. And, the pink phone rings. (She doesn’t answer.)
At Minute 16 we meet Art; a detective. Art is a cop and he knows Beth well. He is angry with her. Is Art a dirty cop? Is Beth an informant of his? An accomplice? We don’t know and neither does Sarah, but it’s clear from Art’s side of the conversation that he is close to Beth and he is angry – angry, and worried.
At Minute 20, Sarah as Beth finds herself in front of a group of cop administrators and lawyers. Beth is a detective who was involved in a civilian shooting; the hearing is to decide whether Beth will be reinstated or whether criminal charges will be filed. Sarah knows zero about the shooting and about Beth’s relationship with other cops; while she’s familiar with cops from being on the other side of the handcuffs, she knows nothing about police procedure. What will she do?
Note that slightly less than halfway through Episode One, the stakes have been raised to extraordinary heights for Sarah.
(I won’t tell you how she navigates the review board because you’ll want to see it.)
At Minute 27, Felix raises the emotional stakes, pointing out that Beth looks exactly like Sarah. “This is your story. Every foster kid dreams of their real family.” When, a moment later, he says something about being special, Sarah counters, “There’s nothing special about me.” This is character revelation; a statement about herself that informs many of Sarah’s incredibly bad choices as the show continues.
At Minute 30, Sarah is surprised by Beth’s handsome, dangerous and not-completely-stupid boyfriend Paul. She distracts him with sex. And I mean, distracts him.
At Minute 37 we see Art following Sarah to the bank, where she gets her $75,000 in cash.
The stakes for Sarah are pretty high now, but it’s still fairly easy to disapprove of her because, after all, she is a thief and a con artist. In the meantime, though, Vic has shown up. Once Felix convinces him Sarah is dead, he turns into a blubbering mess and demands a memorial service. Felix agrees, and it’s held out by the river. Sarah watches from across the water, and she’s actually a bit amused, until a car pulls and Mrs S gets out, with seven-year-old Kira. Sarah freaks out. On the phone to Felix, she begs him to stop Kira from seeing the funeral. “She can’t think I’m dead, Fee!” We see the depth of Sarah’s emotion and we believe her, and maybe for the first time we believe that she is doing this incredibly stupid daredevil thing for her daughter. At Minute 39, stakes raised again.
At Minute 41, another lookalike, this one with a German accent, confronts her, calling her Beth and saying she has brought the information. She also says, “Your partner has been following you.” This woman is coughing up blood and seems weak, and Sarah is desperate to get away from her. She gets into her (Beth’s) car, but the German follows. Seconds later she is shot though the head by someone with a sniper rifle. The next shot misses Sarah by millimeters as she ducks.
At minute 42 of a 44-minute show, Sarah is racing a stolen car down a country road, with a shot-out windshield, and a dead body that looks exactly like her in the back seat. And then the pink cell phone begins to ring.
A lot of stakes, and a lot of mysteries. Over the show’s five seasons, each mystery solved opens a door to a deeper one, until all is resolved at the end. For a show with such a tightly written opening, later in the season (and later seasons) it seemed to meander, especially with the character of Alison, and the storyline in which Felix discovers his biological sister. As we discover, though, those detours all tied back in to the main story at the end.
This is television, a visual medium, and so it can do a lot of this simply by relying on the talent of its incredible cast. It takes a few seconds to show us pictures of IDs with identical photos; it takes a glance between Art and another detective behind Sarah’s back to show us that there have been problems brewing for a while. It is harder to do this in prose.
Still, as model for how to up the ante, raise the stakes it’s a damned good one. Take a look. Tell me what you think.