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.
“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.”